Internal medicine

Employees can often be the most effective antidote to pharma companies' reputation issues.

Employees can often be the most effective antidote to pharma companies' reputation issues.

When AstraZeneca (AZ) last year restructured internal communications, the intention was to move from siloed tactical execution to having a more strategic alignment with the overall company.

And that was no small feat. The London-based pharmaceutical company has 12,000 US employees and 65,000 worldwide, and internal constituencies are function- ally and geographically diverse.

But it was a vital endeavor, nonetheless. Pharma companies have the twin pressures of reputation issues and a busy M&A pipeline, both of which can cause employees to feel disenfranchised.

"All pharma companies are looking at external opportunities to build pipelines," says Mary Lynn Carver, AstraZeneca's (AZ) executive director of internal communications. "All are purchasing drugs from other companies or merging and acquiring... Some see it as a great way to increase the pipeline. [But] if your life has been spent developing new products, you may think what you're creating internally is not good enough. It's critical [that] communicators understand areas of business and that they have a home base."

"We needed to make changes to unleash the power of a function that was more dormant than it needed to be," says Carver, whose team of around 20 now operates more like a PR firm, and even a newspaper, with internal communications staff having account teams and beats.

"It's an inside-out approach," Carver explains. "Our corporate brand starts with employees, and internal and external have to be in lock-step. Our team is embedded - we have a direct line of communication to each constituency. My directors are responsible for clients and for different channels, [and] frequently those are separated. It was important to pull them together. In some cases, internal communications folks were buried in functions and not connected to the central hub. They also weren't strategic communicators. Internal communications has to drive business results. You have to understand what's driving the business, then use your tactics."

Edelman supports AZ corporate communications and helped with internal communications strategy and training. "AZ is very forward-thinking," says Elizabeth Baran, VP at Edelman's change and employee engagement group. "[AZ is] sharing its story with employees and helping them understand the critical role they play in telling [that] story and building the brand. It's really creating a conversation. Internal communications pros are more strategic communications counselors. [AZ is] making sure [it's] empowered by building internal capability."

Dan McIntyre, MD of healthcare client relations at Fleishman-Hillard, has 20 years' experience in internal communications at pharma companies. He thinks internal communications is "still tactical" and "separate from strategy" at most companies in the sector.

"It's a complex environment," he says. "There's a need to convince [staff] of the inherent goodness of the purpose of the enterprise and give information they can use to tell the story. The key is creating three-way communication: top-down, bottom-up, and lateral."

AZ's internal constituencies include finance, HR, executive team, information services, commercial organization (marketing and sales), legal, operations (site management and manufacturing), and R&D. Internal communications is an integral part of overall corporate communications.

"Internal communications is connecting the dots," says Carver. "It's easy to get lost and not see the impact of your work. It is about connecting the everyday decisions and accomplishments of individual functions to the bigger story so people can see the line of sight."

AZ communication channels include voicemail, e-mail, intranet, plasma TV screens, electronic newsletters, and a quarterly publication called Community Commitment (produced by internal communications, community affairs, and external communications).

"[Staff have] heard or read about things we were doing, but were unsure if they could talk about it," Carver says. "Community Commitment is clearly marked 'You can share this information.' You do these things externally - determine who's interested in the story, whom you want interested, and the channels to use. We've applied that to internal communications."

Carver calls employee engagement "the holy grail." She adds, "Matching and adapting channels to audiences can be challenging." For example, many in manufacturing aren't on computers regularly, so Carver says the internal communications function must ease information roadblocks. "As soon as employees turn away from a channel because it has things that aren't relevant or critical to getting their jobs done, you've lost them."

At Merck, the Vioxx recall was a lesson in the importance of transparency. Fred Ramos, Merck senior director of corporate employee communications, says: "It became an opportunity to drive home the importance of communicating as effectively as possible [and] reinforced leadership commitment to internal communications. If the company wasn't communicating as often as it should before, it has since, and it's been better for it."

With Merck since experiencing "significant strategic and cultural change," internal communications is "primarily focused on driving employee alignment and engagement," he says. "We're moving toward a 'one Merck' approach, 'think globally, execute locally.'"

For the first time, Merck this year branded its strategy, calling it Plan to Win. "At the foundation is employees," explains Ramos.

Carver, who spent 15 years on external communications, says: "Internal has to be in line and working [to] have any chance of external working effectively. Internal communications can bring together a large organization if it has its finger on the pulse and is embedded in the right places."

Inside AstraZeneca

Internal Constituencies at AstraZeneca:
Executive team/CEO
Information services
Commercial (including marketing and sales)
Operations (site management and manufacturing)

Communications Challenges:
Lack of communication
Too much communication/overcoming clutter
Leadership changes
Multiple locations across the US
Large, complex operating model
Multiple communication channels
Coordination with global business
Functional silos

Communications Solutions:
Targeted communications
Communication account management teams
Channel optimization
Closer global coordination
Improved message "traffic control" to reduce clutter
Increased leadership messaging

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