Lippe Taylor 28 Jan 2022 // 2:58PM GMT
Sally Susman is the executive VP & chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, U.S., where she leads engagement with all of Pfizer’s external stakeholders overseeing communications, corporate responsibility, global policy, government relations, investor relations and patient advocacy. She also serves as vice chair of The Pfizer Foundation.
Before joining Pfizer, Sally held several senior communications and government relations roles at Estée Lauder and American Express. Earlier in her career, she spent eight years on Capitol Hill focused on international trade issues.
Sally also serves as co-chair of The International Rescue Committee, one of the world's largest humanitarian aid organizations. She has been named a Top Voice on LinkedIn and a PRovoke Media Influence 100 member, and was ranked as number two on Fast Company's Queer 50 list, in addition to many more top industry lists.
Being at the forefront of the fight against Covid with Pfizer's vaccine efforts, the past two years have marked a series of unique challenges for Sally and the Pfizer team, culminating with the brand achieving top 10 brand status and becoming a favorable household name across America. In this interview with Lippe Taylor CEO Paul Dyer, Sally discusses these challenges and how she and her team were able to overcome the adversity of the past 24 months.
You can read a summary of the interview below or listen to the entire conversation on Frictionless Marketing, a Lippe Taylor podcast.
Here are some key takeaways from this conversation with Sally Susman:
Planning is Important, but Adaptability is More Important
President Eisenhower once said: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." The past couple years have been a whirlwind for Sally and the entire Pfizer team, but they weathered the storm and came out as a top 10 brand in the world. Sally attributes it to adaptability, stating: "You can write the best plan in the world, but it's really about being able to be nimble and move with what's happening, and planning is a sort of continuous process."
It may be easy to say that Pfizer’s reputation skyrocketed because, well… they kind of saved the world. However, Sally reminds us that Pfizer stood the risk of becoming a political tool when presidential candidates began making vaccine promises in hotly contested debates and news cycles. There was every opportunity for this to become a year of crisis rather than positivity. According to Sally, Pfizer was able to transform from “a brand with a reputational struggle to a top 10 brand” during this time because, in addition to doing the right thing, they were able to dynamically course correct and modify their plan as it unfolded.
Stay Thirsty, My Friends
After Pfizer was named a top 10 brand, Sally's immediate instinct was not to celebrate, but to ensure the company didn’t rest on its laurels. “I always think the greatest threat, both externally and culturally, is any sense of self-satisfaction, arrogance or complacency,” she explains. Therefore, instead of allowing the recognition to breed complacency, she challenged her team to keep their foot on the gas. As a result, Pfizer hasn't slowed down their innovation, as evidenced by their recent TikTok campaign combating vaccine misinformation — a first for pharma. “There have been times when my team has proposed something and I say, ‘Let's do it,’ and then we get blow-back very swiftly. Do you know what we do? We take it down and we move on. You can't succeed in this realm if you're not willing to fail in this realm,” she explains.
It’s Okay To Own Your Narrative
Sally recounts a story where she felt frustrated that media outlets were preferring to politicize the vaccine debate rather than publicize the sound byline she had drafted with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. In the absence of editorial opportunities, Sally and her team decided to publish the byline on their blog. In rubbishing the idea that Pfizer would speed vaccine development up or down to fit a political party’s timeline, the editorial brilliantly stated that Pfizer was moving at the speed of science, thereby sparking a viral wave all its own. Many news outlets that refused to run the byline were now covering the news cycle generated by Pfizer’s owned media.
Paul Dyer: Sally, thank you for joining us.
Sally Sally: Oh, it's really my pleasure. What a great way to start the year.
PD: Yeah, we agree! For those who follow all of the many health influencer lists in our industry, I'm pretty sure Sally's been on all of them for many, many years now. So Sally, we're really thrilled to be getting some of your insights today.
So, we're starting the third calendar year of the pandemic. Communications leaders are now expected to be more of a catalyst for action. I would love to hear your perspective on how people are looking to communications differently to solve and heal the world's problems.
SS: You didn't start with an easy question! I would say that communications and expressing a company's character became paramount through the crisis.
At a time when doctors' offices were closed and Pfizer was coming forward with a breakthrough technology in record time, the job of the communications team to explain, educate, and build bridges to stakeholders really came to the front. And it was a tremendous honor and opportunity, and a great time to be doing all of that.
PD: We talk a lot at Lippe Taylor Group about the consumerization of healthcare, and on one hand that means patients and caregivers and advocates. But it's also employees, retail investors, and society at large now having different expectations of companies. Do you agree that healthcare is being consumerized? And how do you think about prioritizing among Pfizer's many stakeholders?
SS: I do think that healthcare has become more consumer-focused. We have wearables; We're counting our steps. We have all kinds of 23andMe options to learn more about our human makeup. People are interested. So that is definitely an undercurrent that was already happening and continues to happen.
For me, personally, the patient as stakeholder really came to the front. Pharma companies like to say, “We're patient-friendly, we're patient-first,” but when the patient is everybody from your grandma to your kid, it takes on a different sense of urgency.
When the world is talking about clinical trials, efficacy, data efficacy, and things that used to be behind the curtain are now daily conversations around the dinner table, connecting with patients has become a frontline, first thing I think about, like never before, Paul.
Fortunately, when you work in the science area and you work with a lot of scientists, it is naturally their first constituency, as well. I always think employees are extremely important. But in the situation of the pandemic, the employee wishes and the public wishes came together in a very, very powerful way.
You'll never hear me say that I don't care about government leaders or opinion leaders or KOLs or the media, but really, they became a means to an end for us as we were trying to reach the public and to build confidence in the new technology, the vaccine. The work of building bridges between stakeholders is my life's work. Over the last two years, it was patients first, employees right behind.
PD: What an amazing story. I'm sure that many of us are hoping you'll someday write a book about this entire experience.
To hear you say the patient was everyone really is different. It also means that Pfizer and the vaccine were thrust into becoming a politically polarized topic. And yet, Pfizer seems to have received overwhelmingly positive reputation effects from that. How did you manage through all of that noise about the vaccine in such a masterful way?
SS: Our research shows that we went from a brand that had a reputational struggle to a top 10 brand — not top 10 pharma brand, but top 10 global brand. I know, both quantitatively and qualitatively, that we have really created deep (and hopefully lasting) relationships on both sides of the aisle in the U.S., and similarly with political and government leaders around the world.
In March 2020, my boss, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, said, “We're going to have a vaccine in eight months.” We all did a double-take and couldn't believe that an 8- to 10- or 12-year process would be accomplished in eight months, but we set about doing that. It never dawned on us that that would also coincide with the U.S. presidential election.
From March 2020 through the summer, we very much tried to navigate a course for the company that wasn't political. So we were the only company that did not take any government funding. We preferred to go it alone. We really felt that our independence was an important asset in this process. And frankly, Pfizer's a big company and 171 years old. Unlike some others in the field, we didn't really need it. So, we didn't want to take what we didn't need in terms of support and financial backing.
So come the fall, I'm watching the first presidential debate between then-President Trump and Vice President Biden. I've got my glass of wine, my bowl of popcorn, I’m settled in for the debate. And within the opening comments, President Trump says that he has been in touch with the company, and he's expecting the vaccine very shortly — the implication was, before the election. I threw my popcorn bowl, and I started texting with Albert. We couldn't believe it, because Pfizer's not a political entity, and we are not a partisan institution.
It was a terrible thought that someone could think we would be rushing the vaccine ahead of the election. Both sides were guilty in this; Some people wanted us to hurry up the vaccine before the election, and other people wanted us to slow down the vaccine and wait until after the election. And, of course, we would do neither.
That night, I couldn't sleep. I worked on a document back and forth with Albert, a letter to the editor, basically saying that we were moving precisely at the speed of science, that we would never cut corners for politics, that we had a responsibility to our 170-year legacy. I then tried to sell this letter to all the major publications: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and no one will take my letter. So I'm embarrassed. I can't get this letter placed. I was trying to de-escalate the politics. I was unwilling to throw any punches politically. But in our media environment, people want escalated tension and anxiety.
So we decided to issue the letter to our U.S.-based colleagues and place it on our website. The letter immediately went viral. All those publications that turned their nose up at an opinion piece ended up covering it as content, as earned media. And I learned a big lesson: When your company is in the center of it, you don't really need to go through the media. You can use your company website as your own content vehicle. And from that point forward, we started regularly posting all of our updates, our clinical trial updates, our data readout, and it worked better than going into any kind of handshake deal with a single media entity.
We never intended to be political. I think the reason Albert put me on the small team of people who worked on this was because it would be tragic to have a vaccine that was effective and available, but for whatever reason, un-trusted. And, as we know, we still are struggling with vaccine hesitancy around the globe, and we need to work harder and continue to depoliticize it, because it's not really about the vaccine, in my mind. It's about society. It's about your view of science; it's about a lot of other issues which have unfortunately clouded the debate.
PD: What a powerful story and a powerful lesson about the importance of corporate storytelling and owned media, not just relying on earned media. So this is probably going to come out of left field, are you familiar with Disney's hit movie Frozen II?
SS: I only know Frozen I. Sorry.
PD: One of the most popular songs out of Frozen II is called “The Next Right Thing.” And the point is, when you can't see the whole journey, all you have to do is do the next right thing. It sprung into my mind as you were speaking, because there's so many times in our industry where you can start out with a plan, but you lose control of the plan. And then you’ve just got to do the next right thing.
SS: I love that. I'm going to check it out. It reminds me of a quote that goes all the way back to President Eisenhower, and I'm paraphrasing: "Plans are nothing, planning is everything." You can write the best plan in the world, but it's really about being able to be nimble and move with what's happening, and planning is a sort of continuous process.
PD: I love that. And, of course, then there's Mike Tyson’s slightly more crass interpretation, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
PD: You've said, “Pfizer and science will win.” That it's time for Pfizer to turn its moment into a movement, and a bigger movement, not just about vaccines. So can you tell us more about what you mean by that?
SS: When you have such a rapid ascent in public opinion, and you go from being on the sidelines to being in the spotlight, there's only two places you can go from here: down, back to where we were, where nobody wants to go, or further up. I don't think standing still or staying steady is really an option in today's incredibly fast-paced, fast-moving world. So how do we go up? Where do we go next? I have two thoughts in that regard. The first is to run with this idea of the biggest medical advance in a hundred years, mRNA technology. Pfizer's created an mRNA division. The day we heard of this incredible efficacy for the vaccine, our chief scientist said, "Oh my God, it's the biggest advance in a hundred years.”
Well, that's not an opportunity you sit on. And one of the really cool things about our new COVID treatment, PAXLOVID, is that it came from a different division of Pfizer than the vaccine. Our first and foremost business opportunity is to continue with the breakthrough mindset. What we did with vaccines, can we do it in oncology? Can we do it in pain management? Where else can we play with this sense of urgency and behaving like a startup, even though we're a big, old company? That is incredibly exciting and important to continue the momentum.
The other element that I've been thinking about is the need to combat arrogance and complacency. I've worked in other companies and brands that have been top brands, and I always think the greatest threat to that, both externally and perception-wise, but also internally and culturally, is any sense of self-satisfaction, arrogance or complacency. These are the things that are terrible for a company's persona and perception.
PD: So our teams worked together and created a TikTok campaign just this month, with creators advocating on behalf of science. It's reaching hundreds of thousands of people with millions of views. It’s hardly your typical pharma approach to be going into a channel like TikTok. What are your thoughts on pharma companies exploring these consumer channels?
SS: First, thank you and your colleagues for the great work on our behalf. And you put your finger on something very important, which is that we are trying to have a different voice and to really present ourselves and introduce ourselves in a very, very different way. Some of the most gratifying outreach I've received is from people in other pharma companies who’ve said to me, "How did you do that? How'd you get that past the lawyers?" First of all, at Pfizer, we have some of the greatest, business-focused, risk-taking lawyers that are just tremendous people. The other thing is, you just try. And in this effort to be much funnier, more nimble, more human in all of our social work, we've made some mistakes.
There have been times when my team has proposed something and I say, "Let's do it," and then we get blowback very swiftly. Do you know what we do? We take it down and we move on. You can't succeed in this realm if you're not willing to fail in this realm.
PD: I think that's great advice, Sally. Thank you so much for sharing your stories, your insights, and your time.
SS: Thank you, Paul, for all you do.