Personal Risk & Social Media in Pharma/Biotech

Benefit: Something that promotes or enhances well-being

Risk: the possibility of suffering harm or loss

While there is a growing group of pharma/biotech professionals engaging via social media, most people I know believe the risks vastly outweigh the benefits. Working in a risk averse culture with a low social media adoption rate may result in an individual bias against using these new tools. Does perception match reality?

Social Media: Simply Tools

The term social media seems to have different meaning to various people. I think of social media as tools or platforms that can facilitate connections, collaborations and information sharing.

Benefits for Pharma/Biotech Professionals

Here are a few stories from folks you likely recognize about the benefits experienced using social media tools.

Communication Risks

Any time we communicate there are risks, such as using the proper words to convey your intended meaning or spreading information beyond where intended. If we have highly sensitive information to convey, we often call or meet in person to discuss. In biotech, there are a variety of interesting things one can learn by being in the right coffee shop or standing in the bus line at a conference. People appear more comfortable because of the ephemeral nature of the spoken word. Have you ever had the experience of seeing an email you sent in confidence accidentally included as part of a future chain of emails to a group of people? Or had someone in the Bcc line respond to all, making it clear there were more people on the distribution list? We learn from these events so that we can avoid and manage risks. Are the risks associated with social media unique?

Specific Risks Associated with Communicating via Social Media

  • Shelf Life, Visibility, Pace
  • Fundamentals of Our Thinking
  • Meaningful Use
  • Target Audience

Shelf Life, Visibility, Pace

Sharing via social media is essentially permanent. Deleting old blog entries or accidental updates on Twitter or LinkedIn may make it more difficult to find but often deleted updates can be tracked down. Social media is also visible – even when you don’t have a large number of fans/followers/connections. While most of us will never go viral, what you share publicly can generally be re-shared by all of those people and all of their fans/followers/connections. Even when you are sharing privately or on temporary platform (e.g. Snapchat), what you’ve shared can generally be captured and shared beyond those confines. Add to these features that social media conversations can be fast paced and the risks of miscommunication using these tools are amplified relative to other options.

Fundamentals of Our Thinking

If you have read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, you can skip my attempt to explain the basic principles, apply them to decision making in science and skip to the next paragraph. The book describes decades of research done by Kahneman and Amos Tversky on the psychology of decision making, particularly in economic settings. There are two main pathways for thought: one fast and one slow. Most of our thinking is done quickly using shortcuts commonly called heuristics (also called cognitive biases), which can result systematic errors in judgment. Slow thinking is deliberate and controlled but isn’t always engaged. Here is one of the Tversky/Kahneman sample questions

An individual has been described by a neighbor as follows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with very little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?


While systemic errors in judgment exist regardless of our communication medium, the shelf life and visibility of social media can magnify the impact of making these common mistakes. Does pharma/biotech have a culture where mistakes are accepted? Do our organizations foster environments where discussion of errors is positive or punitive? Can we as individuals accept feedback that we’ve made such mistakes privately much less publicly?

Meaningful Use

Jonathan Mandelbaum (@biotechbaumer) recently shared a lively Harvard Business Review post titled Our Dangerous Obsession with External Recognition. The piece did not appear to be shared much in my social media networks, which may be due to the tone, which includes comments about people “advancing their own personal fame bubbles” via social media. However, the author makes some good points about what I’ll call meaningful use (defining individual goals for social media use and ensuring participation isn’t taking precedence over the truly critical aspects of our jobs). The reality is that many people are driven by recognition, whether inside their organization or in the greater community. In pharma/biotech, internal recognition can be driven by taking on additional responsibilities such as committee participation and external recognition is often fulfilled by conference or networking event attendance. Social media simply provides another route to the same end.

Target Audience

I recently came across a series of posts about the dangers of academic blogging by Brian LePort at the blog Near Emmaus. The posts include five reasons that students shouldn’t blog:

While these posts are about students, blogging and come from the theology community, I believe the concepts apply generally to pharma/biotech professionals and a variety of social media tools. The following quote from the post on ruining your public reputation captures the crux of my issue: that social media is simply another conversation.

For the most part, blogs should be understood as a written form of a classroom discussion, not as a position paper, not as a journal article, not as a proposal for publication, not as the answer to application questions. It is a place for discussion.

One of the comments I get about pharma/biotech conversations is that the audience, which includes other life science professionals, patients, healthcare providers and regulatory agencies (e.g. FDA and SEC), is too complicated for online conversations. But just because you aren’t there doesn’t mean those conversations aren’t happening – without you.

What is the Real Risk?

One doesn’t have to look far to find failure in drug development. According to BioMedTracker, the overall success rate for a new drug to reach the marketplace is 9%. In other words, the failure rate is 91%. Turning to venture capital investments, a Kauffman Foundation report in 2012 indicated that half of the VC funds in their portfolio fail to return capital to investors. These numbers remind me of a variety of articles, including this one from Scientific American “You Are Less Beautiful Than You Think”.

If we’ve chosen a profession where most of us are going to fail, we should be fairly comfortable with those risks. There was a recent online exchange on this very topic between two well respected biotech venture capitalists: Bruce Booth from Atlas Venture and David Grainger from Index Ventures. Booth posted on his blog about the Atlas Venture seed class of 2013:

Sharing this list publicly carries some risk for us.  We expect only 50% or fewer of these new projects to “graduate” into our life science portfolio at Atlas.

Grainger picked up the conversation on Twitter:

  • David Grainger ‏@sciencescanner
    • Interesting @lifescivc highlights ‘risk’ of negative perception if only 50% of seed projects make it. Au contraire I wud applaud 50% hitrate
  • Bruce Booth @LifeSciVC
    • @sciencescanner Risk was more the PR of highlighting projects too early and then terminating them. Totally agree on stringent filter
  • David Grainger ‏@sciencescanner
    • @LifeSciVC Understand. And kudos to you guys at Atlas for doin it. Really highlights the strategy. Hopefully the wins’ll outshine the kills!

Are we as individuals afraid of social media or concerned of confronting risks and therefore failure in a public forum?

While stories of failure in drug/device/diagnostic development are told (often loudly and on replay), how often do we hear about the risks and challenges along the way from the people representing the organizations actually involved? I searched for examples and found only a handful, including:

Mistakes are an inevitable part of the human experience. In drug development, failure is almost guaranteed at some point. Pharma/biotech professionals should aim to make recoverable mistakes and build environments that allow one another to learn from and move past failure. Fostering this environment in real life is a way to combat the very real risk that exists with the permanency and speed of communicating via social media.



  1. Walking the Walk: Stories of Drug Development | The Next Element - March 18, 2014

    […] with colleagues sparked my recent posts about communication and risk, from the company and personal […]

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