Regulations: Using Social Networks In Healthcare and Finance Is Hard

I have misgivings about how social networks are being used by corporations as marketing vehicles.

But I’m also encouraged, even excited about some of these experiments that are blending the lines between marketing, sales and customer service.  We’re starting to see integration across owned, paid and earned social media.

Like most new human endeavors, social network strategy runs afoul of two limiting factors: human beings and human institutions. We human beings can be smart, dumb, arrogant, sensitive, agile and dug in—sometimes all in the same day. When we aggregate our behaviors into institutions the possibilities—and problems—grow exponentially.

I’ve been researching how regulated industries in the US, specifically financial and medical, are handling the rapid growth of social communications online. Needless to say the government regulatory agencies—FINCA, NASD, FDA—are overburdened by their existing mandates, let alone trying to figure out what it means when my Aunt Patricia “likes” the Facebook page of some osteoporosis drug from Merck.

While we tend to guard our financial information carefully, we as a society seem more than willing to get on message boards and tell others everything about our prostitis or hemoglobin counts. We trust in the apparent anonymity of the message board, and with some wariness, we research and consider information from complete strangers in the hope of improving our health.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is an independent, industry-funded non-profit oversight organization. Unlike the medical industry, the financial industry has pretty clear guidelines from the Securities and Exchange Commission about advertising and marketing. The problem even with these rules and guidelines in place, social media acts, well, differently.

FINRA issued a memo in January called “Guidance On Blogs And Social Network Websites.” In setting standards for use of social media by brokers, banks and financial advisors it relies on the distinction that FINRA has made in the past between “static” content, which is marketing and “non-static” which is an electronic forum:

“Examples of static content typically available through social networking sites
include profile, background or wall information. As with other Web-based
communications such as banner advertisements, a registered principal of the
firm must approve all static content on a page of a social networking site
established by the firm or a registered representative before it is posted.

“Social networking sites also contain non-static, real-time communications, such
as interactive posts on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The portion of a social
networking site that provides for these interactive communications constitutes
an interactive electronic forum, and firms are not required to have a registered
principal approve these communications prior to use. Of course, firms still must
supervise these communications.”

A “registered principal” is a licensed securities dealer who is also empowered to oversee operational, compliance, trading, and sales operations and the personnel who staff them. Registered principals must have all the basic securities licenses required for the operation they oversee plus an additional principal license.”
So if a bank builds a Facebook page that’s considered marketing. Someone with a license inside the firm needs to review that and certify that it follows all SEC and FINRA regulations.

But if I’m a community manager for a bank and I run Twitter management, I can tweet to my hearts content so long as there is a system in place to “properly supervise” me, and a permanent record is kept of everything I tweet and the responses to those tweets.

If this sounds like enough regulation to stop most social networking in its tracks, you’re right, it is. Healthcare organizations face the same kinds of regulatory requirements of professional certification, supervision of marketing and advertising activities and keeping permanent records of everything the organization says.

This is especially tough on healthcare groups that are trying to use social media to encourage people to live healthier lives, lowering health costs. WebMD has succeeded precisely because they were willing to double their internal controls, and just pay the price while still pushing into online publishing.

Until the legal precedents have been established for social media, regulated industries will apply the same rules as for marketing and for solicitation.

Last year the drug maker Novartis was told to desist from a “Facebook Share” promotion for its leukemia drug Tasigna because the social sharing didn’t carry the risk information that always is seen and heard in traditional pharma advertising. That’s an interesting example of how the integral social sharing in a regulated environment is very hard to do.

Here’s a hoot for you: in the middle of all this hand-wringing, the Food and Drug Administration last year posted a giant, detailed case study about how the FDA used every social media channel and tactic in the book to spread the word about the peanut salmonella outbreak. Apparently the FDA can approve large-scale social media campaigns very quickly—as long as they’re created by the FDA ;-)

There’s hope for people who want to improve how social networks can be used for financial and health issues. Jeremiah Owyang keeps a list of successes in financial social media. keeps a Pharma and Healthcare Social Media Wiki with many great examples of how responsible community building and information exchange can take place in medical fields within the framework of appropriate regulation.

And Peter Kim’s Wiki of Social Media Marketing Examples is a great reference for both medical and financial social media examples, as well as all other industries.
The regulations that constrain financial and healthcare social media are, at the beginning and the end of the day, a very good thing for the consumer. They can protect us from the most egregious mistakes and the criminal activities that the Internet can spread like, well, viruses.

The central challenge for internal teams inside financial and healthcare companies is to build a clear, on-going consensus of what is and isn’t appropriate for that organization in social media. Their first obligation is to customers—meaning we the people—to “do no harm.” The second obligation they have is to provide better services and products to customers by using the positive power of social networks.

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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