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The best pharma blogs, according to Pharmafocus

Look who's talking now

By Dominic Tyer, Deputy Editor of Pharmafocus

The internet loves a good scandal. From compromising celebrity videos to the latest political whisperings, whatever your interest in life, the chances are its seamier side will be covered somewhere on the web.

This is just as true for pharma, where industry gossip, rumour and horror stories send many people online and these days their first stop is usually a weblog or blog. Once little more than online diaries, blogs have come to represent a key development in the next generation of internet applications known as Web 2.0.

Central to Web 2.0 is the idea of user participation; that is, users generating content, on websites like Wikipedia, Flickr and YouTube, and other users commenting on it, and the interaction that follows.

Pharma bloggers

One industry-focused blog is the aptly named PharmaGossip, run from an unknown location in the UK by Insider.

"I saw the opportunity to shine a light on Big Pharma and some of their practices. The key challenge in blogging is to get readers!" Insider told Pharmafocus via email. "This is my way of getting Big Pharma to 'shape up' and stop doing the shoddy stuff." By this, he means data manipulation, ghostwriting, key opinion leader influencing, ever-greening and off-label marketing - all of which he says he sees in his day-to-day job.

His identity has been a closely guarded secret since the blog began in September 2005. The site now attracts between 900 and 1,000 visitors each day, half of whom are Big Pharma employees. Depending on commitments, stories and inspiration, Insider spends between one and four hours a day on the site.

When pressed for his pharma credentials, Pharmafocus was told: "I am an insider. You'll just have to trust me. I stand or fall by my posts. I don't speak to anyone. Sorry!"

Unseen stories

When it comes to tip-offs on stories that mainstream media doesn't see, blogs are ideally placed to benefit from the convenience and anonymity of the internet. The most recent of these concerned the exit of a senior Novartis statistician in the US.>
Novartis Global Director of Oncology Statistical Reporting and Standards Reporting, David Olagunju, was allegedly fired for blowing the whistle on illegal and unethical activities at the company concerning the testing and reporting of clinical trial results for the cancer drug Tasigna. The story was first broken by former Pfizer marketing vice president Pfizer Dr Peter Rost, who wrote about Olagunju on his Question Authority blog, and he has been covering it ever since.

One of the prime movers in the pharma blog scene, Rost's writing has recently encompassed confidential training tapes, leaked marketing emails, as well as the Novartis story.

A recent post even details his personal experiences of applying for the position of German country manager at Novartis and the deadend he met after revealing his whistle-blowing past at Pfizer. This past is well documented in his book The Whistleblower: Confessions Of A Healthcare Hitman.

One of the interesting things about Rost's Olagunju/Novartis story is that although the story's various twists and turns are now freely available for all to read on the internet, the mainstream media have virtually ignored it. With this being the blogosphere, the story has been picked up by a number of other bloggers, linking to each other and commenting on it and the way the company has reacted to the story.

This highlights the challenge companies face in the blogosphere. There is no control over the message and the message can be read and added to by anyone. This presents a tricky issue for pharma when it comes to corporate PR and there are no easy answers.

Professional blogs

Washington DC-based Mark Senak takes a different approach to blogs like PharmaGossip with his own The blog focuses on regulatory affairs and product communication, but with a resolutely professional aim and outlook.

A senior vice president with Fleishman Hillard, Mark wanted to set up a weblog to distinguish himself in the professional world and he succeeded in getting the buy-in of his PR employers after they agreed some guidelines.

"I never write about an issue that a client is directly involved in, where they have skin in the game," he explained. "I don't want to be perceived as a troublemaker. I want to give objective information when and where I can."

He spends on average 15-30 minutes per day updating his blog and tries to post every day. In doing so, he has developed a loyal following of more than 800 subscribers, not counting the additional more casual readers.

"A blog becomes very much like 'talk radio'. You pick and decide the tone for what you're going to do and you can either be a shock jock and go out there and do some name-calling, or you can be a totally different type of programme."

The blogosphere recently saw two unlikely additions to the ranks of professional blogs. There are many examples of corporate blogs outside pharma, but at the beginning of June, they were joined by GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson, launching pharma's first official blogs within days of each other. with low-cut, viral marketing strategies designed to appeal directly to the blogosphere.

GSKs product-specific blog, alliConnect, was the first to appear online on 1 June, and was soon followed by JnJs corporate JnJBTW (Johnson & Johnson By The Way) blog.

alliConnect is a US, consumer-focused blog for OTC weight loss treatment Alli (orlistat). The goal of this blog is to have a two-way conversation about weight loss issues, Steve Burton, vice president of weight control for GSKs consumer healthcare division writes on the blog. "We are going to challenge many people's notions about weight loss. And, we want you to challenge us in return."

Steve is just one of a team of GSK employees authorised to contribute to the blog. Alli's marketing director, brand manager and lawyer, plus a corporate blogging consultant, all join him in working on the site either by posting or working behind the scenes. Readers can post comments to the site, but only after GSKs team reviews them first.

One of the site's drivers is the company's desire to broadcast an official voice on Alli and a particular treatment effect it has. Basically, if someone takes the drug and then eats too much fatty food, they will urgently need to visit the toilet. The blog has been quite open about this, even suggesting some people think it keeps them honest in their diet.

The JnJ site covers a wider range of topics and has a single lead author taken from within the company's media relations team, which may give it the edge when it comes to developing a unique voice.

Mark Senak commented: "I was very pleased to see two international companies stepping up and dipping their toes in the water here. There's such a spectrum out there in terms of companies and where they are in terms of their relationship with new media. You go from those who are very sophisticated and now issue their press releases on RSS feeds, and you've got other companies where the people involved in communications don't even know what an RSS feed is."

He said GSK and JnJ will both face the challenge of posting regularly as well as the issue of how companies in such a highly regulated industry can inject the element of spontaneity integral to blogs. Nevertheless, Senak thinks the blogs are intriguing developments for pharma.

UK blogging guidelines

In the UK, the first consideration for any company looking to blog is the ABPI Code of Practice. Already, a small number of companies have approached the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority about blogs; not because they want to start one, but because they want to know if they would be held responsible for the views expressed on a company-sponsored blog and the answer from the authority is 'yes'.

As with any sponsored material, blogs would have to clearly show they are sponsored and the company involved must ensure all information original postings and their responses comply with the code.

PMCPA communications manager Niamh MacMahon explains: "Pharma companies are not prohibited from setting up blogs - our advice is simply that as the purpose of blogs is to give contributors the opportunity to freely and spontaneously express personal views on a subject, it is virtually impossible for a company to retain any control over content and ensure compliance with the code, so they are probably best avoided."

A company could disregard this advice and set up a blog on a disease area, such as a breast cancer blog, but it would be the company's responsibility to make sure that such a blog didn't promote prescription-only medicines to the public.

So, in theory, GSKs approach - postings by authorised contributors with legal backup and the rigorous screening of public comments - if applied to a disease area, rather than a product, would be possible, but it would require close monitoring and would be a clear case for investigating the sources.

But for the time being, it remains easier for pharma's insiders to dominate the conversation.

The best blogs for pharma:

UK blogs


By Insider from Somewhere, GB.

"Looking beyond the spin of Big Pharma PR, but encouraging gossip."
An often irreverent take on Big Pharma happenings. Pictures of heart-shaped coughing ashtrays share space with linked excerpts from mainstream media stories on senior appointments, product warnings and lawsuits. There is, of course, also gossip.

NHS Blog Doctor

By Dr John Crippen, an NHS doctor

"A candid look at healthcare"
A straight-talking doctor blogging about pharma company relations, his local PCT and NHS reform. Most receive fairly short shrift. Less healthcare-related matters are also covered, such as the best way to humanely cook a lobster. Also does a handy roundup of other NHS blogs.

US blogs

Question Authority with Dr Peter Rost

By former Pfizer marketing vice president Pfizer Dr Peter Rost.
"If you have no humor or if you are a boring person, you are not supposed to read this blog."
Something of a celebrity after his battles with Pfizer, Dr Rost last year published his pharma expos The Whistleblower: Confessions Of A Healthcare Hitman. Rost's blog most recently broke a story about a whistle-blower at Novartis. The site has also featured confidential training tapes and leaked marketing emails.


By Ed Silverman, a journalist on The Star-Ledger of New Jersey

"News, comment and conversation."

A well-written blog that positions itself as a home for news and debate about pharma, Pharmalot recently teamed up with Question Authority to pile the pressure on Novartis. Silverman combines edited mainstream content with his own commentary, adding original research and a dash humour.


By Mark Senak, senior vice president with PR agency Fleishman-Hillard

"Rx for pharma industry communications and planning."
A professional blog, EyeonFDA provides regulatory and industry commentary. It has a wide collection of online resources, and links to audio files of Senak's interviews with ex-FDA personnel and others. Removed from the original, anything goes idea of blogging, Senak's blog has links to his employer's website, and its clients are off-limits for his writing.

Corporate blogs


By a team of GSK employees led by vice president of weight control Steve Burton

"A place to talk about weight loss with the creators of Alli."
Pharma's first product-specific blog, it covers GlaxoSmithKlines OTC weight loss treatment Alli. It candidly addresses the products side-effects, addresses criticism that the product is a lifestyle drug, and explains how best to use the product. As a US-based, consumer-focused blog, it doesn't lead the way for UK marketers, but it's a fascinating first start for pharma.


By Marc Monseau, from JnJs media relations department

"A three-dimensional view of Johnson & Johnson."
Conceived as a way for JnJ to talk about itself, it covers a range of topics from the company's pipeline to biosimilars to the doctor-patient relationship. Recent comment also took in JnJ's global review of its media planning and buying activities. Like GSK's blog, it can't lose its corporate voice, but nevertheless, both provide interesting test cases for pharma.


Hat tip PharmaGossip, who found this story.


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