Friday, July 22, 2011

PR vs Interactive: Agencies Vie for Pharma Social Media Campaign Crumbs

Yesterday, I received a call from a friend who works in an interactive ad agency. He/she was eager to point out that hackers gained access to Pfizer's Facebook by discovering an administrative password based upon information that Paul Dyer, the "guy in charge of this [Pfizer's] Facebook" (according to the hackers) placed on his LinkedIn page (here).

Dyer is employed by WeissComm Partners (WCG), a PR agency that Pfizer employs to manage at least some if not all of its social media campaigns, including the corporate Facebook page. Dyer oversees the WCG social media team in North America.

My anonymous informant made some very disparaging remarks about WGC in general, and Dyer in particular. Dyer, said my informant, is a twenty-something with experience only in the packaged goods industry and has little knowledge of the pharma industry -- Dyer's previous clients (at another agency) included Coors Light, New Balance, Hansen's Natural Soda, and PURE Bar.

My informant dissed WGC, claiming they have no knowledge of the pharma industry and should not be employed by pharma to do social media.

It's not the first time that a PR agency was dissed by one of my friends who specialize in developing interactive communications and marketing programs for the pharmaceutical industry.

After I outed an AstraZeneca Facebook blunder by Edelman this past February (see “AstraZeneca Hosts “Take on Depression” Facebook Discussion – Seroquel Lurks Behind the Scenes”), my friend Rich Myer at World of DTC Marketing had this key lesson to share: "Don’t hire an agency to implement your social media strategy especially if that agency is Edelman" (see "The key lesson in AZ’s Facebook mess"). Then he REALLY laid into them:
"Now I am not a big fan of Edelman. They are a 'legend in their own mind' and have made way too many mistakes for my money. What I do have a problem with is THE LARGEST INDEPENDENT PR FIRM IN THE WORLD just announced in the Chicago Tribune that the people who are supposed to be setting social media strategy in conjunction with communication strategy for their clients HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY’RE DOING!"
Myer cited this SpinSucks blog post: "Edelman Admits They Don't Know Social Media," which noted that Edelman has "what they call their 'Rotnem' program (which is mentor spelled backwards – in case you missed that) where 95 percent of their senior executives are mentored by Gen Y."

It may have been no coincidence, therefore, that Edelman recently hired Shwen Gwee -- who may be Gen X, not Y -- as VP of Digital Health. Shwen was the former Lead for Digital Strategy and Social Media (Marketing) at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. He will have his work cut out for him at Edelman.

BTW, Myer also has criticized Gwee, giving him the honor of "Most overrated industry person" (see here), claiming he doesn't deserve all the social media accolades laid upon him despite never having developed a social media campaign for a marketed drug. But just before Shwen left Vertex, he did develop a disease awareness SM campaign ( and the HepC.TV YouTube channel).

After my informant called, there was further outing of Dyer on the MM&M Blog: "Did a PR firm's lapse give hackers keys to Pfizer Facebook page?", which adds further fuel to the current fire consuming PR agencies and social media.

This morning, I asked this question during the #hcsmeu chat: "PR vs Interactive agencies -- who's best for developing HC social media campaigns?" and got some interesting responses, especially from current and former pharma people.

Gary Monk (@GaryMonk), UK Managing Director at Across (a management consultancy and marketing management group), said: "I generally find Pharma #PR agencies utter crap when it comes to socmed. Better trust it to a gorilla in a wetsuit," which I found interesting, coming from a former brand manager and e-Business exec at Johnson and Johnson (Janssen division).

Monk could be biased now that works for an outside marketing company that competes with PR agencies. But a current insider, @DanBax76, who works in sales at BMS, "massively" agreed that "PR agencies are indeed more in the promo sphere, Pharma should move from promo to support."

At Pfizer, it seems pretty certain that Corporate Communications (ie, PR) is in charge of all its social media campaigns. Pfizer's head of Corp Communs, Ray Kerins, has done a lot to build the company's massive social media presence, which is ALL geared toward PUSHING messages out like a good PR machine. It's no surprise, therefore, that they would hire a PR agency like WCG. But other pharma companies are also turning to PR agencies to handle their social media campaigns, even campaigns that are more marketing focused.

My informant tells me that this is changing. As more and more social media faux pas are exposed and it is discovered that incompetent PR agencies are at fault, I expect change will happen -- more brand managers inside pharma will engage interactive marketing agencies to get the social media crumbs.

If you are a YOUNG internal pharma marketing employee with good knowledge and experience in social media, but getting nowhere in your job (listen up Pfizer people), NOW is a great time to jump ship and join an outside agency. The BIG question is: Should you join a PR agency or an innovative marketing agency?

BTW, if you opt to work for a PR agency, Gary Monk recommends Aurora (@Aurorahealthpr).

[This post originally appeared in Pharma Marketing Blog
Make sure you are reading the source to get the latest comments.]


  1. John: Well written and researched. Consumers do NOT want to talk to PR people in social media they want to talk to someone who is the voice of the brand who actually works ON the brand. Chrysler learned a hard lesson earlier this year when someone at their social media agency dopped the F bomb on their Twitter account. As for Edelman..they just announced another social media conference for healthcare. Just what we need. Run by someone who has never launched a drug or worked on an approved product. Please rush to get your tickets

  2. Hi John--great sleuthing! I used to work in a healthcare comms agency in the PR group, so I'll bet my former colleagues are all a-buzz about this story.

    Far be it for me to offer an opinion, since I no longer work in PR or for pharma, I thought you might be interested to read this article from PR Week, which sounds like a counter argument to your point here:

    If you ask me, that article says a whole lot to say nothing. Of course a PR agency writing for PR Week would favor the "real value" of PR agencies in social media. A fellow former PR guy who's blog I follow, Paul Roberts, has also been broaching this topic amongst the mainstream PR agency folks:

    All in all, it will be interesting to see what Pfizer does with its agency as a result of this issue.

  3. Krista,

    Thanks for your comments and links. If Pfizer does sack WCG, I wonder if it will be a lesson learned that it will share with other pharma companies?

  4. John,

    I can say with almost 100% certainty that it wasn't Paul's account that was hacked. I explain the reason at the end of a post I just wrote on this situation:

    Can't rule out someone else at WCG having their account compromised, but it definitely wasn't Paul based on what I've seen of the screenshots of the Page. More details in the post, but the main idea is that his picture appears in the right column as a friend of the account that was hacked. His picture wouldn't be there if it were his account that was being shown in the screenshot. It's a Facebook friend of his. Since the screenshot, was posted by the hackers, that means it had to be one of the accounts of a Facebook friend of Paul or the hacker is a friend of Paul.

    Again, more details in my post including how I think the hackers pulled this one off.

  5. Jon,

    Thanks. I will take a look at your post. The story is the same even if the names change. I based my story on the MM&M post and on my informant who is as knowledgeable about these things as you are.

  6. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Very good insights, as always. And I agree with Rich about the need for health care companies (not just pharma) to execute social media strategy themselves rather than through a third party.

    Unfortunately, as we both know, marketing expenses are often the first thing that businesses cut in difficult economic times like these, and an easy way to cut expenses is to outsource something rather than pay salary and benefits to staff to do it. And that doesn't even include the many pharma startups out there who can't afford to hire full-time staff to communicate directly with consumers even if they want to.

    So how can companies overcome this? Even the Pfizers of the world have budgets to stay within and earnings expectations to meet. And the aforementioned startups often only have a handful of products on the market. What else gets cut to make room for the costs of having full time staff to do this all-important task?

  7. Thanks for the comments, Josh.

    I don't advocate that everything must be done in-house. I do advocate that there should be some people in-house dedicated to interactive and who are able to adequately vett the competency of outside agencies.

    However, as long a corporate communs ppl inside pharma are the gatekeepers, these kinds of problems are likely to continue -- at least until people like Shwen get up to speed in their new positions.

  8. I did an interview with The Script Kiddies (see here where they explicitly call out PD's account as how they gained access to the page. Apparently he left clues all over the place that made it easy to figure out his Login/PW

  9. Hi Bill, was the password "soccer"?

  10. I saw Bill's interview with The Script Kiddies, however, I have a different interpretation. Yes, they mention Paul's name and even posted his Linkedin profile on the Facebook page after they hacked it. However, the screenshot the hackers took and posted tell me that they used the account of someone who is Facebook friends with Paul or they themselves are Facebook friends with Paul (which is pretty unlikely). I explain why I know this in my post (

    It's possible that his Linkedin profile gave them the information they needed to figure out who the agency was and who might be admins and therefore targets for account hacking. The hackers haven't explicitly said anywhere that they compromised the Page by using Paul's Facebook account.

    I don't have a horse in this race, so I'm not defending any side here, but just going by what I see as evidence including what the hackers supplied.

  11. I JUST did a speaking engagement, where someone in the audience asked why I wasn't promoting the fact that my PR firm can do social media for companies like his. I said, "I believe your customer wants to talk to you, not your PR firm. We can give you the tools. We can teach you how to communicate and engage digitally. But to talk on your behalf is dead."

    The interesting thing that just surfaced is that Edelman is counseling Rupert Murdoch. More on that next week...

  12. Hi John, I liked the post, interesting theme and I should have know I would get a mention after the 'tweet' I had a little to say so have responded at

  13. Gary,

    Hats off to you for speaking what's on your mind!

  14. Nice post. I'm referencing it in my thread to document the discussion:

    Pfizer Facebook Hack Brings Issues and Pitfalls To Light; Should Pharma Be On Facebook?



  15. For what it's worth, I've seen few people from clients make the transition to agencies well... even with subject matter expertise. Different DNA.

  16. Hi Nalts! How are you.

  17. John as always an interesting tale - you are clearly the Woodward and Bernstein of pharma marketing! That said, in the spirit of journalism you should have reached out to Paul for a comment in his defense. Fair balance exists for a reason and you are walking dangerously near the cliffs of libel.

  18. Anonymous7:31 PM

    Modest Proposal: Clients should have *smart agencies (agencies that understand social) handle their social strategies. And last time I checked, intelligence seemed to exist in a more or less normal distribution in every category of agency -- digital, PR, general advertising, etc. Rather than instigating a catfight between PR and digital shops, it might serve your readers better to help them distinguish those agencies that score two or more standard deviations to the right of the mean on the intelligence curve from those two or more to the left.

  19. Hi John, excellent post and discussion.


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