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by Jennifer Redmond

Jennifer-RedmondOnly in this day and age would a high school student’s tweets garner the attention of  White House staffers and earn a spot in national headlines. But that’s exactly what happened as the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama made its way up the trending charts in mid-November 2014. Accompanying the sardonic hashtag were unappealing photos of school lunches. One particularly amorphous entrée received special attention. Here was an example of the incredible power of the Internet and how it can quickly backfire on marketing campaigns—especially ones featuring famous faces.

“Social media is unfiltered, and therefore provides a higher risk in terms of managing the public conversation and the celebrity interaction,” says Kassy Perry, President and CEO of the Perry Communications Group. “There is significant room for a face-plant.”

Michelle Obama has championed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act since it was passed in Congress a few years back. She’s actively used her platform to promote healthy diet and exercise habits and has specifically helped promote healthier lunches in public schools.

But even the First Lady cannot rein in the ever-volatile and capricious tides of social media. Much like the Wild, Wild West of lore, today’s modern social media platforms have few rules—the best hashtag wins the day and movements can galvanize within a few keystrokes. As the face of the healthy initiative, Obama was the easy target of harsh and rapid criticism from students dissatisfied with their lunch options.

This scenario is becoming more and more the norm. For those in marketing, the trick is harnessing the power of social media in a positive direction. Healthcare and medical marketing campaigns are no different in their aim to reach a wide audience, but they must navigate more complex regulations.

Says Ashley Addington of FDAnews, “Social media is a true double-edged sword. As a Millennial, I can’t see doing marketing and public relations without it. However, in the medical field it can be tricky. It’s a great way to promote new products, but it’s also a really easy way to get a lot of backlash regarding products.”

Addington’s concerns echo those of many in the medical and healthcare marketing fields. Take the recent fiasco that Dr. Oz encountered when attempting an open-air forum via a live Twitter chat late last year. In theory, the concept seemed promising: a real-time Q & A between regular people and Dr. Oz. The hope was that he could engage with his audience directly and so increase brand recognition and reputation. But the Twitter chat quickly went south; users started tweeting accusations of quackery and within a few hours the entire event made Dr. Oz look more foolish than anything else.

Because of situations like this, Addington says, “Medical brands need to be incredibly careful how they promote themselves on social media and with celebrity associations.”

The Dr. Oz situation, much like the trending hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama, raises questions about celebrity and brand associations, as well as the effective management of social media interactions.

Social media is essential but also equally dangerous, especially in healthcare. “I personally believe that social media marketing campaigns in this industry should be used for awareness,” Addington suggests. “I know from a normal marketing standpoint it sounds like having a celebrity endorsement would be a hot ticket for profits, but it’s really the wrong industry to try that tactic.”

Why is it the wrong industry? Not only does the Food and Drug Administration closely regulate the manufacture and promotion of medical products, but the stakes are also higher. If Nike signs a deal with LeBron James to sell some shoes, it ultimately comes down to the preference of the buyer. But when Dr. Oz signs a deal with the Columbia University Department of Surgery, his opinions are weighed against the health and well-being of individuals.

“There are significant risks and benefits associated with celebrity brands,” Perry agrees. “The FDA regulates the use of celebrities in terms of their association with a brand.”

Perry knows firsthand the effective use of celebrity gravitas, and she also recommends awareness over brand development or sales.

“The Couric Effect,” in Perry’s words, is an example of “the appropriate use of celebrity to effect change” in the healthcare field. Famed journalist and TV personality Katie Couric rose to even greater national prominence in the late 1990s when her 42-year-old husband died of colon cancer. Couric capitalized on the audience her work affords her and became a champion of the cause. According to Perry, who “created Couric’s colon cancer initiative and her historic televised colonoscopy,” colonoscopy rates rose over 20 percent in the year following the start of the campaign.

Perry recommends celebrity endorsements only where the message is specific and the purpose is humanitarian. It would be difficult to criticize Couric’s admonishment to have a preventive colonoscopy done; it would be easy to criticize her if she instead endorsed a specific, or controversial, cancer treatment plan. The key, says Perry, is to promote “issue campaigns and disease state awareness in order to catch the attention of the media and the public in a very cluttered media sphere.” Couric’s televised colonoscopy worked beautifully as an example of this strategy.

In a published interview on the Cancer Connect website, Couric explained her motivation in sparking, as Perry calls it, “increased media coverage of a disease state”:

I felt compelled to share... information with the public in the hope that I could spare other families the pain my own had endured. People didn’t talk very openly about colons or colonoscopies or any of that back then [in the early 2000s], and my job gave me a wonderful bully pulpit to bring the topic out of the closet and into breakfast table conversation.

Perry recommends identifying celebrities like Couric “who have a relationship with a disease state and asking them to tell their story at a media event or at a legislative hearing.” With this approach, Perry argues that critical information, like the benefit of a colonoscopy, can be brought to the forefront of public attention.

In determining the use of celebrity associations, a balance must be found. Addington says, “It really is a fine [and] tricky line that medical brands have to play with because you want the best promotion for the product, but you also want to make sure you don’t end up in any legal trouble.”

While the disastrous Dr. Oz Twitter chat did not lead to legal ramifications, it provides a helpful glimpse into the obstacles and complexities that medical brands face in engaging with their audiences.

Jennifer Redmond is a freelance writer who writes about politics, health, and wellness.

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