Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Few Rules for Pharma Employee Blogging

My post yesterday (see "The Zubillaga Affair: Effect on the Prospects for Pharma Blogging" and " 'Round the Sphere: The Zubillaga Affair and Aftermath") seems to have hit a nerve.

The premise was simple: if a major, sophisticate pharmaceutical company cannot even monitor employee comments published in an internal, company-sponsored, printed newsletter with limited distribution, how can we expect pharmaceutical companies to use blogs?

Given the conservative nature of the industry, the knee-jerk reaction to the Zubillaga Affair is sure to be: "See, this is why we cannot let employees write blogs!" I expect to hear this at upcoming pharmaceutical conferences.

I note that many bloggers picked up the glass half-empty message of my post (see, for example, this entry over at Pfizer Sales Representative Bill of Rights Blog: "Bloggers? Did you say Bloggers? We don't need no stinking bloggers......").

Yet, I continue to see the glass half-full, which caused at least one of my pharma blogger colleagues (ie, Peter Rost) to wonder if I lost my mind!

Some commenters have also doubted that I have any pharma company experience, else I would never suggest that pharma employee blogs are possible:
I had doubts before but this clinches it for me. You definitely have either never have worked at a pharmaceutical company or have not worked in one since 1999. What company would allow this type of feedback and not expect to get investigated is unfathomable. Blogging is for those who wish to remain anonymous in this industry and will never catch on mainstream due to the regulatory reviews that are done.
It's time to come clean. I HAVE NEVER WORKED AS AN EMPLOYEE FOR A PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANY! In this day and age, that's a plus! I will forever remain an outsider pissing in. But, in this case, I am NOT pissing, I am bearing gifts. Still, I get no respect!

The industry, in some cases, can benefit from outside counsel. So let me offer more advice to pharmaceutical companies interested in starting employee blogs. Call it:

A Primer on Pharma Employee Blogging

Start Internally

Whatever you do, start internally in a controlled environment. Of course, this is no guarantee that you won't be outed at CafePharma as happened to AZ in the Zubillaga Affair. But, if you follow my rules, you'll limit your risk. Once you have experience with running your employee blog, you can go public. In the meantime, you will have learned which employees like writing blog posts, which ones have great stories to tell, and, yes, you will receive criticisms, which can only help you improve. You don't want to encourage a bunch of synchopants!
Guarantee Anonymity
An internal blog can be like an old-fashioned suggestion box. But employees must be allowed to submit comments anonymously. To allow for true anonymity, you must have "public" workstations throughout your workplace (in cafeterias, lobbies, etc. ). Your employees are smart -- they know you can identify them by their computer workstation address. Warn them not to submit comments from their workstation IF they wish to remain anonymous.
Moderate Comments
Many of my blogger colleagues are free-thinking liberals who believe that any kind of control of freedom of expression is evil. I feel that way about MY FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, but not about other people's freedom of expression -- when they wish to express themselves via my blog, that is.

You see, I view my blog as my property, my creation, which belongs to ME, not to EVERYONE! That's one reason why I don't allow comments to be published in my blog without being reviewed by me first. Over the years, there have been only a handful of comments that I have excluded and 90% of them were ads for purchasing drugs over the Internet, or from crazies promoting their own cause, etc. One -- from a CafePharma denizen -- just called me names. None of these comments advanced the discussion.

Therefore, I advocate that a pharma employee blog also be moderated and not allow comments to be published without prior review. You can note these comments and decide what action to take as followup, but you don't have to air all your dirty laundry. It would be a good idea to catalog comments and do some kind of summary report that indicates how many comments were received, how many were published, and why some comments were not published (a kind of "comment audit" that borders on transparency in an aggregate kind of way).

The policy regarding moderating comments depends on the company. Some may not allow comments at all. The ability to submit comments, however, is an important benefit of the blogging experience, and is essential to the main objective of giving employees a voice. Therefore, I recommend as liberal a policy on moderating comments as possible.
Posting
The meat of the blog is the post written by the blogger author. Blogs can be set up to accept posts from a number of people and there can be an editor that accepts or rejects posts, sort of like a Huffington Post. An internal pharma employee blog can be set up that way too. However, rather than going the Huffington route, you can set up a more structured, safe route: one editor accepts stories from employees and submits posts with or without editorial comment. Similar to a newsletter.

However you handle posts from employees, you need to make it as easy for them to submit a posts as Blogger makes it easy for me to submit this post. The only difference is that it goes to the editor first before it gets published. If your submission process is more formal that that, you might as well have a newsletter and not a blog.

The editor either publishes it as is or asks the employee to make changes. The employee either accepts the changes or opts out of submitting the edited post for publication.

As with comment moderation, there should be an editorial policy that is as liberal as possible. Since the blog has a purpose, which is to provide a more positive image of the industry via the voice of the rank-and-file employee (see yesterday's post on which employees I believe qualify), the editorial policy should be consistent with this policy. If employees want to bitch and complain about the company, this blog is not for them. They should go through regular channels. But all "negative" statements in an otherwise positive post should not be edited out. It is important to do as little editing as possible, which may be a challenge for any company and especially for pharmaceutical companies

Always include an employee photo.
Go Public
The main objective of the internal employee blog is to bring it public so that visitors can see the human face of the company and hopefully read authentic comments from employees to learn how they feel about working in the industry.

I notice that some pharma companies feature photos and comments form employees in the career section of their web sites (see, for example, Takeda Employee Profiles).

I have no idea if the words attributed to employees in these profiles are their own words or not. That's a perception that an employee blog must overcome. And the best way to overcome that is by being transparent and laying out exactly what the blog editorial and moderation rules are.
I don't expect this to be the last word on pharma employee blogging. I know there are many challenges that pharma must overcome to initiate employee blogs. These challenges have more to do with transparency than regulation, which is often used as the excuse.

As the Zubillaga Affair demonstrates, transparency is a big stumbling block for most pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps the only pharmaceutical company that may currently have the necessary culture of transparency to embrace employee blogs is Johnson & Johnson. They will be a big presence at the upcoming Healthcare Blogging Summit in Las Vegas and I look forward to talking with them about my ideas for an employee blog.

4 comments:

  1. Go get 'em John!

    I presume you are keeping the Blogosphere Survey data under wraps for the Summit.

    As an anonymous blogger who cannot go to these events can I look to you to "remember us"?

    Have fun and Viva Las Vegas!

    Jack

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  2. John, I truly very much hope you succeed in getting Big Pharma to start blogging.

    Imagine all the stuff we'll get to blog about as they try. There will be no limit to the amount of fun we can have.

    Just look at all the fun being had with ads, commercials and speeches.

    Big pharma can simply not, no matter how much they try, not be fun to write about. The picture they have of themselves and how the rest of the world sees them is so different, that this will be forever amusing.

    Not until they accept their image and work from that starting point will they effect any change.

    And until then, people will continue laughing. Which is no laughing matter.

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  3. Peter,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I imagine people said the same sort of thing before DTC. Pharma's been laughing all the way to the bank since then!

    John

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