In Episode 55 of The Internal Comms Podcast, host Katie Macaulay is joined by the Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer of Pfizer, Sally Susman.
Pfizer is among several biopharmaceutical companies that changed the course of the COVID-19 pandemic by developing lifesaving vaccines at an unprecedented rate, and Sally takes us behind the scenes of this historic moment.
She shares insights into her experience managing internal and external communications regarding vaccine development, and about documenting this journey in the incredible National Geographic film, Mission Possible: The Race for a Vaccine.
We also learn about Sally’s guiding intentionality throughout these crucial years for Pfizer, her own experience as an openly gay woman in a prominent role, and how she approaches conversations with those who are hesitant about vaccines.
This episode is filled with great advice from Sally, who has over 40 years’ experience in communications. Here are some key takeaways and top tips from this remarkable conversation:
#1 Your colleagues are your most important audience
When Sally made the National Geographic film, Mission Possible: The Race for a Vaccine, she did so for the 80,000 people working for Pfizer around the globe. When filming began, Sally couldn’t know if, how or when they would succeed in producing a vaccine for COVID-19, and she had many sleepless nights wondering if she was filming a disaster.
But the risk, she says, was worth taking. She says a communications professional is also the chief documentarian of the company, and she knew this story was one her colleagues would need to be able to tell their families, their children, their grandchildren, for the rest of their lives.
#2 The truth matters
Honesty has been extremely important to Sally throughout her professional life. And as a communications specialist who has worked with nine CEOs throughout her career, including Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, she believes it’s the most important thing a CEO needs from their comms team.
As a Chief Communications Officer, you need to be unafraid to tell your CEO what they need to hear – candidly, respectfully, and privately if necessary. You shouldn’t be too intimidated to have difficult, even potentially uncomfortable conversations in a truthful, respectful manner.
#3 Intentionality is important and under-discussed
Communications roles are often incredibly reactive, with a lack of time to pause, reflect and prepare for the future. Sally stresses how critical it is to put time aside to find this pause, in whatever form best suits each of us as individuals.
For Sally, taking long walks before work gives her the opportunity for long-term planning, looking beyond immediate goals to long-term strategy. She has time to confront questions about how to build on current successes to grow, not just maintain an organisation’s positive reputation. Beyond that, at a personal level, what mark will you make on your organisation, and how will you achieve that?
#4 Labels shouldn’t be limiting
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community with a career spanning around 40 years, Sally has weathered many societal changes. At the start of her career, being an openly gay woman in a prominent professional position was not common or as accepted as it is today. For Sally, it has been important to embrace that part of her identity, to be honest to people throughout her career, and to never allow it to become a limiting factor.
“This label couldn’t be all that I am. It is a meaningful part of who I am. But I’m also a businesswoman, in my heart. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a writer. I’m many things, we’re all many things. … But I don’t want to see labels that limit people’s possibilities, to say a certain type of person can’t do something.”
#5 It’s not what happens to you. It’s how you handle it.
When Sally was growing up, she would be frustrated by a mantra her mother would repeat to her: “It’s not what happens to you. It’s how you handle it.” Then, the phrase seemed to suggest that bad things happening to her wasn’t important.
Now, Sally understands that her mother was preparing her for a world full of experiences that aren’t always positive, a world where developing resiliency and learning to manage potentially difficult situations is what matters most.