Picture, if you will, this iconic scene from a classic movie. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are trapped by an oncoming posse. They face a cliff and weigh their escape options.
Butch Cassidy: Alright. I’ll jump first.
Sundance Kid: No.
Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.
Sundance Kid: No, I said.
Butch Cassidy: What’s the matter with you?
Sundance Kid: I can’t swim.
Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.

Well, as we know, Butch and Sundance make it over the cliff and survive the fall after all.

To me, the concept of social media, and its relevance to pharma communications, is a lot like that. Are we “going over the cliff,” unsure of what the future brings, yet ready to take the plunge anyway, in spite of the risks? Or, determined to embrace the unknown, are we perpetually challenged and roadblocked by the processes of gaining management “buy in”?

As we consider the alternatives, let us not lose our perspective as leaders in corporate and marketing communications.

First and foremost, we are communications strategists. Whenever we are presented with a communications challenge, we should be asking these questions: What is the strategy? What are the messages? Whom are we trying to reach? What actions do we want them to take?

Social media represents an evolution, not a revolution. Is social media a new communications channel or an entirely new way of connecting and forming relationships with our stakeholders? It is too soon to tell for certain. But weren’t we initially fascinated with e-mail and intrigued by faxing? Technology serves communications and relationships, not the other way around.

We need to continue adapting, or we miss significant communications opportunities. If the risk of not doing something is greater than risk of doing something,  where do you start? First, be a great listener. Hear what is being said about you. Set up a monitoring system and stay engaged. Register your brand and program trademarks. Reassess issues and crisis management preparedness plans.

If social media is the “next big idea,” what’s the next “next big idea”? The need for even greater portability and flexibility will drive innovation, with an iPhone app for everything.

So what’s the more significant risk to engaging in social media: What lies beneath that proverbial cliff or the fall itself? Remember, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Lee A. Davies is director, global product comms & advocacy relations at Schering-Plough Corporation