LeadershipCultureEmployee Comms

Doing right, aligning values and ESG - and what we can learn from Pfizer


 — May 18th, 2021

Doing right, aligning values and ESG - and what we can learn from Pfizer

“Enough is enough".

This was the rallying call for thousands of black-clad women, men, and children who stood united in 40 cities and towns across Australia demanding systematic change to address gendered inequity, violence, and harassment in our workplaces and society.

Women have experienced and talked about this for years, but real change has been slow. At the end of January 2021, we saw a shift when sexual abuse survivor and Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, shared her story.

Her courage led others to share their stories, including some centered around workplace culture within the Australian parliament.

Anger, frustration, and grief fueled rallies to demand the Federal Government, which had failed in terms of meaningful action and response at the time, to act promptly and decisively.

It was reflective of what Grace Tame said was a recurring theme in our institutions and society of “behavior unspoken, behavior ignored, is behavior endorsed.”

We’ve seen this over and over, with citizens, employees, and businesses, responding to social and environmental issues. Our government institutions are hamstrung and struggling to address these issues.

Societal values, behaviors and expectations are evolving and we’re seeing a realignment of society and ways of working.

Business is seeing the opportunity, and, in reality, the need to step up.

Recognizing the shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism, institutional investors and company directors are increasingly focused upon purpose, prosperity, people, and planet through the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) lens.

How employee communications drives business outcomes

I recently spent a couple of days at a hybrid company directors’ governance conference. 2020 was considered a “real awakening” with the confluence of risks from climate crisis (evidenced with the 2019/20 Australian bushfires), to public health and economic crises.

There was a clear sense that ESG was central to the sustainability of our institutions, society, and planet. Tesla’s Chair, Robyn Denholm, thought that when aligned with purpose ESG was a lens to “guide business to be good as well as profitable.”

However, institutional investors and ESG experts pointed to the risk of misalignment – the engage, say, act, and engage again gap.

As Brunswick Group’s Pru Bennett said “doing the right thing is more than a PR exercise”, emphasizing that “it’s one thing to have policies and another to demonstrate to your stakeholders these policies are being implemented in an effective way.”

Two of the key challenges here are communication and accountability. And in an age of radical transparency and connectivity, business can no longer afford the reputational risk of misalignment as they are likely to be called to account by employees, investors, customers, media, regulators, and the community.

There are numerous examples of brands, such as Gillette, Rio Tinto, or AMP that have been caught out jumping on the ‘woke’ bandwagon with ill-considered communications, or poor judgment and behavior that has directly impacted the bottom-line.

In researching the Road to Alignment white paper, a number of big issues surfaced, including the trends relating to corporate governance and risk and the role of the communication professional as strategic counsel to the C-suite.

Emphasizing the clear shift in society and business, and the focus for communication professionals, board adviser and Chartered Director, Managing Director of Urbantech, Michael Ambjorn said:

Your boardroom table is on fire, and if you don’t put it out, your shareholders are coming for you — and with that the press will, too. Because the unseating of boards (and senior management teams) makes for great reading, as you’ll know if you regularly read the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, etc.

How do we know this? Last year, Larry Fink, the CEO of the world’s biggest asset manager, issued some guidance: ‘...we will be increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures and the business practices and plans underlying them.’

And to put weight behind his words he also said: "Last year BlackRock voted against or withheld votes from 4,800 directors at 2,700 different companies.’" And in this year's letter he made it clear that they'll keep doing it until things change.

There's a shift coming. It is coming faster than you think — and it has the sound of not billions but trillions of dollars being redirected. Listen, learn and align your efforts so they fit both your own purpose and values — as well as those you work with.

As a strategic adviser and communication professional, this last sentence is more than instructional. It’s about sense-making, stakeholder (including employee and leader) engagement, and strategic alignment to a broader purpose.

In a recent conversation with Pfizer's Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Sally Susman, she emphasized that “purpose is everything” and rock-solid alignment to their purpose and values was pivotal to their success over the past 18 months.

When reflecting upon developing the vaccine in record time, Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, said: “…it can pay to put purpose first. The positive financial impact for Pfizer of the Covid-19 vaccine became possible only because return on investment was never a consideration.

We drove ahead with mission in mind. Still, even if we hadn’t developed an impressively effective vaccine, distributed it as quickly as we did, and earned back our outlay, our decision to do the right thing would have been worth it for me, our employees, and our industry. The private sector has a responsibility to help solve society’s biggest problems. If it doesn’t, none of us have a future.”

The courage to be bold and think big, emboldened the Pfizer communications team to be brave and take the risk, including having a public voice and taking a stand on societal issues.

This was not about jumping on a bandwagon but being considered and authentic to their purpose, values, and brand.

Sally developed a five-question framework to assess whether Pfizer would get involved in social issues:

  1. Does it speak to our purpose?
  2. How does it impact our most important stakeholders (our employees being first)?
  3. How does it relate to our values?
  4. What are our options for responding? (often it might be a colleague letter posted on our website)
  5. What is the price of our silence?

To these, I would add a couple more considerations – validity and risk capability assessment.

  1. Is this an accurate portrayal of our business?
  2. Do we stand by this in the way we operate within our ecosystem?
  3. Does it relate to our operation across all regions?

(Main image, Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, pic courtesy of ABC News)

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