Lippe Taylor 23 Mar 2021 // 9:29PM GMT
Ray Kerins is Senior Vice President of corporate affairs for Bayer U.S., where he manages all communications, government relations and policy for Bayer Corporation. He also oversees the Bayer U.S. Foundation, serves as Vice Chair of Bayer’s Political Committee, and is on the Bayer U.S. Country Council.
Before joining Bayer in 2013, Ray was with Pfizer, serving as Chief Global Spokesperson and overseeing global internal and external communications as Vice President of External Affairs and Worldwide Communications. Before that, he was Chief Global Spokesperson for Merck & Co.
Ray’s industry awards include PRWeek Magazine’s “2017 Outstanding In-House Professional Award,” Bulldog Reporter’s “2010 Media Professionals Profession” and a 2009 “Top 40 Under 40” recognition from PRWeek. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Iona College and is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Bayer Executive Leadership Program.
Here are some key takeaways from this interview. Feel free to listen to the entire conversation below on Lippe Taylor’s DAMN GOOD BRANDS Podcast, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and everywhere you listen.
Internal communications aids external communications more than ever. If you’ve noticed that internal communications has recently become more central to corporate strategy, you’re right. As more employees have begun working from home, effective internal communications has turned out to be critical for telling employees what the corporation is doing and keeping them engaged. This ladders up to corporate strategy as well, since employee awareness is critical for properly executed external comms.
Invest in STEM. Bayer made a pledge to devote corporate resources to educate five million high school students in STEM subjects, despite the fact that it didn’t immediately and directly impact the corporation. The brilliance of this move is twofold; first, it fills the pipeline with a diverse group of potential future scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who will benefit society. Second, it shows real-world alignment with Bayer’s motto: “Science For A Better Life.” This is the kind of far-sighted thinking that ensures a company’s bright future and enables a brand to really walk the walk when it comes to their motto.
Having a strong reputation pays its best dividends during challenging times. If you are known as an organization that does what's right even when nobody is looking, then when the going gets rough, employees and customers will stand by you. This doesn’t just happen, though. It’s the type of reputation that has to be earned over time, simply by doing the right thing. If your brand tries to cover up issues that occur without accountability and taking responsibility, you aren’t building your reputation in a sustainable way.
Paul Dyer: Ray, thank you so much for joining us here today.
Ray Kerins: Paul, it's an absolute pleasure. Great to speak to you again.
PD: So Ray, I thought we would jump right into the current state of the world as it relates to the communications industry. Over the past year, life sciences organizations (including Bayer) have been looked at for leadership in the economy and in the country and in the world, perhaps more than at any other time in history.
So I wondered if you could maybe just enlighten us about what the special challenges and opportunities have been, being a recognized global health leader during this most challenging health crisis.
RK: This particular pandemic has been one like we haven't seen in our lifetime and hopefully never will again. But it's the reason that I've actually stayed in healthcare all my career. I remember there was a moment I was down at the Centers for Disease Control--and I was leaving Pfizer at the time--and thinking to myself, “Where's my career going to go next?” And being very open about it to myself and having a lot of conversations with a lot of different organizations.
I'd been on this global health threats roundtable for the CDC for the last 14 years of my career. And I'm sitting in a room with the leading epidemiologists of the United States government and we're talking about the eradication of polio. And I'm thinking to myself, "What am I doing here?" This is an incredible opportunity for me, to think I can actually have a voice in how we eradicate one of the most horrifying, dreadful diseases of the world. It was a moment of reflection at a time when I was talking to a number of different industries. And I decided at that moment: I want to stay in healthcare.
So, fast forward to where we are today, and there's no greater time for us or important time for us and the work that we do as an industry. And while it's always been a challenge from time to time, about respect and reputation, etc., when push comes to shove and you're staring down the face of a global pandemic where people all around the globe are unfortunately dying, you realize the important role that science plays in all our daily lives. And the industry has rallied in a way that I've never seen in my career. It gives you a great sense of pride to be associated with organizations such as Bayer and the corporations who are out there trying to directly impact this horrifying virus.
PD: So Ray, you're also a volunteer firefighter, right?
RK: Well, at my age now, I'm slightly retired.
PD: So you have been a volunteer firefighter, the kind of person who is willing to run into a building that's on fire, both literally and metaphorically. And you've mentioned Pfizer, but you also worked at Merck during the Vioxx recall, potentially one of the most calamitous crises in the history of the modern pharmaceutical industry.
So I'm wondering, from your experience in crisis, is there such a thing as a playbook for this? Or is it more that you prepare as best you can and make the most of what's available to you in the moment?
RK: There are fundamentals, I think, whether you're in healthcare or any industry in the world. The fundamentals give you an ability to make sure that the reputation that you had prior to your issue is intact when all is said and done. And I don't think there's any deviation regardless of issue you're dealing with.
Number one is be honest and be truthful. Think about the back to the days when we were in kindergarten and laws that we learned back then: Tell the truth when you know. Know what you know. Be honest. Be forthright. Look at any crisis. Look at the World Trade Center and why we fell in love with the nation's mayor way back then. Even if he didn't know, he still stood up and said to you, "Look, here's what I know. Here's what I don't know."
So I think in this particular arena, it's the ability to engage and educate, which has been a core strategy for me and my team for many a year. And I would rather sit down with you and have a cup of coffee. If we have differences of opinions, we're never going to agree to everything, but I want you to understand that there are people who are actually living and breathing and caring about how to fix a problem.
Reputation. One of the great things about having a strong reputation and doing what's right, even when people aren't looking, is that when times of challenge come, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. But you have to take that seriously and step forward and actually bring solutions to the table, as opposed to simply just trying to paper over a particular issue.
I always put people first. I'm a father of three children and I've got a father who is retired U.S. Army and NYPD. I think about the impact on his life when we're dealing with certain things. Don't be that nameless, faceless organization. Put people first. I don't like to just send out simple statements. Sometimes you have to, if there are real serious legal issues. But if you can, take the researcher or the medical professional or the executive, put them up forward and have Q and A's and discussions.
So there are fundamentals. Here's one that we're dealing with right now again from a global pandemic standpoint: How do you impact? Be ready to support.
We were one of the first companies that donated to the national stockpile. There was a medicine that was requested by the United States government. We figured out how to get it, and we got it. We put it forward. Well, the President, the Vice President and the secretary of HHS, all three of them, multiple times, were talking about what a great company Bayer was. We didn't ask for that. We just wanted to make sure that we were doing our part to impact the pandemic.
So I just think there are opportunities. I joke a lot about the kindergarten example and how to be a good corporate citizen. You learned it back when you were in kindergarten. And some of those fundamentals, sometimes, unfortunately when we have supercharged environments, are hard to remember. But let's all work together to find a solution, as opposed to figuring out what this person did wrong or that person did wrong. There's no time for that anymore. People are dying and we have to find the solutions. And I'm so proud of, again, the industries that have come together right now to figure out how to help save lives.
PD: As a company, Bayer is very diverse and complicated. You're headquartered in Germany, with a massive U.S. presence. People typically associate you with pharmaceuticals, but you also have consumer products. You also have a crop science division that encompasses the formerly notorious Monsanto. A lot of moving parts there.
And so I'm curious, when you think about defining corporate reputation, independent of the pandemic, all the different things you want people to think about your company or your reputation, how do you define that? And has it changed in recent years, in particular with all the new technology and new tools and platforms?
RK: We have a position that we lean towards, whether it be big, significant decisions, or the way we engage from a community standpoint on a local level. And the saying has been with us for many, many years. It's “Science For A Better Life.”
Science can save and solve so many problems that we have in this world, and we're seeing it firsthand right now. Science is behind what we do and how we operate, whether in agriculture, consumer health or pharmaceuticals. It's taking that science and seeing if we can help people live a better, happier, healthier life. That’s whether we're engaging school children in our Making Science Make Sense program (where we go into schools and do hands-on science training), whether it's finding some new advancement in oncology, or whether it's working on the consumer side.
The second part of your question, which I want to respond to too, is interesting. Bayer invented aspirin over a hundred years ago. And it is, in essence, our calling card. You say Bayer, I say aspirin. It's one of the first things people think of whether it be aided or unaided awareness. So we are looked at more as a healthcare company, but we are now the largest agricultural company in the world as well.
And when we took on Monsanto--which, by the way, is truly a biotech company--and we looked at their science, we thought to ourselves, this is quite interesting and fits well in our portfolio. Now, our challenge is to ensure that that science continues to advance and that we're supporting the agriculture industry.
Final comment on this point is, when you look at the global pandemic, what are the two things you need the most right now? What are the things that you're looking for? Health and food. And Bayer is well positioned in both those areas to help support.
That comes in multiple forms. It comes in how we engage and how we work with regulators and how we work with administrations and governments around the world. But it's also how we work directly with our local communities. And we do a lot of support for food banks, because food insecurity is a huge, huge challenge. We work through direct relief, making sure people get their medicines that are needed in parts of the globe where we may not have operations. There's a lot of opportunities still. But when I think about science and the concept of science for a better life, it is our driving force and how we operate as an organization.
PD: It's also a master class in simplifying the message. Now, one of the things that you brought up in there was about going into high schools. You've been really outspoken about the need to get more students into STEM programs in America. And several years ago, you made a bold pledge. You were going to reach one million students with hands-on STEM programs. You reached that goal a year ahead of schedule and then upped your target to five million students.
So can you talk about two things: First of all, how are you doing when it comes to achieving the goal? And second, how does working with high school students build Bayer's corporation? I mean, these kids are a long ways from being shareholders or even voters, in some cases. So, how does it build Bayer Corporation's reputation?
RK: Well, frankly, Paul, it's more about building the pipeline. We need more STEM graduates in science, technology, engineering, math. We need more engineers. We need more mathematicians. Interestingly, we do a survey every couple of years of students in schools. And what we found is, frankly, kids lose interest in science in middle school, primarily girls, young women, and even more so people of color.
And so the challenge there becomes to engage them at this level, middle school, high school level, and put that spark of science back into their lives, because a lot of other competing things are going on. I'm the father of three teenagers as we speak, and I can tell you, I can see it firsthand. I have two little girls, 13 and 15, and I can see where their interest lies. And there are a lot of things competing right now for that.
But now think about 20 years from now, when frankly, that next significant challenge is going to come as a society. Do we have enough scientists? And do we have enough even diversity in the arena of science to ensure that we're taking on those biggest challenges? So we do it because it's the right thing to do. And by the way, we actually enjoy doing it, too. Don't get me wrong. The idea of leaving work for a couple of days and going and teaching classes in schools--it's fun, exciting. But we also know we're solving this greater challenge we have for later on in life.
So that one particular program has been a real cornerstone for us because we know we're solving a larger long-term problem, but we're going to the root of where it starts, which is in middle school. I mean, who would have thought? Yeah, we do stuff on the collegiate level too, and some stuff even for the earlier ages, but we know there's a sweet spot. Utilizing science and data to identify the problem for a long-term benefit is where we are and why we do it the way we do it. If it has that knock-on positive reputational impact going forward, we'll take it, but we're doing it because it’s the right thing to do.
PD: So Ray, you're really involved personally with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. You were actually elected chairman of the Global Innovation Policy Center for the Chamber of Commerce and you're working directly with a lot of current and former CEOs there. And obviously, you've worked directly with a lot of CEOs in the pharmaceutical industry.
One of the themes we've heard in the last year is that CEOs have been looking to the communications function for a new level of involvement, a new level of leadership as their workforces have been distributed, as their stakeholders have had different expectations in the wake of social justice and calls for reform and all of these interlocking and interrelated topics. So I'm curious, from your perspective, working with so many CEOs, what has changed in the past year in how they view the communications function and the role they need you to play as the head of the communications function?
RK: Well, there's two parts to your question and I want to address the first one, because I think it's an important piece. I got involved in U.S. Chamber of Commerce seven, eight years ago. And at the time it was primarily because one of my previous bosses said to me in a review, "You run government relations. You run communications. I really think you need to own a particular policy issue. I think that'd be good for your career." And I remember thinking to myself, “But, yeah, I run it all.” But again, I've had this saying that I've said for years: I tell my team that people who love you, who really care about you, will tell you the truth. Your job is to listen. So in these annual reviews when they come up or these quarterly check-ins, really do take a listen and don't get your back up too heavy on it.
So I decided to get involved in a particular issue I find interesting, which is intellectual property. And IP is an issue where, whether it be governments or organizations that can steal your ideas, I just think that is completely wrong. You come up with an idea, you should be able to own it: whether it's tech, pharma, entertainment, whatever. So I've joined the Global Innovation Policy Center as a board member and became Vice Chairman and I also became Chairman. And from that, it got me an opportunity because of my engagement to get a seat on the U.S. Chamber Board, and eventually, now I'm a member of the Nominating Governance Committee and a member of the Executive Committee. In fact, just yesterday, we announced a new CEO, the first female CEO of the chamber, which I had thankfully the ability to vote on and help secure.
The reason I bring that part up is because when you think about how these things come along, you don't just go in and be made Chairman of the Global Emissions Policy Center or become an executive. You have to be engaged and you have to be involved. Whether it's the Chamber, whether it's the PTA, or whether it's whatever you're working on, get involved, find something you're passionate for, and go for it.
So to answer your question, we have seen a significant shift. If you asked me a year ago, would internal communications be as important as it is today? I would have said “No.” But it has become the cornerstone for us during this pandemic, because people are working from home. And the company and how you're engaging during the pandemic, which impacts your employees--they want to know about it. And they want to know more than in the past. It would have been like, okay, a couple of notes here and there will be fine. But our ability now to engage our employee base has become significantly more important because these are our ambassadors who, like you and I, spend most of the time working from their homes. And so communications has become that much more important in how we engage.
Take that, now, and do the external side. What are you doing now for your NGOs, for your communities? How are you engaging in different ways with legislators of states and federal governments who are trying to figure out this pandemic as much as we are? Our ability to engage them both from the communications and government relations side has never become more important.
So, yeah, corporate affairs has become a significant opportunity. And what I'm seeing through the U.S. Chamber and through the CEOs that I'm working with is, they're looking for more innovative ways to be a lot more engaging and aggressive than they have in the past. And when you have tough times, communications oftentimes gets pushed to the side with, "Oh, we'll handle this." Not anymore. Not anymore.
The emphasis has become so much more significant that I'm asking my colleagues to challenge themselves. The day has changed where it was putting out a press release and putting out some sort of note--social, digital media, and how we're engaged with our employees. Challenge yourself to think about different ways of engaging those audiences that are most important to you, because we're all looking for information. We're all looking for insights. And if you don't engage, people will write their own narrative. And that's not good for anybody.
PD: I think that's a brilliant place to wrap up here, Ray. So thank you for your time, and we appreciate you sharing all of your insights here with our listeners.
RK: Thank you, Paul. It's been an absolute pleasure and again, I appreciate the opportunity just to come and talk to you all about what we're all facing together as a nation and as humanity. And let's work through it together and we'll find the solutions, if we work as a team as opposed to on different sides.