Bayer UK got caught in the social media minefield by tweeting headlines from their press releases. While this was likely a case of confusion about the rules rather than malicious intent I think it highlights the importance of having clearly established digital governance rules within an organization. In this case, in any jurisdiction where direct to consumer advertising is forbidden it should have been well documented that Twitter (or any other social network for that matter) counts as direct to consumer, while a press release does not.

I hope this incident will not discourage Pharma companies from utilizing social media, but rather helps to highlight the careful planning and consideration that needs to take place before engaging their audience.

Digital Pharma: Bayer reprimanded over social media use (InPharm)

Bayer has been told it will be named in the medical press, six weeks after being found guilty of the first social media breach of the ABPI’s Code of Practice.

At issue was the company’s use of micro-blogging network Twitter and two product-related tweets that were judged by Code regulator the PMCPA to have promoted prescription-only medicines to the public.

First reported by the Digital Pharma blog, these concerned Bayer’s erectile dysfunction treatment Levitra and its multiple sclerosis spasticity drug Sativex.

Adverts about the case will be run in The Nursing Standard, the BMJ and The Pharmaceutical Journal as a consequence of Bayer’s breach of clause two of the Code (‘bringing discredit upon, and reducing confidence in, the pharmaceutical industry’).

Bayer tweeted about Levitra in March this year, saying: “First & only melt-in-the-mouth erectile dysfunction treatment launched by Bayer today”, and included a link to a press release on its UK website.

An earlier tweet from last June went further and mentioned Sativex’s brand name, indication and launch.

Both tweets featured headlines from the press releases they linked to. The releases themselves had been signed-off internally for Code compliance, but the tweets had not.

The @BayerUKIreland Twitter account that the tweets were sent from was accessible by members of the public, promoting prescription-only medicines to whom is one of the Code of Practice’s cardinal sins.

Consequently the PMCPA’s July judgement considered Bayer to have made public announcements about the launch of a prescription-only medicine on Twitter.

The PMCPA ruling on the case did note that the use of social media, including Twitter, to provide information to the public was a legitimate activity for UK pharma, so long as the material complied with the Code of Practice.

Bayer’s slip up coincided with the release of new PMCPA guidance on the use of digital media, which all but ruled out using Twitter to promote medicines.

The case is sure to give communications professionals pause for thought when considering whether to use social media. But at heart it is more a reminder of how carefully the Code must be applied to all forms of communications, rather than a landmark social media ruling.