Interview with Torsten Flöttmann: Pharmaceutical Communication - A Digital Special Path?

August 26, 2019

Has the pharmaceutical industry really overlooked social media communication? Torsten Flöttmann, who helped shape digital communication in the pharmaceutical industry right from the start, cites good reasons for the more cautious approach taken by pharmaceutical companies.

Mr. Flöttmann, Social Media and Pharmaceutical Industry - have you overslept here or are there other reasons why you feel that it doesn't really fit together?

The answer is certainly more complex than the somewhat provocative question. Ten to 15 years ago, when social media began to blossom, the pharmaceutical industry had almost unrestricted direct access to the medical target group. There was little need or necessity to fundamentally change behaviour.

In other industrial sectors, the potential was recognised early on. Why not the pharmaceutical industry?

Firstly, it was still doing very well at that time and secondly, the hurdles for B2B and B2C communication are significantly higher than in the consumer market.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

At the beginning of the social media hype, many agencies believed that a completely new form of communication route was about to begin. Many believed that consumers and doctors could finally be reached 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. At the same time, a completely different discussion began in the companies, which until then had hardly been considered, but still has its justification today. What responsibility does a company bear with regard to undesirable side effects that are discussed on the Internet? What about the social media in the context of internally defined approval processes? What is considered illegal advertising in the sense of §7HWG? And that is only the tip of the iceberg, because the questions became more and more complex and touched more and more areas in the companies.

Can you give us an example?

Just imagine that, according to the AMG, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur must investigate any suspicion of an undesirable side effect, including the entire cascade attached to it. In addition, legally prescribed processes have now been called into question: How do you deal with direct communication in the community? Usually, every form of public communication has to go through a whole chain of approvals before it is approved by the so-called "information officers". This usually takes weeks. How is this supposed to work in a medium that thrives on real-time reactions? Not to mention companies that are obligated to release to their licensors.

So the pharmaceutical companies had too cumbersome processes?

At this point, many companies decided that for these reasons it was better to seek primary contact with the customer via a sales representative. This is much easier to handle and the administrative effort for IT and organization is much lower. Last but not least: There was simply no one in the organizations who could have done this work. There was zero know-how and no resources. Getting such a "tanker" to change course, especially when the oil is still flowing, is hard work and not just making friends.

Has there been a change in thinking by now?

The framework conditions have changed dramatically for most companies in the last five to ten years. Access to the doctor has become considerably more difficult (keyword FSA Code, §49b etc.) and the influence of the traditional sales force has diminished significantly or expectations have changed. The situation is made more difficult by the fact that many doctors are reaching retirement age and the new doctors must first be recruited by the pharmaceutical industry. The barriers to entry are higher today than they used to be.

Does this lead to a rethink?

One must not underestimate the rethinking in the boardrooms up to the grown field services. Here, too, a generation change is taking place. I can remember sentences such as: "Well, I underestimated the significance of digital change...". Such statements give an idea of how difficult it is to make fundamental changes in such an environment. I see parallels here with developments in the German automotive industry.

So is there now any recognition that social media represent an important communication component?

The "processual" problems described above remain - independent of a generational change in the executive floors or in product managers. Today, "digital" is taken for granted. And there is an increasing willingness to use their channels together with their customers. While five years ago fax was still the most important means of communication in German practices, this question no longer arises today. Our healthcare system and its users are also slowly becoming digital. In a way, you are forced to follow.

How do you see the future?

I think the pharmaceutical industry would do well to approach these issues with a certain "humility". The pharmaceutical industry's reputation is still not the best, and the way it deals with the social media has already set some barrels rolling. This applies both to politics and to companies, such as Bayer, for example, is experiencing with Monsanto. A company can also communicate up the mountain all the time. The influence of the social media on the development of society as a whole should not be underestimated.

What strategy should pharmaceutical companies pursue?

I can only warn against trying to establish something like pharmaceutical "influencers". Every responsible company should draw clear boundaries here. In my opinion, the industry has to optimize target group-oriented communication against the background of a performance promise. In the future, the pharmaceutical industry will only accept a healthcare system, and thus also the individual physician, as a partner if it really proves to be a genuine and honest partner. This is not where glossy brochures help, but where changes in behaviour have to take place. Many companies have recognised this - and this often has to do with a generation change in the companies.

How can this communication look like?

The time of mass communication is over. Today we have to pick up the individual stakeholder individually. To achieve this, we need a new relationship of trust. A functioning, modern sales force is absolutely helpful for this. Why? I still have confidence in people, not in institutions. Even if some may doubt it. Especially in an age of online-based communication, the personal and the personality become an invaluable value. And when a customer reveals his data, his information, his wishes and needs, this is the highest trust a company can receive.

So social media do not play a central role for you?

The individual approach and the support in daily practice are clearly in the foreground for me. Ultimately, it is not the question of how much or which data I store in my optimized CRM system - and this will become increasingly important - but what I generate from it for my customers in interaction with a sales force, or even without it. This cannot and will not replace social media - at least not in the pharmaceutical industry.


Torsten Flöttmann
@torstenfloettmann on LinkedIn

As a studied biologist and marketing expert, Torsten Flöttmann knows many aspects of the pharmaceutical industry - sales force, product management and finally many years of leading positions in pharmaceutical marketing. Most recently, he was Head of Marketing at Berlin-Chemie.

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