On November 7th 2009, the Novartis Twitter account posted a tweet addressed to another user. This was immediately followed by a further tweet to the same individual apologizing for the delay in responding.
My first response was to check when the tweet to which Novartis was responding had been posted.
After all, the Novartis Twitter account had been created a full 365 days prior to this, and those maintaining the account had not deemed it necessary, or (rather more likely) had not found it possible, to address another user directly in the intervening year.
Some birthday present.
“Perhaps”, I mused briefly, “the shackles are off! At this very moment, a scrivener in a Dickensian eyrie at the very pinnacle of Novartis Towers is shooting their cuffs in anticipation of the fulfilment of a long frustrated desire. They totter to their desk, blow the dust from the heavy leather-bound tome that lays upon it and turn to the first page, upon which has been scratched in an elegant copperplate the title ‘people I have to get back to with answers to questions that have been posed on Twitter, when Legal lets me’.
However, on close examination the tweet that would appear to have precipitated this change of heart was only published on November 5th.
Twitter user @VinumVine had succeeded where others had failed: they had prompted the company that created the very first pharma Twitter account to direct its inaugural tweet at a user.
What had precipitated this unexpected development?
A question that, if approached creatively, may have led a highly imaginative reader habituated to lateral thinking to infer that Novartis was behind schedule with its H1N1 vaccine production.
Perhaps seemingly innocuous questions like this set off alarm on desks at pharma companies.
Legal teams convene. Issues are considered. The possible bad press and impact upon share prices that the query in hand may provoke if left unanswered are taken into account. The (currently non-existent) guidelines governing responses to queries within social media are consulted.
Finally, it is decreed that A Tweet May Be Issued.
But what has been achieved by this phantasmal response to a spectral threat? Nothing. Concerns are perceived where none exist. Behaviours are reinforced that suggest the industry believes it is still able to control its reputation.
This is the shadow of engagement, not engagement itself.