Strange bedfellows

Companies may not always agree with their stakeholders, but as long as there is respectful engagement, mutual benefits are guaranteed.

I have often heard the phrase that "politics makes strange bedfellows".

Well, so too can business. Increasingly and importantly, we in the corporate communications and public affairs fields find ourselves connecting and collaborating with unlikely allies. I believe that engaging with stakeholders across a broad spectrum of views is essential to keeping open lines of communication and building greater understanding of your company’s mission.

This openness to engagement hasn’t always been in place. There was a time when companies could control information and live a fortress-style existence. Annual reports conveyed financial information on a yearly basis, shareholder meetings allowed investors a rare interaction with management and information flowed through press releases. While we still issue releases, the hustle and flow between a company and its many constituencies has changed dramatically.

This revolution of information and engagement began approximately 30 years ago. Looking back, we see that two trends were at play that created the current state of affairs. First, the rise of activist stakeholders groups. The second factor is the advent of the miracle we call social media.

The rise of activism

Activist stakeholder groups have seen a steady rise in their influence for decades. In the 1980s, in New York City, for example, we saw the formation of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a group of vocal activists advocating for treatment and support for AIDS sufferers. Through direct action protests, ACT UP targeted government agencies and corporations to publicise lack of treatment and funding for people with AIDS. They blocked traffic in front of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) New York office to advocate changes to the FDA's drug-approval process. Later, ACT UP activists chained themselves in the New York Stock Exchange demanding the makers of the AIDS drug AZT lower its price. Many other advocacy groups have followed suit with high-impact tactics.

The growth of social media

The ascent of social media has followed an exponential path. The first email was sent in 1971 and early web browsers became available in 1978. Geocities became the first social network of sorts in 1994. Content was divided into “neighborhoods” where people shared interests. AOL, which made the chatrooms available to millions of users, packaging it in dial-up subscriptions that users purchased, in many ways defined the 1990s. By 1997, the year AOL launched Instant Messenger as a stand-alone chat product, the company boasted an estimated 19,000 chatrooms. The 2000s brought the social media revolution we have come to know today. Myspace launched in 2003, followed by Facebook in 2004. Twitter launched in 2006 and by 2010 there were 3,283 tweets per second.

These two trends combined to significantly empower stakeholders. Social media threw gas on the stakeholder’s fire. Suddenly it was free and easy to organise. The last three decades have seen a “power to the people” movement and smart corporations have engaged these stakeholders by investing in corporate communications and public affairs. With the number of groups that require engagement on the rise, a strong communications presence is now more important than ever.

Large public companies now need a new level of resourcing to help them manage a well-informed, hyper-connected set of super stakeholder groups. No longer can an organisation afford to marginalise public relations people into a subordinate section of marketing teams. In fact, in some cases, these non-customer stakeholders can have a greater impact on a company’s business environment – either positive or negative – than a marketing campaign designed to create customers. Nor can companies exist with only a few lobbyists who often work under the direction of lawyers. The best companies have large, well-resourced corporate affairs departments charged with the mandate of engaging with dynamic, powerful stakeholder groups on behalf of the company. It’s fascinating, ever-changing work and I’m honoured to lead such a team for Pfizer.

Global engagement

Pfizer has demonstrated deeply-rooted engagement, on both global and grassroots levels, with numerous groups addressing the unmet needs of patients.

This is reflected by Pfizer’s close partnership with the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). Here we have demonstrated our commitment via grants and through the efforts of our public affairs colleagues, who have engaged global networks to raise awareness of this organisation. On February 4, 2015 Pfizer announced the Seeding Progress and Resources in the Cancer Community (SPARC) Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) Challenge grant to UICC. This is part of an effort to launch an unprecedented initiative that aims to tackle the unique challenges facing MBC patients.

The program encourages sustainable change for MBC through a $500,000 grant to support up to 20 global initiatives. Pfizer’s corporate affairs team distributed a toolkit (which included a global press release, social media content and videos featuring Pfizer and UICC leadership) to regional and country colleagues to raise awareness of the programme. Country colleagues were also provided with a template email to support engagement with local patient advocacy organisations, engagement material planning templates, and support on ways to engage with external stakeholders. With 82 fully-submitted applications from 46 countries, the level of interest and commitment by the global community to address the unmet needs of MBC patients was phenomenal. Finalists will be selected and announced by October 1.

European engagement

By partnering with a world expert in breast cancer to develop criteria and protocol, Pfizer has demonstrated close collaboration with the public health community. In 2014, the Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pfizer alliance worked with key stakeholders in Europe on research to inform advocacy activities in the area of stroke prevention in atrial fibrillation (AF). The alliance conducted research entitled The Route Map for Change & the European Atlas on the Prevention of AF-related stroke.

This research was developed to support advocacy efforts toward the improvement of stroke management in atrial fibrillation. The Route Map is a comprehensive report that examines policies and best practices across 27 European countries. This came to fruition through the efforts of a strong collaboration with a steering committee composed of patient organisations such as the Arrhythmia Alliance, Atrial Fibrillation Association, Anticoagulation Europe and internationally recognised key opinion leader Professor John Camm, among others. The research first makes the “case for change” by demonstrating the economic and healthcare burden posed by AF-related stroke in each country. The research provides an accurate picture of the current policies in place, and also the best practices from different markets. Finally, it highlights gaps or unmet needs in the different markets.

The document is structured around seven priorities requiring action from policy makers. These priorities include greater disease awareness, appropriate anticoagulation, and each priority is supported by background evidence.

“Large public companies now need a new level of resourcing to help them manage a well-informed, hyper-connected set of super stakeholder groups.”

The last segment of The Route Map is the European Atlas, which is a detailed profile for each of the 27 markets included in the research. These profiles provide statistical data on the epidemiology of the disease, the economic burden, treatment guidelines, capturing the national policies and highlighting gaps in terms of disease detection/treatment. The report was successfully launched on November 27 2014 by the Arrhythmia Alliance. Given the involvement of a steering committee with a final say on editorial content, and the collaboration with more than 15 experts or organisations to conduct the research, the report was very well received by the community and is now in use by external stakeholders and BMS/Pfizer alliance members across Europe.

Advancing public health in China

With 300 million smokers and approximately one million deaths from tobacco-related illness each year, China is at the epicenter of the burgeoning global tobacco epidemic. Given those statistics, and Pfizer’s involvement in smoking cessation, we decided to support a project that would help curb tobacco use in China. In 2009, the Emory Global Health Institute launched the Tobacco Free Cities Initiatives (now under Georgia State University), which provided funding and tailored training to 17 cities of which six have now enforced a 100 percent smoke-free policy in public places. As an active supporter of the programme, Pfizer has provided a $850,000 grant that has allowed Georgia State University to sustain these efforts and reach additional cities (five cities over three years).

More specifically, they are partnering with local government leaders and public health organisations to assist large and/or influential Chinese cities to establish successful, comprehensive and sustainable tobacco control programmes. In recent years, Pfizer has also been active in funding tobacco control projects in China, the Independent Grants for Learning & Change and other channels as well. Those have covered various areas of need, such as the education of healthcare professionals. The Emory initiative, with their localised city approach and focus on implementation of comprehensive tobacco control, will complement current efforts as well as enhance Pfizer’s reputation in advancing public health in China.

Advocating for patients

EURORDIS is the leading advocacy organisation in Europe for rare disease patients, representing over 678 different types of rare diseases. Over 30 percent of EURORDIS funding comes from the European Commission, meaning they are a very influential and independent organisation. In the past, EURORDIS has been hesitant to partner with Pfizer and interactions were minimal. However, through strong public affairs efforts, Pfizer was able to build a positive relationship with EURORDIS to advance rare disease healthcare. Through a sustained collaboration with EURORDIS, our public affairs team was able to shift the relationship and Pfizer received the coveted Company Award in February 2015. The EURORDIS Awards acknowledge the exceptional contributions of patients' advocacy groups, volunteers, companies, and policy makers toward reducing the impact of rare diseases on people's lives. We accepted the award in front of 250 rare disease stakeholders including key policymakers, payers, key opinion leaders and patient advocacy organisations.

Sharing stories and statistics

Increased patient engagement is one of the many benefits of the advancement of media technology. It has allowed pharmaceutical companies to spread information that enhances medication adherence by patients. However, engagement is no longer a one way street. Pharmaceutical companies need to meet patients in their own space, which requires a significant commitment from those companies.

Working towards tackling this issue, Pfizer has collaborated with patient advocacy groups to launch a unique initiative that works to encourage patients suffering from chronic-pain through the sharing of photos representing the story behind their pain. By harnessing the power of the online crowdsourcing model, in conjunction with social media campaigns, Pfizer has connected thousands of people, from patients to caregivers, to nurses and doctors.

Pfizer is continuing its shift from the traditional product-centric model to focusing efforts around enhanced patient engagement. Rather than designing an approach that attracts patients to a campaign website, Pfizer has successfully engaged them through the use of social media channels. Additionally, by emphasising a “listen to patients first” mentality we have shaped engagement around the patients’ needs and behaviors, which has produced a campaign that advocacy groups and Pfizer are proud to support.

We also have success with stakeholder engagement through our digital channels, most impressively through the ongoing #valueofmedicines campaign. Through this extraordinary social media campaign, Pfizer has worked above brand, in efforts to highlight the burden of disease. By sharing powerful statistics and moving patient stories, Pfizer has successfully harnessed the strength of its digital channels to not only exponentially grow the number of impressions but also enhance its digital footprint within the social media sphere. The torrid growth rate of campaign visibility over the last two years is illustrated through the over tenfold increase in visits to the Value of Medicines homepage, tweets/retweets, and most notably the over 12 million boost in potential impressions. In addition to the growth within the digital space, Pfizer has also recently contracted 11 more national advocacy organisations, including the American Lung Association and the Global Healthy Living Foundation, bringing the grand total up to 28.

A new way of working

For Pfizer, engagement is not merely an item on the agenda; it is a way of working. It is not the “what we do” so much as the “how we do it.” By fostering a culture that encourages raising our gaze from our computer screens to the world outside, the corporate affairs division has become a cornerstone in our vision of a successful modern marketplace. We need to constantly challenge our views and continually broaden our horizons by attending conferences, traveling, and venturing into new markets. We may not always agree with our stakeholders, but as long as we engage respectfully there will be mutual benefits. For the foreseeable future, there will be ample opportunities to engage with advocates, competitors, journalists, government officials and most importantly for Pfizer patients. We must be prepared to rise to the occasion.

Sally Susman

Sally Susman is a member of Pfizer’s executive leadership team, chairs Pfizer’s Political Action Committee and is vice chair of the Pfizer Foundation. She directs Pfizer’s global communications and public affairs activities, including high-level relations with the governments of all nations in which the company has operations or markets products. She also heads the firm’s corporate responsibility group and plays a key role in shaping the company’s policy initiatives. Before joining Pfizer in 2007, Sally held roles at Estee Lauder Companies and the American Express Company.