Mar 28, 2023 - Economy

Sally Susman book: Commanding the communications hot seat

"Breaking Through" by Sally Susman, Pfizer's chief corporate affairs officer. Credit: Harvard Business Review Press.

"Breaking Through" by Sally Susman, Pfizer's chief corporate affairs officer. Credit: Harvard Business Review Press

As top communicators are increasingly earning a seat at the table only to discover it's a hot seat, it's important for them to seek out experienced contemporaries for advice and guidance.

  • In her new book, Sally Susman, the chief corporate affairs officer for Pfizer, shares real world examples and offers tangible suggestions on how to navigate the delicate — and sometimes polarizing — job of communications.

Why it matters: "Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts and Change the World" avoids the pitfalls of leadership books that can at times be dry and self-serving. Susman offers practical advice from someone who has earned her place as a trusted adviser during crises.

What she's saying: "We've made great strides in getting the seat at the table and I think that argument has largely been put to bed," she tells Axios.

  • "What I'm focused on is for professionals and leaders to have the best, most sage advice. Communicators are solving problems in a rapid-fire environment, across multiple channels and with an array of stakeholders — the seat is very hot."

The big picture: No matter your role or sector, being a smart communicator is essential in this loud, crowded and complex world, says Susman.

  • Her comms "power tools" are intentionality, candor, curiosity, creativity, gratitude, preparation, humor and reflection.
  • In the book, Susman explains how these tools guide her both personally and professionally — from dealing with less than stellar feedback to navigating a corporate response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine or coming out in the 1980s.

The bottom line: Having worked with nine CEOs across three companies — American Express, Estée Lauder and Pfizer — Susman has seen how effective communications can impact business.

  • "Because of the increased scrutiny and the elevated stakes, communications can no longer be considered a soft skill. The ability to lead and drive the public conversation is a rock-hard competency," she writes.

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