By nickjohnson - June 25th, 2013

Sherry Pudloski is the Vice-President of External Communications at Pfizer, the pharmaceuticals giant. In the run-up to her speaking position at the Incite Summit, we took some time to discuss her role, generating brand advocacy and opportunities/challenges for the next twelve months.


What does your role entail?


My role  covers external communications across Pfizer for our company, our products, the framing of our reputation, and leader communications. My team extends into regions around the world.


There are many elements to the 'communications' function within large businesses. What's the relationship between corporate, brand, and product communications at Pfizer? Is there overlap?


Yes, at the global level, corporate and product communications are largely in the same function. We have a team of communicators  who work with global brand teams, and multiple functions to contribute to brand communications. These include representation from marketing, access, communications, medical, legal, safety and regulatory working together to support a global brand.


A key trend for 2013 is the increasing convergence of the Marketing and Communications functions within business.

Both departments are increasingly having to work closely together to ensure a consistency of message in external engagement, while also sharing internal data and insight more effectively.

Is that something that you’re finding at Pfizer?


Because we’re an integrated team [marketing and communications being part of the same department], and have been for a long time, I think that ‘blurring’ is hard to find - everyone on a brand team has a collective responsibility.


Brand positioning is certainly owned by the brand team. But the development of messaging is the responsibility of the full team - whether it’s through advertising, digital, or earned media, we’re all working together to ensure that we’re staying on track.


One interesting development is that over the last few years, is that our communications team has been more integrated on the product side. Global product communications are now closely linked to global brand teams.


One of the things you’re talking about at the Summit itself is going to be advocacy and influencer groups. Can you give us an overview on what Pfizer does in that area at the moment?


We have a separate function  in public affairs  that is dedicated to advocacy - though fundamentally  it’s the responsibility of all of us on a collective brand or corporate team to engage and build relationships with advocates.


Obviously, there are now far more ‘advocates’ than there used to be, with individual consumers taking on powerful voices through social channels. The general principles of relationships with established advocates apply with these new advocates too.


You start with a conversation around common interests, build trust and the you can discuss where common ground takes the relationship and partnership.


While the ‘general rules of engagement’ are broadly similar, are there any differences when working with ‘traditional’ advocates and those newer ones thrown up by the rise of social media?


Within our sector, Pfizer rapidly adopted social channels to meet our stakeholders where they were. With media it was a natural build because of our long-standing relationships and comfort level with an ongoing dialogue.


With advocacy groups, we’re sharing our learnings in the social space. On the blogger side, we’re starting anew. We’re learning about their interests , but because many bloggers are consumers we need to ensure we are having appropriate conversations, regulatory parameters of our labels, health condition-focused rather than treatment focused for Rx brands, and ensure that we have the systems to monitor for any discussion of potential adverse events.


It must be a frustrating experience, considering the regulatory restrictions in terms of communications/marketing for the pharmaceutical industry.

When one sees comments complaining about a particular drug - and you have a simple solution - “You’re taking it wrong” for instance - you can’t get involved and help the consumer. Is that an issue for you?


It is a challenge for every pharma company to find the best way to connect with consumers which is why many interactions direct consumers back to their healthcare provider.  We can always enhance how we interact with consumers about our products.


But this is not a new dilemma. The boilerplate response - “call your doctor” – doesn’t always answer the question.


Because our business is health and because you can't diagnose what’s going on over the phone/online, and because a question could involve an urgent issue health issue, it is important to engage a healthcare professional.


But there’s an evolution going on. We’re currently doing some experiments around telemedicine for our employees. They can call a number and describe their symptoms, or have a conversation about them, and even get prescriptions online.


As we as an industry become more comfortable doing those kind of things. I think in future we’ll be more comfortable having broader conversations with patients. It’s a progression, an evolution.


One of the things that Jeff Shafer, VP of Communications at Lenovo, said when we spoke with him is that the time in which consumers expect a response from large companies is reducing rapidly. This is largely down to the advent of social media, and the fact that consumers now expect to be able to engage large brands in actual conversations.

What has Pfizer done to ensure you can keep pace with conversation with consumers?


The way we approach this is through preparation. We’re ready well in advance. We have thought through what the issues could be, and we have gotten teams aligned to work out how to respond to those issues in best way and as quickly as we can.


Anticipating every possible scenario is a challenge, but something we’re trying to instinctively build in. We’ve also done a lot to ensure that we can pull in all the people necessary to make decisions on fast-developing issues at a moments’ notice. We’ve gotten a lot quicker at that.


We’ve built a cultural sensitivity to the immediacy of turnaround when we’re in these circumstances.



To finish, let's look to the past and the future. Can you let us know 

a) The biggest thing you have learnt over the last twelve months?

b) The biggest challenge or opportunity you foresee in the next twelve months


One of our strongest communications learnings is that consumers in general have an openness to Pfizer as a partner and provider of health information.  This was the foundation for our Get Old campaign where we are facilitating a dialogue about how people want to age.


It was great to see the openness to Pfizer and willingness to engage.


The biggest opportunity for us moving forward is to build on that realization. Continue to build relationships on a broader public scale.


This concludes our interview with Sherry Pudloski. To hear more on the future of marketing and communications from Sherry, and another 36 communications and marketing professionals, check out the full recording from the Incite Summit East, which took place on September 18 - 19, 2013 in New York City.

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