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Reintroducing Big Pharma

Tue, 03/28/2023 - 10:17
Sally Susman
Courtesy of HBR Press

“Breaking Through”
Sally Susman
Harvard Business Review Press, $30

As the cover of "Breaking Through" announces, Sally Susman is the chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, the giant pharmaceutical company that developed one of the Covid vaccines. Her book, subtitled "Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World," is in part memoir, in part an account of how the new vaccine was introduced to the public, and in part a manual for chief executives and public relations managers. 

It is this blending of themes and the author's narrative skills that make this an interesting read even for those who are only casually concerned with public communications.

We read about Ms. Susman's deep experience in public relations — at Estee Lauder and American Express, for instance — before joining Pfizer in 2007, and we learn about the challenges she faced there. "In my early days at Pfizer, I almost quit on multiple occasions for fear I couldn't take the hostility the company faced. Still, I hung in there and remained devoted to the idea of turning around the negative impression of Big Pharma and reversing the cynicism that pervades the general view of these companies that make lifesaving medicines and vaccines." 

How to break through? 

This problem came into focus when Covid appeared on the scene and Pfizer took on the task of developing a vaccine on a fast-track schedule. 

"The idea of what was required of me in this exceptional time was clear. I needed an intention . . . to shatter everything the public believed to be true about Big Pharma . . . to challenge every assumption and respond respectfully to every criticism . . . we had to reintroduce ourselves" to the world. 

This was a very tall order, but Ms. Susman found a way by capitalizing on the charisma of Pfizer's new C.E.O., Albert Bourla. "A Greek Jew, a veterinarian with a heavy accent, Albert is not your typical Big Pharma CEO. Like most leaders, he is driven and demanding . . . he can also be funny and uses humor in a sensitive way to diffuse awkward situations. . . . Albert was like a gift from central casting."

Ms. Susman uses the difficulties facing Pfizer as a jumping-off point for giving how-to advice on managing corporate communications: "Have courage and let candor be your lifeblood. Deliver it with care and respect. Be brave. Have the guts and the know-how to cut through the clutter of our noisy world by being direct, calm, and approachable. Stand for something. Take risks with bold declarations. Listen. Do what's required to be forthright. Speak truth to power." 

I would call this good advice for living in general.

Along the way, we are introduced to several of Ms. Susman's mentors (some of whom are or were residents of the South Fork): Jeanette Sarkisian Wagner — be curious; Paul Critchlow — be open; Ken Chenault — be empathetic. From Leonard Lauder she learned that graciousness breaks down defensiveness. She quotes him saying, "I find that thank-you notes, even a one-liner, help me establish a connection."

Does all this add up to advice on how to "change the world," as the book's subtitle suggests? I fear not, not because the advice is not well intended but because, in this reader's view, that is too hard a wall to break through. If I were her editor, I would have made the title less ambitious. 

But this short volume does give useful advice on how to approach the challenge of opening minds and moving hearts, as indeed, through Ms. Susman's efforts, Pfizer succeeded in launching a Covid vaccine and convincing a large swath of the public to accept immunization. 

Ana Daniel has worked as a Wall Street management consultant and taught at Southampton College. She lives in Bridgehampton. 

Sally Susman lives part time in Sag Harbor.

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