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Having the courage for candour is always the right choice: Pfizer's Sally Susman

The executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer on building confidence by being transparent, the need to be humane and authentic in communication, and why it's critical to separate disinformation from misinformation

Published: Aug 17, 2023 01:03:35 PM IST
Updated: Aug 17, 2023 01:13:42 PM IST

Having the courage for candour is always the right choice: Pfizer's Sally Susman Sally Susman, Executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer
In an environment of elevated stakes, communications can no more be considered a soft skill for leaders, establishes Pfizer’s chief corporate affairs officer Sally Susman in Breaking Through. She tells us how the company managed the massive communication challenge during Covid-19 and why winning people’s hearts and minds was as crucial as creating an effective vaccine. Edited excerpts from an interview:    
Q. How do you perceive the link between communications and leadership in the context of the 21st century?   
Communications and leadership are not only entwined, but also inseparable. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and our executive committee recognised that our actions, and how we communicated them to the world, would paint a vivid picture of our corporate citizenship. It would become a statement of our company character.  

As providers of essential medicines, biopharmaceutical companies historically have been carved out of economic sanctions on humanitarian grounds. A Russian child with cancer is like any child with cancer and deserves treatment. Because of this, we continued to send medicines and vaccines without disruption. Immediately following the invasion, my boss, Albert Bourla, directed us to take a hard look at ourselves and our options. Other chief executives may have felt the status quo would be sufficient and ended the discussion there. But Albert has a seemingly innate sense of fast-moving public opinion shifts and a great touch at corporate policymaking. We debated options—with the needs of patients always on top of mind. We were sensitive to the expectations—inside and outside the company—for moral leadership.  
On March 14, 2022, Pfizer issued a statement saying that while we would maintain a humanitarian supply of medicines to Russia, we would also contribute all profits made there to directly support the Ukrainians. Also, we announced that we would not initiate new clinical trials in Russia or make planned investments with local suppliers intended to build manufacturing capacity.
As of June 2023, The Pfizer Foundation has donated $30 million to 15 NGOs and humanitarian groups providing critical on-the-ground humanitarian aid. Collectively, over 20 million people have received assistance across 20 European countries, including Ukraine and surrounding areas, that have welcomed Ukrainian refugees.  
Q. Pfizer was in a tight spot during the Covid-19 outbreak and you came to lead one of the most high-stakes public dialogues ever. What were the challenges?   
We experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic on an individual and collective level. People were anxious and isolated. Very quickly we realised that the greatest tragedy would be developing a safe and effective vaccine that no one had the confidence to take.
From the outset, we kept this front of mind and took very purposeful steps to build confidence at every point along the way. For example, we embraced transparency in a way never-before seen in the industry. We made our clinical trial protocol, typically considered coveted intellectual property, available on our website. We even went so far as embedding media—a National Geographic documentary crew and two Wall Street Journal reporters—before we knew if our vaccine would be effective. These steps, along with the near-24x7 availability of our CEO, scientists and manufacturing leaders, were instrumental in building confidence in the Covid-19 vaccine.  

Also read:  'Lead with your heart as well as your head': Bill George

Q. What helped you to cut through the noise, fear and scepticism around Big Pharma?  
Our commitment to radical transparency made all the difference during the pandemic.   
Q. Courage and candour: Why are these attributes crucial for a breakthrough communicator?     
Being candid is not always easy, but the short-term pain often pays dividends in long-term pride and peace. Candour on a personal level creates an authenticity that strengthens relationships. The same is true in corporate settings. The public is smart, and people can tell when a company and its leadership are hedging or not being transparent.
This is one reason I wage a war against corporate speak. It’s unhelpful and disingenuous. I try my best in all written and oral communications to be as humane and authentic as possible. Having the courage for candour is always the right choice.   
Q. Why is it important to be relentlessly curious?   
We are naturally curious as children. Kids always ask why the sky is blue and why ice cream is cold. As we grow older, we lower the shades on our curiosity—perhaps out of insecurity or awkwardness. This truth is unfortunate because asking questions, exploring opportunities and being open to new ideas and people is how we allow creativity into our lives.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that creativity comes from divine intervention or solitary inspiration. It comes from creating a practice or ritual of continuously exposing ourselves to new ideas.    
I like to think I’m proactive in my pursuit of creativity. I enjoy walking to my office in New York City and I try to always take a different route. Whether it’s popping into a new café or noticing unique street art, being mindful of my walk leads to ideas and inspiration.   
Q.What are the perks of ‘thanking big’? How did Pfizer go about this during the pandemic?   
In the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pfizer published four full-page ads to express our gratitude to the people who were essential to the development of the vaccine. We tied each ad to one of our four values: Courage, excellence equity and joy. For the ‘courage’ ad, we thanked our clinical trial participants. For the ‘excellence’ ad, we thanked our many manufacturing workers whose commitment to quality was steadfast. Research showed that this kind of humility and gratitude reflected favourably on Pfizer at the time.   

Q. You talk about the toxicity of ‘cancel culture’. How can we be more gracious and inclusive instead? 
It’s a shame that a single blunder in public discourse can lead someone to be ‘cancelled’. I don’t think we should cancel people who are willing to learn and grow from their mistakes. I believe in the words of Bryan Stevenson, who said: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”   
Q. Disinformation and misinformation have become pervasive with the spread of social media. What’s your advice for corporate communicators?  
It’s important to separate disinformation from misinformation. Misinformation can be innocent or based on facts—an individual who is uninformed or who has not had the opportunity to be educated or a community who may have serious and relevant questions. For this person or community, I have all the time in the world.
Disinformation, on the other hand, is the calculated, malicious spread of untruths, or lies, for self-serving and nefarious purpose. It can be to fundraise or to build a followership.   
As corporate communicators, it’s part of our mission to work together to combat disinformation.   
Q. Can you name three skill sets they should nurture?  
1.    First and foremost, good writing. There is no substitute. If you’re a strong writer, you will be of great value to your company and leaders.  
2.    Good listening skills. You must be an active listener. Communication is a two-way street.   
3.    Be a bridge builder. A large external network of thought leaders across functions and industries will serve you well.   
Author bio: Sally Susman is also vice chair of the Pfizer Foundation and author of Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World

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