Roche ushers in a new era for pharma on the social web

Roche has today made the bold, progressive move of publishing its Social Media Principles (PDF).

As someone who has in their time handed out plenty of criticism to the industry, I would like to go on the record to say that it is my opinion that Roche should be applauded for its transparency in sharing this four page document.

The clear, straightforward advice it offers should not only be a boon to its own employees, but for all those who work in heavily regulated industries who wish to participate effectively within the social web.

The document is worth reviewing in its entirety via the link above, but I offer below a screengrab of the boxed summary of its key recommendations (click to see enlarged image):

I am pleased to see that Roche is giving equal weight to the way that its employees conduct themselves personally and professionally, and does not distinguish in terms of importance between speaking about and speaking on behalf of Roche.

This seemingly simple gesture contains a number of tacit assumptions that I feel are both trust enabling, and amplifiers of an authentic desire on the part of the company to participate fully and fairly within social web environments.

I for one appreciate Roche’s publicly stating that they consider their employees both conscious of the way that they deport themselves in their personal and business lives and responsible for their own actions.

This is empowering to the point that some of those on the payroll may consider it downright terrifying. However, I hope it is interpreted as the spur to ethical conduct that I perceive it to be, and a disincentive for the sort of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ characters I am sure we have all met in our professional lives to consider applying for a position in the future.

I like the fact that employees are expressly encouraged to acknowledge rather than disguise the fact that they work for Roche, scout for sentiment, and monitor their own relevant social media channels.

This one transformative action has allowed Roche employees to justly consider themselves at liberty to act as nodes in a cross-company listening network. As a consequence, smouldering crises may be damped down before they catch fire, or maybe through dialogue, the building of trust, the establishment of an enduring presence and the evidence of a listening ear, averted altogether.

Perhaps most importantly, I would suggest that today Roche has not only raised the bar for the pharma industry within the social web in general, but that they have also heralded in a new era for healthcare communications. Those companies that have been at the vanguard of experiments within these spaces such and Johnson & Johnson (including Janssen-Cilag), Novartis, Boehringer, possibly Pfizer and perhaps even the accident-prone sanofi aventis should be able to sail over this bar too if they get their run-up approach right.

However, those pharma laggards who have exhibited the sort of pusillanimous conservatism that has characterized the industry in the past do not have a hope of reaching these heights unless they begin to participate more fully. As it is, most of them are laps behind the leaders already, and realistically we should expect them to fall further behind.

Therefore, today’s developments lead me to ask: how many business cycles away are we from seeing the first signs of a quantifiable financial benefit for those pharma companies that have chosen to participate as fully as possible within the social web, as well as a quantifiable financial impact upon those that have elected not to?


19 thoughts on “Roche ushers in a new era for pharma on the social web

  1. Nice post Andrew.
    What I also find very interesting in Roche’s Social Media Guidelines Document is the following phrase “…however, it is not realistic to have each response undergo full approval by communications, legal and regulatory. Therefore, you should establish with your usual approval partners a common agreement on a bandwidth of topics and instances that may not require the normal process.”
    It will be interesting to see how this “bandwidth” is interpreted by each Roche country company but it is a bold and very positive step for a pharma company to take so should be applauded

    • I concur, Paul. Thanks for your comment. In short, there is a lot to commend in this document. Its concision is clearly the outcome of no little exertion on the part of the authors. Less is more, and all that 🙂

  2. Early bird gets the worm.

    Roche got the worm – which is to say, it’s established itself as the most progressive large pharmaceutical company in its responsible, thorough and needed approach to 21st Century communications in a regulated industry.

    It’s not only a model for Life Sciences, but also for other regulated industries – and beyond that, serves as a solid template for any business.


    • Hi Phil

      Indeed. It’s an object lesson in the fact that rather than pondering the question ‘when should a procrastinating pharma company start using social media?’ ;), effective practice requires the participants to turn up *every day*, and *do stuff*. Having a clear set of social media guidelines in situ first helps, but as Roche have shown the horse is just as happy pushing the cart as pulling it.

      Sitting on the sidelines pontificating about when the right moment will arrive to step into the stream is a sure-fire way to achieve absolutely nothing.

      Heraclitus was on the money: you can’t step into the same stream (OK, river) twice. Tomorrow’s issues will be different from today’s. Sure, we can learn from the past, but the social web is a dynamic, interactive, fluid place and the best form of preparation for tomorrow is participation today.


  3. I too would like to applaud a pharma company going on public record and providing at least the sentiment that it is OK for employees to engage online.

    However, I concur with Paul’s hesitation about how this will be practically implemented at the country level.

    I’ve personally had the experience of applying for a job (with one of the pharma leaders in the SM space with very clear internal SM guidelines) but negotiations fell down because of my ‘digital’ presence. The country affiliate didn’t understand online and over-interpretted the internal guidance to an extent that it was completely unworkable. (I would’ve had to get every tweet or blog post approved by my manager, then corporate communications, and potentially lawyers, whether or not related to the company, even though the spirit of the internal guidance was very similar to the dotpoints for Roche above).

    Sadly, I felt no option but to walk away, and it was a lose-lose for everyone. The company didn’t get someone they were keen to work with, and I didn’t get to work with a company I thought was innovative and inspiring.

    Let’s hope Roche find a way to coach their affiliates in engaging with the new world and how to interpret/apply their SM guidance.

    • Hi Janelle

      It’s great to see you here, and thanks for having taken the time to leave a comment.

      That’s a really downbeat anecdote, but one that is far from surprising. Hopefully the rest of the industry will catch up with you soon… 🙂


  4. Janet, it is so disappointing that the company you met had that attitude. I would like to clarify that my comment that it will be “interesting” to see how local affiliates apply this policy was meant in a positive sense. I am looking for Roche to make this work globally and locally.


  5. Andrew…good review and I agree with you, Roche has taken a massive step in the right direction.

    However, I would ask how long this will last. The dreaded words “FDA LETTER” usually sends legal departments within the USA based offices of major pharma companies into a deep freeze. I have witnessed it first hand last year when the record number of letters were sent in April and again over the Novartis Facebook and share this widget fiasco. The recent event sent a chill to a number of conservative pharmaco’s in the USA whose legal departments quickly put ALL social media and digital work on hold “pending review”.

    Why do I bring this up, it relates to the statement “…however, it is not realistic to have each response undergo full approval by communications, legal and regulatory. Therefore, you should establish with your usual approval partners a common agreement on a bandwidth of topics and instances that may not require the normal process.”

    I fear that all it will take is one or two sets of incidents with a country affiliate like the USA for legal and regulatory to come down hard on all of this.

    I’m just sayin ! Do I sound cynical ?

    Great post though and keep up the great work. Hope I can contribute more.


    • Hi Ritesh

      Thanks as always for your comments and kind words.

      This is an extremely complex dynamic. We are, after all, only talking about an ‘ethical f(r)action’ within each company that is attempting to do the right thing in terms of reforming health communications, and thereby setting new standards.

      Overall, of course, the industry’s reputation still stinks.

      However: perhaps we can begin to imagine a world where the FDA will not have to play so aggressive a role and perceive a threat in everything the industry does. Their default position to date has been to say ‘no’, and with the industry’s chequered past, who’s to blame them?

      If we inch slowly towards a position where an industry with a decade’s worth of improvements behind it can credibly lobby for a relaxation in the regulatory strictures that it labours under, then perhaps – just perhaps – its petitioning may be looked upon kindly.

      The onus is upon the industry to find creative ways to continue to build trust, demonstrate its ethical commitment, improve its transparency, and generally make itself more worthy of the FDA and the consumer’s trust.

      There’s a long way to go before that happens, and this is just a step along the way. Yet it is a significant step, and the industry needs to keep moving in order to create momentum behind the ideals it propounds.


  6. Andrew

    As someone with a foot in the healthcare camp and also in the general field of information find, use and management I am extremely pleased to see a pharma industry ‘big guy’ step up to the plate with open and clear processes and guidelines.

    It is an issue that all organisations/industries face, whether to embrace SM or just ignore. And more importantly – what is their purpose for doing so and what do they expect in return and hope to gain.

    SM is very often discussed as a tool for marketing but I believe that it has a real knowledge discovery and management element. Discovering and connecting information is no longer only an intra-organisational process. SM facilitates this process and some savvy businesses are realising this.

    As many folks have pointed out already there are issues around implementation country to country. I guess we will soon see whether this is a clever short term marketing ploy by Roche to impress us all – afterall documents are easy to write and publish.

    Making it real by implementation is always the hard part – only time will tell.

    • Hi Joanna

      Lovely to see you here! Thanks for stopping by.

      The points you raise are worthy of unpacking at length, and their implications speak to some of the tacit assumptions the Roche guidelines contain that demonstrate how significant a step forward this is for the industry.

      My hope is that it will liberate and empower affiliates rather than stultify and restrict them. I should imagine there are individuals within every brand team in every country who would like to deport themselves in the way the head office is doing, but have not felt themselves to be at liberty to do so, or have received local instructions not to undertake activities in these environments.

      Now those same individuals have the benediction of their head office, and can open up dialogue locally as to how they may put these guidelines into practice.

      We will all be encouraging them to do so.


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  8. I just wanted to add something to the point of implementing this at a country level that Paul and Janelle brought up: Of course it will be difficult and interesting to see how we can work with this on a local level. But whatever happens und whatever legal discussion may be on the agenda tomorrow I can tell you today, that it just feels damn great to have such guidelines issued by the headquarter backing me up like this when I want to engage in social media! I agree that it is only one of so many steps along the way, but for me it’s also the most important one.

    (I work for Roche. All opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of my employer 😉 )

    • Hi Johanna

      I was going to make the point about how good it must have felt to be a Roche employee on Tuesday, but refrained from doing so as this website maintain a strictly neutral position.

      Therefore, I’m really glad you said it, because now I can add: I bet it does! 😀


      • Indeed! 🙂

        @Johanna Thank you Johanna, this makes me feel great, too – and I look forward to taking those many steps together.

        (I work for Roche. All opinions expressed are my own…)

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