To Tweet Or Not To Tweet, That Is The Question

Posted May 13th, 2015 by Ron Renaud, in Biotech startup advice, From The Trenches

This blog was written by Ron Renaud, CEO of RaNA Therapeutics, as part of the “From the Trenches” feature of LifeSciVC.

Have you ever scrolled through your Twitter feed and found something distasteful posted about your company? You may be the CEO, head chemist or staff accountant – but still feel personally offended and have an overwhelming impulse to respond. “How can somebody say that about our company?” is one of many ways we are introduced to the social media arena. We want to know who, why, what as soon as possible. This situation is especially sensitive when you are part of a publicly traded company as it can have an impact on share price. For many of us in the private world where share price is not the issue, it is a matter of principle and making sure our companies are accurately represented. In any case, none of us like to spend extra time explaining to our staff, our investors or our boards why some erroneous Twitter post has created confusion about our companies – positive or negative. Unlike Internet message boards, which have been around for well over a decade and are fairly diverse – Twitter is a single, well-organized stream of content. It is even rumored that there are trading algorithms based on Twitter feeds. The bottom line is that many of us in the emerging biotech and life sciences arena need to figure out how to embrace it.

I started in biotech when Stelios was an investment banker and Gilead had a $300 million market cap. There was the press and media that were still trying to learn the life science ropes and a handful of ex-industry, PhDs that were operating in a pre-Regulation FD sell-side analyst role. This fairly limited group of people was the main focus of almost all investor relations and corporate communications departments in the biotech sector. The relationships were a bit different back then. Even when there was disagreement or if sales came up short – there was usually a respectful discourse between the company and the analyst or reporter. Many of the analysts in the early days had worked in drug discovery labs at major pharmaceutical companies and saw first hand, the challenges and blindsiding nature of our industry. I am not saying there were not spirited discussions but the objective of the sell-side analysts was always clear and that was to get the best information for their buy-side clients. For most analysts, the best questions got the best answers and if they did not think to ask the right question it was not usually proffered out of kindness by the company. This kept everyone on his or her toes and made for the best “First Call“ notes. There will be some that read this that may have even had the pleasure of multiple hour-long discussions with sell-side legends like Maykin Ho, Meirav Chovav, David Molowa, Eric Hecht and Doug Lind (just to name a few). My point here is that it was uncommon to be surprised by an analyst note or press article because there was a real dialogue. The only real dark matter that existed back then was the occasional (snail mail) investor newsletter that might have some provocative material regarding a company or an angry shareholder letter.

Today – the flow of information is never-ending and it comes from all corners of the universe. Moreover, it is instantaneous and elicits an instinct to react or respond with the same immediacy. For planned material events, Regulation FD makes it easier for companies in some respect because disclosure must be the same no matter who the audience is. We can create one script, one Q&A document and one set of speaking points that are reviewed and approved by legal departments to address a quarterly update, data release or any other material event. An unintended consequence of this is a shift of some attention away from sell-side analysts who are all hearing the exact same thing from their covered companies and toward the ever-expanding frontier of social media. This also means that company executives, especially in biotech, are learning to deal with the never-ending flow of [mis] information from Twitter. Our industry is particularly vulnerable because of the intertwined scientific, regulatory and patient-focused nature of what we do. Stakes are high for biotech companies developing therapies for unmet medical needs. Investors, analysts, press and patients dissect every word, tone, mood, what was not said and make (Tweet) a determination on precisely what it means for a company within seconds of public dissemination.

Despite the anonymity and anarchy of social media, Twitter can also be the best forum to share important facts about your company quickly and efficiently. Keeping in mind that you have 140 characters to make your point, a quick comment and a link to a press release, data or presentation can be very effective. Stick with facts and stay away from speculation. No matter how good your news may be, there is always somebody that is more interested in your competitor and will find a way to take some air out of your balloon. The same goes for bad news – keep it simple and straightforward. The goal should be to leave as little to the imagination of the Twitter universe.

Understandably, many of the larger, publicly traded companies in our industry have strict policies regarding who can Tweet on behalf of the company as well as legal review of all content before it is tweeted. That still does not protect the company from completely baseless Twitter posts from others. You or your company will eventually experience Tweets by individuals that state your company is the best short, management is incompetent, 10b-5 in place – no BD, M&A imminent, a patient on your latest trial had an unexpected adverse event or you canceled out of a conference. These Tweets often come from posters with alias names and thousands of followers. They are posted with a confidence and certainty that can be insanely frustrating. Emails will come in from employees or board members asking if you saw the post? Before you know it, you have spent 2-3 hours answering calls or making calls trying to find out where that information came from. 99.9% of the time it comes from some unknowable source. The question remains – how do you respond?

My advice – you don’t!! Let data and facts do the talking. Keep your key opinion leaders (KOLs) up to date and informed as many of them are also posting on Twitter. If a Twitter post is unequivocally false – just ignore it. Make sure your employees understand that it is inappropriate to respond as well. Many Tweets are looking for a response from an executive or an employee. It should be handled like any and all other communication from the company and handled by a designated spokesperson.

Even if you choose not to have a Twitter presence, you would be wise to get to know many of the leading healthcare Tweeters because thousands of others rely on them to get their news. Most of the best-known Tweeters that cover the life sciences have deep experience as healthcare journalists, or as current and former life science executives or investors. Many of these high profile Tweeters place a significant value on integrity, transparency and respect. People like Adam Feuerstein @adamfeuerstein, Luke Timmerman @ldtimmerman, Meg Tirrell @megtirrell and Matthew Herper @matthewherper are some of the most influential journalists covering healthcare on Twitter. There are well over 110,000 followers for just those four writers alone. There are many more influential Tweeters with specialties in certain therapeutic areas such as Sally Church @MaverickNY in oncology or Jean-Michel Pawlotsky @JMPawlotsky in HCV. The list of important people to know on Twitter is long but a good communications firm will know who they are and set you in the right direction.

If you are not at big pharma/big biotech with a communications budget and a social media strategy it is still possible to build a respectable social media (Twitter) presence.

Stick with some simple rules:

  1. Never speculate, stick to facts
  2. Let data do the talking (good or bad)
  3. Never criticize or comment on competition
  4. Just because you have 140 characters does not mean you need to use them all
  5. Never hurts to have your general counsel take a look before you hit the Tweet button
  6. Use a company Twitter account (even though your personal Tweets will still be parsed as reflective of your company)
  7. When in doubt, don’t Tweet
  8. Behave like a big company on Twitter

Remember, much of the negativity on Twitter (if not legitimately deserved) comes from nameless accounts with no experience in our industry. Just because the account has 59.8K followers does not mean that he or she is an expert, it might just mean they are entertaining. On the best days, there are also many supporters for your company that will gush about all of the good things your company is doing. Same advice – strike a balance. Retweeting only the supporters will be noticed very quickly and can dent your credibility.

I have great admiration for our colleagues like @michael_gilman, @ksbosley, and @MichaelPellini, who Tweet regularly and seem to have struck a nice balance. As I previously mentioned, there are so many more Twitter accounts in our industry that I look forward to reading on a daily basis that are very well managed. On the other hand, I must also admit that I also enjoy reading some of the more raucous Twitter debates where someone takes the bait and the vicious mudslinging ensues. Those are the situations you want to avoid but that does not mean they are not fun to read.

In the end, common sense should dictate your social media strategy, particularly as it relates to Twitter.

I realize that I am likely to attract some interesting criticism for my advice here but lucky for me I have @LifeSciVC to help fight my Twitter battles.

Ron Renaud

CEO of RaNA Therapeutics; ex-CEO of Idenix
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