IABC keynote: Pfizer’s Sally Susman on how COVID-19 transformed the company’s reputation

And why a presidential debate was a low point for the company as it hustled to produce a vaccine.

Susman: 'My intention was to come out of this a transformed company, reputationally transformed.'
Susman: 'My intention was to come out of this a transformed company, reputationally transformed.'

Sally Susman came to Pfizer because she wanted to work for a company that makes life-saving medicines, but she couldn’t understand how an organization with that mission suffered from such a terrible reputation. 

Public perception ranked Big Pharma “just barely above tobacco,” Susman recalled at the virtual International Association of Business Communicators World Conference 2021. 

But after COVID-19 hit, the nine Big Pharma companies weren’t trying to beat each other. They united against a larger enemy, the pandemic, and they pledged that none of the group would publicly come forward with testing or results until they had all the data. There would be no shortcuts, no politics and no cutting in line.

“We would all stand together and, importantly, stand with science,” said Susman, during the IABC keynote address on Monday. “This was crucial in the reputation turnaround.”

A year before coronavirus surfaced, Pfizer had redefined its purpose to create pharmaceutical and biotech breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. When the pandemic erupted, it tested the company’s mission in unprecedented ways. CEO Albert Bourla said Pfizer would do three things: take care of its 90,000 worldwide employees; manufacture a steady stream of medicine for patients around the world; and develop a vaccine in record time, meaning do what would typically take eight to 12 years in eight months.

As for Susman’s job, she had a North Star: “My intention was to come out of this a transformed company, reputationally transformed,” she said. 

“I knew we would have to devote a disproportionate amount of resources to the vaccine,” added Susman. “It took 90% of my team.”

She also knew Pfizer had to take risks and do things differently. This included allowing Disney and its National Geographic and CreativeWorks teams to film Pfizer to produce the video “Mission Possible: The Race for a Vaccine.”

The drugmaker’s Science Will Win ad campaign worked to counter vaccine hesitancy, because it is important to instill confidence among people to take the vaccine, said Susman. She noted, “There would be a huge communications component to this.”

Pfizer, which produced one of the world’s most used vaccines in partnership with BioNTech, has been consistently touting the efficacy and safety of the shot, and more recently countering fears that it would not be as effective against the emerging Delta variant of COVID. 

Asked what was a low point in Pfizer’s race for a cure, Susman responded, “I would say the hardest day I had was when the president was throwing us under the political bus and using us as part of his electioneering.”

She referenced the debate when former President Donald Trump stated after speaking to Pfizer, he was certain the U.S. would have a vaccine, “ahead of a very special day,” meaning Election Day. 

“It shocked all of us in leadership at Pfizer because we've been so careful to not become engaged in politics,” said Susman.

As for the high points? She recalled learning the news that the vaccine efficacy was 90% to 95% effective.

“It was an extraordinary day. I believe the advent of mRNA technology could be the largest medical breakthrough in a century and there's lots more that will come from this,” she said.

“But you know as communicators you are often in rooms where things happen.”

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