Pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis, the maker of chemotherapy drug Taxotere, is learning some tough lessons about the culture of communication and customer relations in the digital age.

On March 8, Ann Adams posted a photo of her bald head on Sanofi-Aventis’ Facebook page [update: per Dave Jones’ comment this is not an official S-A group] with the text “Good morning Sanofi, I had your drug Taxotere and as you can see from my photo this is what my scalp looks like 4 years later. Do you have any comment to make?” Of course, the post drew public attention to the matter of permanent hair loss resulting from Taxotere, but not nearly as much attention as the heavy-handed move by Sanofi-Aventis.

Rather than acknowledge the post, Sanofi-Aventis the group administrator blocked Ms. Adams from their Facebook account [update: again this is not an official S-A FB group. The group admin owes a great deal of care to managing a site for a brand he/she does not own. Also interesting is that Sanofi-Aventis hasn’t complained about the use of their logo on the site which is particularly suspicious given the current situation.]

Ooops!!!

Closing your eyes doesn’t make the problem go away. More importantly, slamming the door on someone with even passing knowledge of social media and a personal story everyone can get behind is a heavy-handed and misguided move these days.

It didn’t take long for the same photo to start popping up in other relevant Facebook groups and gain traction in other social media sites including Twitter. Sanofi-Aventis now finds itself with two very public PR nightmares: the possible long-term side effects of their product and a very public move which suggests a disinterest in people.

It’s amazing the corporate world has learned very little from time-proven case studies like Tylenol and Maple Leaf Foods. These are classic stories of companies emerging with an even better public image resulting from their crisis management, communication and people-first values. Instead, Sanofi-Aventis took its lead from Tiger Woods and Toyota.

Certain industries may be bound by specific regulations on what can and cannot be said to the public under specific circumstances and no doubt the legal department wants to play a front-and-centre role in these kinds of situations (you needn’t look further than the language used by companies in crisis communication). However, I can’t help but think a personally-inflected reply might have made this situation a positive one for the company and industry.

Striking the balance between regulatory restrictions, legal advice and the public interest is a difficult one for many companies that are joining the new age of democratized media reactively rather than proactively — particularly since there’s a very fine line between responses that are too quick for the company and too slow for the public. Companies are learning the hard way that you can’t use new channels for pushing out traditional messages; companies derive value for themselves by delivering value for the masses.

Publicly acknowledging Ms. Adams’ situation and pain may have led to people praising Sanofi-Aventis for listening and being responsive. Journalists and Facebook followers might now be giving props to the company for putting people first and the story would be about caring and real communication rather than Big Pharma dismissing the people that paid dearly — financially and physically — for its drugs. I believe Sanofi-Aventis missed a perfect opportunity to have positioned itself as the daring champion of the industry.

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