Is failure an option?

No one wants to be wrong; ever. As much as there are trendy business mantras such as ‘Fail Fast’ which apparently encourage failure (as long as you learn quickly), it somehow just doesn’t translate to the world of a pharmaceutical company. In fact, ‘fail-fast’ is really an engineering concept that is most often considered in a research and development phase, long before a product reaches the general public where it might affect reputation.

To be fair, any kind of ‘failure’ in the world of pharmaceutical companies can potentially result in a significant loss in some form or another which could include shareholder value, customer confidence, or general credibility, not to mention individual careers.

Consequently, we are risk-averse. Rightly so.

As much as no individual wants to make a mistake generally, it is especially true that no one within a pharmaceutical company would want to be responsible for leading their organisation into a situation with negative outcomes. Each person will therefore look to innovate only within the realms of what is possible, rather than ‘push the envelope’ just for the sake of it or just because everyone else is apparently doing something.

Yet the rise of ‘social’ media has created an unusual scenario. On the one hand it seems safest to simply not do it at all. Yet on the other hand there is potentially an even greater risk by avoiding it, where a company is simply not able to participate, mitigate or mediate in a conversation when an incendiary or inflamed online situation gets out of control.

Adding to this, the fact that technology and online capabilities are constantly changing means that even when a ‘safe place’ is found within the social space, there is a reasonable chance that the ground may be moved underneath us. In the most notable of recent examples, Facebook have and will continue to introduce changes that cause speculation and reactive planning to cope with the implications.

So it may well be that quite a few people are losing sleep at night.

If you can relate to this unnerving state of change, then I would like to offer you some hope. The help of an external, independent, consultancy can help to alleviate some of the ‘what does this mean for me?’ or the ‘how are we going to deal with this?’

Creation Healthcare is on a daily basis partnering with lawyers, medical teams, communications teams, brand teams, and senior leadership to help formulate appropriate responses to the changing landscape. There is no pre-defined ‘right way’, but in each case a need for discovery.

Ultimately, we recognize that there is an element of risk in everything that we do.

It is however important to establish ‘what level of risk is acceptable?’, and ‘how do we minimize any risk?’ where the company may be exposed.

In reality, sometimes a company is just not able to cover the bases using internal resources alone.

For example, when considering a new digital initiative in a social platform like Facebook, is it really feasible that either a brand team, or the legal team, or the medical team, or anyone else within the company is in a position to comprehensively evaluate all the possible functional scenarios that may open the company to risk? Every back door needs to be explored, and someone needs to know whether there is an unconsidered exposure for any new step, or any change that happens after the initiative is in the public domain. Traditionally, the IT department may have been able to test security and standards for a company-hosted website prior to launch, yet as more initiatives move onto third party platforms they may no longer be the experts. It is simply not advisable to just ‘give it a try and see what happens’, as the ‘Fail Fast’ proponents may advocate.

When considering whether to use a third party or social networking site, a pharmaceutical company needs to be asking a much bigger internal question which might be phrased “Do we want to be social?” If so, “Will this loss of technology control cross a threshold of our agreed acceptable risk?”, and “Are we prepared internally to handle real-time processes that come with this risk?” All of these questions (and more) can be answered with time, research, thought and discussion, which can lead to a paradigm shift in the company culture.

Another consideration with this new era of communication is around whether a third party platform will even be around in years to come. Recent history shows that Google emerged as a global entity in only 4 years; MySpace.com fell from popularity; even Facebook is recently experiencing big traffic drops. There is no certainty about any of today’s major players, no matter how large and monopolising they may appear. Consequently, some companies are deciding to move their focus away from transients to commit to a risk/opportunity strategy around broader fundamental areas (such as search, video, networks, mobiles etc.) rather than platform specific areas (such as Google, Adwords, YouTube, Facebook, iPhone etc.).

Naturally any emerging platform, channel, or technology has an inherent ‘volatility’ which is born from not having experienced the thorough testing which comes with a critical mass. Twitter occasionally can’t handle the capacity that it needs, Facebook often launches a new feature without fully considering the implications. Google tends to have a lower ‘volatility’ due to more established testing protocols and having been in the market for a longer period of time. So a company needs to consider the ‘volatility’ when deciding whether an emerging channel is appropriate for their organisation.

Certainly, for a small amount of time it seemed that a new and rapidly growing audience could be reached through websites such as Facebook, and that a company could effectively host an otherwise standard ‘broadcast’ page around the company or a campaign – albeit in a social networking environment. Those days now seem numbered, as Facebook, Twitter, Google and others push new ‘social’ features which essentially change the way that the platform works, or affect the privacy, terms, and conditions. New questions arising from these changes about what is or isn’t within the control of the company, can make the difference between compliant communication and a breach of local regulations.

All of these considerations affect the inescapable ‘risk’. For a pharmaceutical company that risk can be a significant burden to bear. As new code guidance, policies, and regulations are brought in to address the changing landscape, this can potentially even heighten the sense of threat and reserve. In the United Kingdom this week, the industry body ABPI released a whitepaper which explains:

“…the complex regulatory requirements for pharmacovigilance, brought in to protect patients at a time of information scarcity, are now acting as a barrier to the use of this information as an important additional resource to protect public health”

Wouldn’t it bring peace of mind to know that there are people that really care about you getting it right? That they also don’t want you to have the proverbial ‘egg on your face’? That they want you to succeed, in an appropriate and measured way?

This is what Creation Healthcare consultants do every day. We are not lawyers, we are not ‘technical geeks’, we are not publicists or communicators. We are strategists, with a pedantic insistence on doing things in the most considered way possible – according to legal guidance, according to what is best for the client, and according to what may be best for the people that are interested in what the client is offering.


Creation Healthcare is a specialist consultancy working with executive and cross-functional teams in pharmaceutical companies. For assistance with assessing and managing risk, or to better understand appropriate engagement strategies for your company, contact us on +44 (0)207 849 3167 to arrange a confidential meeting.

Paul Grant

Paul Grant is Healthcare Engagement Strategist with global consultancy Creation Healthcare, where he leads digital behaviour research studies and advises healthcare clients on engagement strategies. He has been providing strategic insight solutions and professional services to the world's leading biopharmaceutical and healthcare organizations, helping them to find appropriate pathways to engagement within regulatory frameworks.