Sally Susman's New Book Is all About 'Breaking Through' - 27 East

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Sally Susman’s New Book Is all About ‘Breaking Through’

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Sally Susman's new book

Sally Susman's new book "Breaking Through."

Sag Harbor's Sally Susman, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, is the author of

Sag Harbor's Sally Susman, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, is the author of "Breaking Through." JOSH JORDAN

authorAnnette Hinkle on May 22, 2023

When it comes to the art of communication, you could say that Sally Susman is a true master. It’s a talent at which she excels and her ability to craft a well-honed message has served her well in her career.

“I grew up in the Midwest and either thought I’d be the mayor of my hometown or a journalist, the most noble profession,” said Susman during a recent interview in Sag Harbor, where she and her wife, Robin Canter, have a home.

A native of Missouri, in her professional life, Susman has been neither a mayor nor a journalist. But she has learned how to be a great communicator. She spent the first several years of her career working on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., initially, as a legislative assistant for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and then as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S Department of Commerce.

But then she decided to take her career in a much different direction.

“I realized that if I wanted to make change, government is hard,” said Susman.

So she moved to New York City and began working in the private sector, specifically, for cosmetics giant Estée Lauder and then for American Express. Though she learned a great deal about corporate communication under the tutelage of Leonard Lauder, CEO of Estee Lauder Companies, and Amex’s CEO Ken Chenault (also a Sag Harbor resident), Susman eventually decided to take on a wholly novel challenge in 2007 when she joined pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

The firm is one of the many American drug companies that have been the target of anti-big pharma sentiment over the years — often for good reason. While at the time, her friends tried to dissuade her from diving into an industry with a reputation akin to that of the tobacco industry, Susman was undeterred.

“There was a learning curve at Pfizer,” she admitted. “American Express and Estée Lauder are two really beloved companies — Amex with its marketing and beautiful ads, and the famous family at the head of Estée Lauder. Pfizer made great medicines, but was at the bottom of the reputational scale. I thought, ‘I can do this’ and I worked 10 years at it.”

Playing defense by responding to public criticism had long been a part of the industry’s playbook. But in spring 2020, her role as Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer shifted dramatically when COVID-19 arrived on the scene. With the world brought to a stand-still, the industry kicked into high gear in an effort to create a safe and effective vaccine for the virus. Suddenly, Susman and her team found themselves connecting with people in a new way and forging new partnerships as they looked to get out in front of the messaging in the effort to create a vaccine for COVID-19. She cites the leadership of Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla as being key to the strategy.

Susman has written about her experience with Pfizer during the pandemic and she shares it in her new — and first — book, “Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts and Change the World,” published by Harvard Business Review Press.

“I wrote the book with two audiences in mind. One is for people in my professional sphere, but it’s for anyone in a leadership position,” she explained. “I’ve worked for nine CEOs and a cabinet secretary. The ones who are breakthrough leaders and memorable are those who create real change, like Albert, or Leonard Lauder or Ken Chenault. They were ones who focused on communication.”

On Saturday, May 27, at 4:30 p.m., Susman will celebrate the publication of “Breaking Through” with a book launch at The Church in Sag Harbor and a conversation moderated by Margaret Hoover, host of PBS’s “Firing Line” (and the great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover). It’s an appropriate place for her book event, given that Susman is on the board of The Church and she wrote the book in Sag Harbor while working from home during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, the Pfizer office closed. We lived here. This place saved me, I was taking long walks during the busiest time of my career,” she said. “When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, had flown to Greece for a conference and it had been shut down. He had to fly back and he said ‘We need to make a vaccine by the end of the year.’

“I was fortunate to be on a small team at the center of it all,” she added. “When we made that pledge, we didn’t have politics in mind.”

But politics soon arose in the fall of 2020 when the vaccine became a talking point at the first debate between Joe Biden and then President Donald Trump who claimed he had talked to Pfizer and had inside information that the vaccine might be available earlier than expected. Maybe even before Election Day.

“I spilled my popcorn and wrote my boss,” said Susman. “We move at the speed of science to stay focused on the science.”

To emphasize the firm’s independence in following the science, not the politicians, Pfizer had pledged its neutrality and did not accept any government funding for the vaccine’s development.

“The thinking was, with taking money there are always strings attached,” she said. “We considered our independence a great asset and wanted to move as quickly as we could and stay engaged with other vaccine makers.”

In the end, under Bourla’s leadership, Pfizer vowed in a letter to employees not to succumb to political pressures nor cut corners in the vaccine’s development. The company also pledged to stick to its motto of purpose: “Breakthroughs That Change Patient’s Lives.”

It was a conscious effort to restore trust in the industry’s motives and methods which had been badly damaged. The oxycontin crisis had resulted in a good deal of ill will being directed at the pharmaceutical industry in recent years, but there was also a feeling among many Americans that it was a greedy, profit-driven industry.

“In one focus group, there was this belief that we had cures for diabetes but kept it quiet to keep selling insulin,” said Susman. “Pfizer doesn’t make insulin, but I thought, we need to change this thinking. When Albert Bourla came in as CEO in 2019, and the pandemic hit in ’20, this was our chance at reintroduction to society.”

And Susman did all of this messaging work while living at her home in Sag Harbor. Along the way, she realigned one of her own core beliefs as a result of the pandemic — the thought that effective work can only be accomplished when staff is together in the office.

“I learned so much during the pandemic. I got healthy, got outside more, stopped dying my hair, and being overly rigid about being in the office,” she said. “In corporate communications, a lot is learned by watching others. I wanted to give that to my team. That’s hard to do remotely. I believe in apprenticeship, talking and teaching in different settings, but I learned a lot can be done remotely.

“I come down on the side of the hybrid model. I think flexibility is the way to go,” said Susman, who now works in Pfizer’s Manhattan headquarters three days a week. “It was surprising to me. I realized I had been banging the wrong drum with being in the office. The final chapter of my book is about creating harmony in our world now. I think a key thing is to be open to the idea that you’re not always right.”

Though Pfizer met its goal of creating an effective COVID-19 vaccine in record time, issues related to political division and suspicion in this country remain a challenge, not only for the pharmaceutical industry, but across the board. Susman said she was shocked by a statistic she came across recently on the Edelman Trust Barometer that asked in an annual survey if the respondent would help someone who was injured if they disagreed with their point of view.

“Thirty percent said ‘yes,’ but 70 percent said ‘no,’” said Susman. “I’ve done polling data and there is a percentage of people who love the industry — 15 percent believe in it because it saved their lives or someone they know. There are another 15 percent who are full of conspiracy theories and believe horribly cynical things and I don’t believe they are open to having their minds changed.

“My job to connect with the 70 percent in the middle,” she added. “There was a big audience for that in the beginning of the pandemic. Now we’re focused on battling cancer. One in three people will have a diagnosis in their lifetime. I remain hopeful that the average person can see the value of that work.”

On Saturday, May 27, at 4:30 p.m., at The Church, Sally Susman will be in conversation with Margaret Hoover about her new book “Breaking Through.” Tickets are $20 ($15 members) which includes a wine reception with the author following the event. The Church is at 48 Madison Street, Sag Harbor. For details, visit thechurchsagharbor.org.

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