Sally Susman on How to Communicate Powerfully, and Change the World
October 5, 2023
Sally Susman is Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer. She is also Vice Chair of the Pfizer Foundation. Sally leads engagement with all of Pfizer’s external stakeholders, overseeing communications, corporate responsibility, global policy, government relations, investor relations, and patient advocacy. Before joining Pfizer in 2007, she held several senior communications and government relations roles at Estée Lauder Companies and the American Express Company.

Be a purveyor of hope and optimism

On September 11th, a tragic day in our city and for many around the world, Ken Chenault, was the new CEO of American Express. His headquarters was down at by the World Trade Center. His building was damaged and shut down. Some of his workers were hurt, and some were even killed in the crisis. At the time, Ken was out of town across the country. He had to rent a car and drive back to New York, and he had a gut instinct that he needed to get people together. He decided to rent out Madison Square Garden, and invited thousands of employees of his company from around the tri-state area to come together.  And on the day he rolled up to the Garden, and his communications and marketing team gave him a prepared statement, he set that statement aside, and he spoke from the heart. And he looked people in the eye and he waded into the crowd. And he hugged people who were in need. And he communicated the most essential thing a leader can communicate, especially in a crisis, is to be a purveyor of hope and optimism. Ken said that American Express's best days are ahead of it. And from that moment forward, he engendered incredible followership in his company. And even though he was a new CEO, from that day forward, everybody felt like, I worked for Ken Chenault, and that's a meaningful thing. 

Make A Plan 

Albert Borla, the CEO of Pfizer, traveled to Greece as the world began to shut down to give a very important speech. But by the time his plane landed, the conference had shut down. So Albert had to turn around, fly back to New York. And he wrote on a small piece of paper, which we still have here at the company, the three things that Pfizer said it had to do in the crisis. One, take care of our 85,000 employees around the world. Employee wellness and security and safety became a big issue. Two ensure the steady stream of medicine flowing around the world because terrible diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's didn't take a break during the pandemic. And three, make a vaccine by the end of the year. 

I was shocked when I heard this. And I thought, oh no, on top of a global pandemic, my boss has lost his mind because it was an impossible, impossible objective. I then saw Albert do something I've never seen another CEO do, and look around the room, very difficult project, and appoint as the leader of the team himself. And that's when I thought, wow, maybe we are going to do this thing. And we began to work differently. We were remote. But we were connecting every day, spending hours in meetings, crushing our own bureaucracy, taking the linear process of drug discovery, and doing everything at once. Starting to buy the raw materials, fill the clinical trials, reconfigure the manufacturing line, as we were also developing the vaccine. 

Have a bold ambition 

For me personally, during this time, I thought, well, if Albert has such a bold ambition, I need a bold ambition too. I had come to Pfizer 16 years ago because the company had a poor reputation. Big Pharma, and Pfizer's one of the biggest of the big, had a very negative view by the public. And I wanted to change that because this company makes life-saving medicine. But for more than 10 years, I felt like I was banging my head against the wall. I was making no progress.  But when the pandemic came, I saw it as my chance to reintroduce the company, to become part of a public conversation, and did things very differently. I embedded media with us along the journey. I put a lot of the things that have been considered confidential, intellectual property on the website, because we didn't have time to argue and debate it. And what I'm really happy to report to today is that Pfizer is a top 10 global brand according to Fortune magazine. This week, Time Magazine issued their report on the greatest companies in 2023 and Pfizer was number six. This was unthinkable before the pandemic.

What Sally thinks is definitely not a metric.

Know When And How To Speak on The Issues. 

We're living in a time of extreme polarization, and a time of cancel culture. And yet, at the same time, we need our leaders to speak out more than ever. We need them to have a voice, to take a stand, and to fight for us. Some have mastered it, many have not. As issues started to confront the company more rapidly, and directly political issues, social issues, I found that we didn't really have a strong metric to determine when we should step in. When is it inappropriate for us to speak out? Pfizer is a very metric driven company. We know, what it takes for a compound to be advanced down the pipeline? What kind of return on investment we want in order to make an acquisition? Very, very clear. But when it came to this space, it was sort of gray and ambiguous and uncertain. And I thought, people felt that the company spoke out or not based on what Sally thinks. And that is not good. What Sally thinks is definitely not a metric. 

I created a five question framework, which is detailed in my book:

  • How does it relate to our purpose? Our purpose is breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. We have a wide berth on issues relating to health care. But we shouldn't get involved in every issue, because you lose your agency if you speak on every issue. 
  • How does it impact our most important stakeholders? For us, that's patient groups and our employees, but every entity has its own set of special stakeholders.
  • How does it relate to our values? At Pfizer, we have four values. Courage, excellence, equity, and joy. And I'm not saying, how does it relate to our politics? Because there's no place in my mind for politics in business, but there's plenty of room for values. 
  • What are our options here? Because sometimes, companies, institutions can be very reactive. They feel pressed because a journalist is calling, or they feel pressed because somebody wants them to sign a petition by a deadline. I try to reject that kind of false pressure, step back, form more ideas in our words carefully, and then come out when we're ready. Because the worst thing you can do in these circumstances is to ping pong. You’ve really got to be sure. 
  • What is the price of our silence? Because I believe that there are some issues, violence in the school, racism, where the silence is deafening. And as good corporate citizens, you need to speak out.

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