The ABPI Code & Virtual Promotional Meetings

Graphic image of a woman watching a computer screen with a phone on it to show The ABPI Code & Virtual Promotional Meetings

As the pharma industry looks to virtual meetings and teams work remotely, what considerations are there around the ABPI Code and virtual promotional meetings?

Whilst the NHS has undoubtedly got bigger things to worry about than wonder how pharma will promote its medicines without face-to-face calls and meetings, pharma has a lot to be worried about in these unprecedented times: from cancelled activities and unused materials to field customer-facing teams confined to working at home.

It’s true to say that many of us are adapting to new ways of working and things may return to a ‘new normal’ after lockdown. But as we are working remotely there is, undoubtedly, a rise in the use of virtual meetings. This article does not address how we should increase digital promotion during lockdown but suggests ways we can embrace it in the future and remain compliant with the ABPI Code of Practice (Code). This will be the first of a series of articles on digital promotion, this one exploring virtual promotional meetings.

“It is always useful for guidance to consider case rulings as well as what might go wrong with an activity, in order to then find ways to mitigate these risks”

Code and Guidance

Digital marketing within the pharmaceutical industry has been utilised for many years. The topic causes much debate with agencies and pharma generally asking the ABPI for ‘more clarity in the Code on specific digital areas’ and the PMCPA responding in several ways, including the following:

  • The PMCPA produced guidance on digital communications in 2014 (updated since).
  • ‘Clause 28: The Internet’ was renamed to ‘The Internet and other digital platforms’ in 2019.

Despite this, there continues to be complaints relating to digital communications, with 27 related PMCPA case rulings published in 2019, suggesting companies’ own guidance is required.

Therefore, in order to better understand how we can promote our medicines digitally, it is this company guidance that should be clear, unambiguous and based on common practice.

It is always useful for such guidance to consider published PMCPA case rulings. This helps us to understand what might go wrong with an activity, in order to then find ways to mitigate these risks. These mitigation ideas essentially form the basis of a ‘compliance checklist’ for this activity, which is then ideal to sit in company guidance.

If Code requirements don’t help us, is a better understanding of them able to at least not hinder us in optimising future digital opportunities?

Digital Promotion Example: Virtual Meetings Compliance Checklist

Over and above the normal requirements for face-to-face promotional meetings, the table opposite describes the extra Code compliance considerations if such a meeting was held virtually.

PMCPA case rulings, Standard Operating Procedures and Signatories

As with all compliance checklists, insight is gleaned from relevant PMCPA case rulings to develop meaningful and comprehensive checks. In their absence, company standard operating procedures should be clear and unambiguous. In addition, discussing planned activities with modern and constructive final signatories plays an important part in achieving not just compliant virtual meetings, but ones that are also highly educational, useful for customers and commercially impactful.

Delegate may not have been invited and therefore not appropriate.
  • Companies should ensure planned invitees are eligible to attend (i.e. suitably qualified and content is relevant to their role).
  • Invitees should be asked not to forward on invites to anyone else.
Delegate has not given permission to receive promotion via digital methods.
  • Delegates should give opt-in and explicit permission to receive promotion via digital methods.
  • If prior permission does not already exist with a company/agency, it may be prudent to consider a meeting registration webpage to allow delegates to confirm their health professional status and also give permission.
Email invite may disguise the fact that the meeting is promotional.
  • The invite (which may be non-promotional in itself ) must make it clear to invited delegates that the virtual meeting promotes a medicine.
  • If the invite links to the promotional content or if the promotional meeting invite is attached to the email, then the email itself will be considered promotional.
Member of the public might access meeting and be inadvertently promoted a medicine.
  • Meetings should contain access restriction, such as log-in password, to prevent the public from accessing inappropriate content.
Member of the public might overhear/see meeting.
  • Both the invite and meeting registration should make it clear to delegates that they should be in a quiet area, using headphones and their screens must not be readily visible to the public.
  • It is prudent to remind the audience of these points at the start of the meeting too.
Prescribing information embedded in content is not visible or missing
  • Prescribing information must be provided with promotional material – either embedded or as a link.
  • Prescribing information should be legible if embedded within the slide deck – consider devices that the audience will use to access the meeting.
  • The speaker(s) must allow adequate time for the audience to read prescribing information.
  • If the virtual meeting is recorded for accessing on another platform at a future date and prescribing information is not embedded, the platform itself must contain prescribing information or a link to it.
Link to prescribing information missing/not working.
  • The link should be a single, direct click to the current prescribing information.
  • This link can be in the chat function or for recorded virtual meetings, the link can be on the same page of the platform where the meeting is accessed.
Delegates choose to dial-in (rather than log-in) and therefore will not see obligatory aspects of the meeting content.
  • It should be made clear to delegates (either on the invite, registration page or through disabling certain functionality) that the meeting content must be viewed.
Certification is improper.
  • It is prudent to consider certifying the final form of the meeting content by viewing it on the device that the intended audience will likely access the meeting.
  • Links should be verified as correct and working, once they are made live.
Third parties may let the pharma company down.
  • Agencies used to deploy virtual meetings should be well-versed in Code requirements.
  • Arrangements with such agencies should be carefully documented e.g. only the final certified content to be displayed etc.

Dr Rina Newton is Managing Director of CompliMed. Go to

Read more articles from the June issue of Pf Magazine.