Purpose and Trust: two words that are rightly capitalised and reflect the strongest preoccupation and greatest success of Corporate Affairs leaders over the past 12 months. In a year when business models were turned upside down, companies found purpose. In a year when trust in government in many parts of the world declined, trust in businesses grew as CEOs set the agenda as leaders.
Sally Susman, EVP & Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Pfizer
“I saw the business and our CEO Albert Bourla taking an enormous risk, and I felt for myself and my team, we needed to be as bold and to take as many risks as the business did.”
“It would have been just the most terrible irony if we were to create this vaccine in record time, but no one had confidence to take it.”
The pandemic saw a seachange in the way the pharmaceutical industry was perceived by the general public, and indeed the way science-driven industries are seen. For Pfizer, this has represented an enormous boost to the CEO’s bid to position the business as an innovative medicines company; for Sally and her team it represented a significant change to the operations of Corporate Affairs—what she described as the “most exciting, most purposeful, most interesting, difficult, exhausting, wonderful year of my professional life.”
The pandemic provided an opportunity for Pfizer to take another look at its purpose. The vision of innovation - laid out by the CEO a year prior to the crisis - is playing out in the actions the company is taking right now.
Equally challenged was IHG Hotels & Resorts VP Global Corporate Affairs Emma Corcoran, who were left to reassess: with business and holiday travel evaporating overnight, what did the business do best and where could it help most? This big question on purpose came at a time when budgets were removed, and all work moved in house. So, busier than ever before, but needing to work with the business to determine how to support the pandemic response and what they would do to communicate it.
The answer was simple: shelter.
Emma Corcoran, VP Global Corporate Affairs, IHG Hotels & Resorts
“This is about really getting to the heart of what society needed at that time,”
“Whether it’s housing key workers, keeping logistics going, or becoming a place where the vulnerable were kept safe. That for us was a moment to focus on the ultimate role of hotels.”
Both Sally and Emma joined their Corporate Affairs leader peers in Asia Pacific on a recent Andrews Partnership industry session as we explored what many are calling the function’s Year of Acceleration.
With a clearer view of purpose, both businesses have set out to use Corporate Affairs to build trust across multiple groups of stakeholders. For IHG, that meant supporting the public health response by accommodating healthcare workers and providing hotels to those that needed it most, while ensuring guests felt safe and supported with the cleanliness procedures in place. For Pfizer it meant taking risks in its communications to leverage its huge R&D investment to the full, and ensure understanding and confidence in a safe and effective vaccine.
Sally made an early decision to allow a National Geographic film crew access to the development effort from the beginning: “We signed on with National Geographic and [its parent company] Disney to do a documentary of our journey to find the vaccine, and they started filming in February-March of last year, well before we knew whether we would be successful. But I knew that I could never get this time back, and I needed to make the most of this experience for our colleagues, for the stakeholders, for our detractors, for our critics, for them to see that we put [USD2bn] at risk, that we worked every single day for a year.”
Return only comes with investment, and investment by definition means risk. And just as Corporate Affairs leaders took risks, so did their teams.
At IHG, after the quick decision to remove agency support, the team came together around their strengths, and focused on what each of them could do to deliver results – no matter what was needed. Emma’s consumer PR team has undertaken a major rethink of what it views as core in-house capabilities, so the ‘new normal won’t be the same as the old normal’.
“We have recalibrated how we and our agencies add value,” she said. “Agency support will always be important, but definitely look different.”
IHG - communicating with a complex mix of internal stakeholders, including staff, hotel owners, and operators - has also re-imagined internal communications for the COVID-19 era.
“We stripped everything back,” she said, adding that a simplified message was all about “a leader standing up in front of their people and truly focusing on engaging them. Although we were virtual, in many ways it became much more natural and authentic than when we were in person.”
For Pfizer, the shift has meant far greater public engagement for a business that previously kept a low profile. Not only has the CEO been a fixture on TV and in the print media, but Sally herself has for the first time taken on a leading role as a public spokesperson for the company.
With that greater public engagement have come new challenges. If the pandemic has brought people together, it’s also ripped the bandaid off many societal wounds, and exposed papered-over divisions, creating an avalanche of issues to deal with. With constant demands for trusted voices in big business to speak out, Sally has developed a framework for assessing social issues: 1. Does it speak to our purpose?; 2. How does it impact our most important stakeholders?; 3. How does it relate to our values?; 4. What are our options for responding?; 5. What is the price of our silence?
At the same time, Pfizer Corporate Affairs is accelerating the way it works. Project Lightspeed compacted the delivery of the vaccine through parallel ways of working, and investing in production in advance of regulatory approvals. That same way of working has been driving much faster decision making in Corporate Affairs and will continue to do so.
“What we’re asking ourselves now is ‘how can we live at lightspeed?’” she said. “It’s hard to think of living with this pace as a regular thing, but the big takeaway for us is that there is much more to be gained than lost.”
In reimagining the business, understanding true purpose and building trust, Corporate Affairs is about taking risks for the betterment of the business and its stakeholders. And the big learning from the past year?
“Be less afraid, be braver, be in the courage of one’s convictions and take the risk,” said Sally.
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