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Over the past three years, Susman has been responsible for helping her company face one of the most critical and complex public relations challenges in history, defending not only Pfizer but also the safety of vaccines and medicine—and even the credibility of science itself. Having spearheaded Pfizer’s outreach to stakeholders—employees and consumers, regulators and activists on both sides of the political divide—throughout the record-setting development of the Covid vaccine, Susman dealt with both high expectations and profound skepticism—even outright hostility. The feat earned her a PRovoke Media 2022 SABRE award for individual achievement.
Susman is a staunch advocate of the view that only earned media can deliver the authenticity and credibility that companies need to build reputation, particularly critical amid such challenges. “If we pay, it’s immediately tainted,” she said, addressing the loss of public trust in big pharmaceutical companies. Susman’s book “Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World,” published in March, addresses what it takes to use messaging to make positive change. Susman has also invested in efforts such as the “Maintain” program, which offered free prescriptions to patients laid off during the economic crisis, or the company’s award-winning push into social media—which many pharma companies continue to regard with suspicion.
As EVP of corporate affairs for the world’s largest biopharmaceutical company, Susman is a member of Pfizer’s executive leadership team, chairs Pfizer’s political action committee — she was a prominent fundraiser for former President Obama — and is vice chair of The Pfizer Foundation. She directs Pfizer’s global communications, its interactions with external and internal audiences, its public affairs activities, and its corporate responsibility group.
Before joining Pfizer in 2007, Susman was EVP of global communications at The Estée Lauder Companies. She also held several senior communications and government relations posts at American Express Company and earlier spent eight years in government service focused on international trade issues.
Can you share a moment in your career when you saw PR's direct impact on business performance?
When I was leading corporate affairs and communications for American Express in Europe, the company filed a lawsuit against our competitors for anti-consumer practices. The media and public affairs strategy led to a quick and positive resolution.
What are the communications industry's biggest challenges and opportunities in the year ahead?
The answer in two words: artificial intelligence. We should be able to harness the power of AI for greater productivity. We will also need to understand and mitigate the risks.
What have you most admired about the communications industry over the past year, and what has disappointed you?
I deeply admire the quality and passion of those who chose a communications career. I’m disappointed that we’ve been unable to achieve greater racial diversity in our field.
What work from your team are you most proud of over the past year?
For the past two years, Pfizer has ranked a top 10 company on Fortune’s Most Admired Companies list. This achievement—from reputational laggard to leader—is a result of the tremendous effort from all of our colleagues over the past 3+ years.
How have you switched off from work and maintained wellness over the past year?
I’ve taken up golf and vowed not to take my phone on the course. Golf gets me away from my desk and helps to focus my mind.
Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through the past year or provided inspiration?
My wife and I are re-watching The Sopranos on HBO. The acting and writing are great. The show holds up.
If I wasn't working in marketing/communications, I would be...
Tending my garden.
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