Pharma’s med/legal/regulatory (MLR) teams, managers of risk and so often the scapegoats for creating roadblocks to digital innovation, were discussed in a much friendlier light by digital marketers at last week’s ExL Digital Pharma East conference in Philadelphia.

Several senior executives at the event conveyed encouraging tales of success from working closing with MLR, and shared insights and advice on how to get internal buy-in and approval.

“It takes a village of collaboration internally,” said Alison Woo, director, social media, Bristol-Myers Squibb. “This is a disruptive media so it’s going to take a reallocation of resources. We learned that training is a huge commitment.” Furthermore, said Woo, “you have to involve your colleagues who can approve these things early and often.”

Sanofi US has been credited with making a lot of progress in the digital realm over the past couple of years, and Joan Mikardos, senior director, head of Digital Center of Excellence, stressed to delegates the importance of patience. “We had a vision of where we wanted to be,” she said, “but you can’t get there overnight. It comes back to baby steps.”

Mikardos reported her team has a strong partnership with MLR. “We have their trust now, the sky didn’t fall down and we can move on.” Key to gaining this trust, she said, was starting small, using social, and avoiding chasing shiny objects. “Ninety-five percent of what we did in the social space is not branded. It’s not just about promotion. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of listening. We never engage for the sake of engaging and [never] talk only about what we want to talk about.”

Peter Justason, director, e-marketing, Purdue Pharma, also spoke to the importance of patience. “Take your time with MLR,” he said. “We work with them to make sure they understand the concept. And if they see others doing something, that reduces the risk.” Justason heads a team of three central e-marketers that partner with the brand teams.

Joyce Ercolino, director, CSL Behring, noted it is a lot easier to get started in the mobile space. “Everybody in the company is walking around with a device,” she said. “We focused on improving our communication, looking at mobile-optimized web. MLR really understood that; they want our information to be accessible.”

Ercolino went on to praise her MLR people. “We have a really good team and if you request time they will work with you. If you explain your recommendations, it really is a two-way relationship and a great dialogue. The biggest wins you have are where you work with an individual who is passionate about it.”

She also stressed the importance of metrics. “You do have to define your success. That’s how you are going to get the buy-in to do it again.”

Patricia Choumitsky, senior product manager, consumer relationship and digital marketing, UCB, recommended involving other functions as early as possible and demonstrating the risk of standing still. “We have a number of initiatives that have put the fear of God into our MLR teams and our market research partners,” she said. “We get in early and convey the risk of not doing these things. Or [we convey the risk of] having someone socially comment on something we’ve done. You need good case examples of what happens if you ignore what is being said socially. If you don’t get it right up front, the risk you face on the back end is huge. The key is to start with a pilot and communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Choumitsky also placed a high value on having good agency partners. “I would say to agencies, ‘Don’t stop bringing in those really great ideas. If it’s something from another industry, help us to find a way to make it work in pharma because the way we break through is to do it together.’”

Melissa Bojorquez, director, e-channel marketing, Boehringer IngeIheim, also values ideas from other industries. “We take a lot of examples outside of pharma, demonstrate the business value and collect wins along the way,” she said. Bojorquez also spends a lot of time understanding the legal/regulatory environment. “I know just as much about what MLR is doing as they know about what we are doing.” She also makes it a priority to manage the perception of projects internally. “You don’t want [a project] to be known as “that expensive project” or “that risky project,” so we try to set them up as “that project that is going to make us the leader.”

Bojorquez’s transatlantic colleague at BI, director of digital communications John Pugh, reported having a rather easier time getting internal approval for the Facebook game Syrum, which just launched in Europe. “It was a piece of cake,” he said. “I got everyone in the room and showed them the game. I produced a massive document that cost about 500 euros to print, showing every possible screen shot, etc. After about a half hour they asked, ‘Is there any mention of BI in here?’ No. ‘Are there any mentions of areas in which BI has products?’ No. So they said, ‘Well that’s fine, then’.

Marc Monseau, founder and principal, MDM Communications—former communications director at Johnson & Johnson, and co-chair of the conference—said his experiences of MLR and public affairs were amiable. “We were friends in the process,” he said. “If you could tell your story in the right way, they would help push it through. If you don’t make them your friends, then you can’t do anything.”

However, Monseau still believes there is work to do on transforming the corporate psyche, and MLR is no exception. “We sometimes still have a mindset that we are the keepers of the information, and that you must consume what we provide for you. MLR asks what we are doing for our customers, but [often they ask] in terms of consumers consuming what we give them. We need a change of mindset.”

Note: All quoted comments represent the personal views and opinions of individual speakers and do not necessarily reflect the positions of their respective organizations.