Social Media and Digital Communications Guidance in the Life Sciences Industry

10th February 2020 by Anne Sakoane

The ABPI announces new guidance out in Spring 2020!

Connecting to audiences through social media in the pharmaceutical industry


As Affiliate Members of the ABPI, medDigital took part in the ABPI's Social Media and Digital Day, which was held on 31st January 2020.

The day was a huge success - it offered ABPI members an opportunity to network, share best practice about using social media and explore its influence and effect on the work of pharmaceutical companies, through talks by representatives from the PMCPA, ABPI Code working group, pharmaceutical companies and specialist digital and social media agencies.


The ABPI announced that new Guidance on Digital Communications will be available in electronic form on the PMCPA website in Spring 2020.

The digital guidance is in the late stages of development, with significant input from our founder Dr Felix Jackson, who is working with the ABPI Code working group and members of the PMCPA to finalise for release.

Dr Felix Jackson was publicly thanked by the PMCPA Director Heather Simmonds on the day for his contributions thus far - reception to the news that this digital communications guidance was to be released was unanimously positive, especially from company representatives.

The ABPI receives numerous queries from pharmaceutical companies and PMCPA cases involving social media and digital communications and the challenges involved in navigating their use around the prohibition from promoting prescription-only medicines to the public.


A lot of great work is done within the life sciences industry for patients and the advancement of healthcare. Due to restrictions on advertising prescription-only medicines to the public, it can be difficult to tell the public about it using digital communications and social media. This is also the case when navigating the ABPI Code of Practice's non-digital-specific guidance on how to use these channels to share good quality information.

On the day, the speakers shared some brilliant examples of the use of social media to share information with the public in a compliant and effective way. One such example was the Twitter campaign for #valuingmedicines run by the ABPI, which provided a very successful framework later shared by Pfizer and MSD for recruitment purposes.

"Pharmaceutical companies want, and indeed should be able to use digital media, and need to identify ways of utilising digital communications whilst complying with compliance restrictions."

PMCPA Digital Communications Guidance, coming Spring 2020


Social media platforms provide companies with the opportunity to share what they are doing for patients on a broader stage, rebut misinformation and respond to crises and criticism. Creating content for social media platforms has helped keep news stories down, also known as “rebuttal in action”, by allowing companies to frame their own strategic narratives to a captive audience.

Social media platforms are not just a commercial marketing tool for pharmaceutical companies – they can also be used very successfully for non-promotional activities (more on that later).

A number of key takeaway points for running successful social media campaigns came up numerous times as common themes for the most effective campaigns that engage audiences on life sciences industry social media platforms.


  • Tell stories people care about

People care about people. It can be presumed that at least some of the audiences on social media platforms owned by pharmaceutical companies are sceptical about the intentions of any content shared. One way to mitigate this is to use the voices of patients to tell their stories directly to the audience. Social listening has gathered that these are the stories people care most about.

  • Target the right audience

Different social media platforms will reach different audiences. LinkedIn content is likely to reach professionals and businesses with an interest in specific fields, whilst Instagram content is likely to reach young teens and under 30s. With that in mind, the social space is constantly changing, and there are up-to-date statistics available for each platform that can help with the decision about how to tailor content for each one.

It can also be advantageous to keep content regional where possible, relating it to people in that geographical region specifically.

  • Think: mobile first

Most people access social media platforms through mobile phones. Considering how the content will look, feel and work on a mobile device is key, often more important than how it would look on any other electronic device such as a tablet or laptop. This is true regardless of the platform used, with significant improvement in engagement by keeping content square-shaped (square videos, square photos) and adding subtitles for videos.

  • Redefine who your influencers are

It is difficult to discuss social media without mentioning influencers, but this term can take on a completely different meaning from the usual (think: Kardashians) in the life sciences industry.


Engaging influencers for pharmaceutical companies are often the patients whose lives have been changed by the innovative research they do. Aside from being influencers, this also benefits patients by giving them a voice on social media platforms.

Another effective influencer for a pharmaceutical company can be an internal advocate such as an employee; this approach is most successful when the advocate is used long term. Although Novartis's CEO Vas Narasimhan (one of LinkedIn's Top Voices: Global Influencers 2019) is a great example of this, it is not necessary to use a senior figure within the company to engage an audience.

Pfizer's non-promotional social media campaign for meningococcal meningitis was a hugely successful example of maintaining the balance of authenticity and being compliant by using social media influencers. Regardless of the exhuasting amount of medical review required (60+ pieces at last count!), the engagement and rewards were worth it for the company and reaped dividends strategically in a successful collaboration between medical and marketing.


It would be remiss to omit the obvious need for crisis mitigation for when the use of digital communications goes wrong in the highly regulated pharmaceutical industry. Brand Anarchy and #Brand Vandals author Steve Earl gave the following simple advice on crisis fundamentals:

  1. Establish if it is a crisis or not
  2. Act and respond quickly, with agile approval
  3. Pause scheduled posts
  4. Take it offline where you can
  5. Keep everyone (internally) informed

With most large pharmaceutical companies employing an average of 1.8 full-time employees in a dedicated social media team, most crises can be mitigated.


The ABPI conducted a member survey on companies' social media activities ahead of the Social Media and Digital Day. This revealed that as of 2020, 61% of respondents include social media as part of their crisis communications planning. It also revealed that 1 in 10 companies are spending over £500,000 per on social media activities, compared to none in 2018 - across the board, companies are spending more now than they were in 2018.

The opportunities afforded by digital communications are evidently very investible for the industry and are being taken advantage of. With the PMCPA guidance out soon, sharing information using digital communications will be done even more compliantly and effectively than before - we'll keep you updated on the release.

Congrats on the shout-out, Felix!