Friday, November 13, 2009, 9:57 AM

FDA keeping an eye on social media

“Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” – Ronald Reagan

When it comes to the advent of social media, Ronald Reagan looks to be getting one-third of the equation right.

No, government has not yet adopted a Facebook tax. Nor has it enacted a subsidy for Twitter users (though we don’t know exactly what was in this year’s stimulus bill, do we?)

Two powerful government agencies are, however, sharpening their regulatory pencil as social media sites emerge as a preferred method of communication for consumers and large swaths of corporate America. If your company is thinking of getting active on social media, get to know these developments.

The Food & Drug Administration holds a hearing this morning on how health care companies market FDA-regulated products on the internet and social media sites. The agency’s crosshairs are focused most sharply on prescription drugs for humans and animals, prescription biologics, and medical devices.

Folks in my line of work usually bristle at the mere mention of regulating such activity, but there are two reasons that the FDA’s involvement may actually be a good thing.

First, surveys show that two-thirds of adults who research medical information online acknowledge that the information they find influences their medical decision-making.

Second, drug and medical device makers are skittish of using social media because there are no clear guidelines for what’s appropriate communication. Will they run afoul of the “direct to consumer” advertising rules that govern television and print advertising? How can they give “fair balance” to their drugs within 140 characters on Twitter? Nobody wants to be the guinea pig.

In other words, health care companies are avoiding 21st century technology because they are governed by 20th century FDA regulations.

The biggest loser in this equation is the consumer. There’s plenty of demand for health care information online, but without clear regulations there’s not a lot of supply.

The FDA needs to modernize how it regulates such communications in a way that benefits patients and companies alike. Failure to do so will mean that many drug companies remain on the sidelines, while consumers surf less reliable chat rooms and blogs for important medical information.

Here’s hoping the FDA governs with a light touch and develops a framework that encourages communication rather than stifling it.

The FDA isn’t the only agency setting its sights on social media. The Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines last month requiring that relationships between a company and bloggers who review that company’s products be made transparent to the public. The FTC also took steps to ensure that product reviews on blogs are more accurate for consumers. Violating the rules could mean stiff fines for the company and the blogger alike.

The new rules deserve your attention. Ford, Audi, General Mills, and Rubbermaid are just a few of the companies that work with bloggers to promote their product. Surveys show that consumers overwhelmingly trust product reviews they get from familiar personalities, whether it be a respected blogger or the next door neighbor. The FTC’s rules won’t change that.

Take Rubbermaid for example. To reach out to young moms, the Tupperware maker offered to remake the kitchen of widely-read “mommy blogger” and to make coupons available to her readers on her blog. Rubbermaid disclosed publicly that it was a paid sponsorship campaign, and still watched as more than 1,000 readers of the blog downloaded the company’s coupon.

The lesson? Blogger outreach can be good for your company, the blogger, and your customers, even in a newly-regulated environment.

So what to make of all this government scrutiny? In my mind, it is reason to your sharpen your social media strategy, not abandon it. As the old saying goes, corporate communicators need to “fish where the fish are” in a way that respects the consumer and the regulatory frameworks being built in Washington.

The consumer is rapidly migrating to social networking platforms for information they trust. The question is whether your business will meet them there with credible, trustworthy product information.

(This column was first published in The Maryland Daily Record on Friday, November 13, 2009.)

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