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Sound principles

Communiquétor of the year, Andrew Topen, gives tips on how to get your message heard

An open book with the pages floating out as though they are birdsCan great communications be summarised in 140 characters or less? All tweets welcome at my Twitter page. You'll see I've yet to use it. I guess I'm still a bit of a new media voyeur - just felt the urge to take a look at what everyone else is raving about.

In today's non-stop 24/7 world where news is instantaneous and ever more fleeting, it's a small luxury to have time to reflect on what makes good communications. I started my career in what now seems like a golden age for the Luddites. Press releases were typed in MS Dos and faxed to newsdesks, pagers were trendy and, although mobile phones were available to the fortunate few, the signal strength rendered them practically pointless.

There were many lessons learned from those formative years though, like the seemingly simple ability to listen.

Listening is a primary skill that most of us are fortunate to be born with. However, it is alarming to witness its demise, especially in those of us labelled 'communicators'. 

Our anatomy has evolved to have two ears and only one mouth, yet all too often we forget that communications is more about listening and learning from others than attempting to broadcast our own opinions to them. I have always sought wise counsel and advice from a wide variety of colleagues, friends and family to enrich my experience and capabilities in dealing with all kinds of challenges and issues.

The second sound principle of good communications is equally as simple, it's know your audience. Harper Lee famously wrote: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in school and it has been with me ever since, helping me to understand others' emotions and points of view, which is essential in good communications.

All too often, we risk stumbling into an issue without considering the wider implications and our stakeholders' strongly-held opinions. That is why I'm really proud of Pfizer's 'Attracting Debate' initiative. Attracting Debate seeks out the views of all stakeholders; those of our own employees, customers and, crucially, patients. Its aim is to listen first and communicate later.

Good communication
We all know a good communicator when we see one, or do we? Even within this question lies the paradox at the heart of all communications – verbal and non-verbal. Communication is not simply about the message and its means of transit between individuals. We all know how to communicate – we do it every waking minute of our lives. However, do we know how to distinguish 'good' communication from 'bad'?

The best communicators, in my opinion, are great storytellers. Many of the most effective communications are passed down through generations, shaping our culture and providing a living memory of the past. It is ironic that, in an age of unprecedented communication channels across the globe, we are losing the art of storytelling.

Edwin H Friedman summed it up when he said: "Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation, but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them."

Don't be afraid to learn and borrow from others. Good communications can't simply be learned from reading an article or management book, however well written by learned colleagues it is. Instead, it is learned by applying the simple skills and knowledge we acquire every day.

I have always favoured the deep-end approach to personal development – each role in my career has provided this form of learning. It can only succeed if there is a supportive environment, which I'm lucky to have witnessed in all four organisations for which I've worked. On-the-job learning, especially from others more experienced and knowledgeable than oneself, is essential to becoming a well-rounded communications professional.

Exceptional communications normally manifest during times of crisis – a greatly over-used term to describe a whole range of scenarios. I have had to deal with countless issues in my time, each a unique challenge, but there is one common factor in all the successfully handled ones and that is teamwork. It is essential that the comms team, the cross functional team, the consultancy partners and all stakeholders work together with the same aim.

JFK once remarked: "The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis'. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognise the opportunity."

An organisation's ability to communicate clearly, honestly and with integrity in times of crisis gives it the opportunity to emerge with its values intact and enhanced in the eyes of the public.

A winning team
So what lies behind the success of the Pfizer communication team? We are indeed fortunate that our successes have been recognised by Communiqué in recent years. However, the real reward is the hard-earned faith and trust that the company's senior executives have placed in our ability to do our jobs professionally. When I accepted my position at Pfizer, it was because of the immense challenge the role presented and the vision and leadership that senior management showed. But how could the largest inward investor and supplier of medicines to the NHS have relatively no public presence, let alone be a leader in the industry? On arriving, I found out. We had four communication teams – each dedicated to a different audience, namely sales, internal, product and corporate. With a free mandate to redesign our operations and, taking advantage of the continuous change spirit at Pfizer, this was – and still is – the best challenge any communicator could hope for. Four years on, and with one unified and coherent team, we have been entrusted with further responsibility for primary care communications in Europe.

Good communications goes hand-in-hand with good leadership – knowing how best to deploy the sum of the parts to the advantage of the whole.

The team is embedded across the organisation, not in the traditional fire-fighting role, but as a strategic partner in the decision-making process. Each contributes his or her own skills and knowledge. The team is a conduit to our consultancy partners – ensuring they are an integral part of the extended Pfizer team. Recognising and harnessing the skills of our partners helps make our campaigns more rounded and, ultimately, more successful in meeting our stretching key performance indicators.

Continuous learning and development is at the heart of everything we do, as is innovation and taking calculated risks where necessary. That's where our multi-award winning patient safety campaign with the 'rat' comes in. The company and our partners engaged in a bold campaign with significant risks to reputation. However calculated, risk and – above all – trust between all partners, were central to ensuring the campaign's success and furthering awareness of this real patient safety issue.

Complacency and egos are the worst enemy in a communications team; we are only as good as the next campaign or issue that we handle.

My own contribution isn't simply as architect, but also as a strong supporter of our mission and values. I don't have all the answers, but I do know where to find them and I'm forever challenging and encouraging the team and organisation to place themselves in the shoes of others and to think differently.

My team's achievements are up on a wall in the office, not for vanity, but as a highly visual celebration of excellence. The list educates, motivates and, above all, leaves space for the ultimate prize – the story that has yet to appear!

Andrew Topen, Pfizer








The Author
Andrew Topen is director of communications, UK and Europe at Pfizer. His career began with the BMA as head of government affairs for Scotland. He joined the industry in 2001 as head of government affairs with GSK before joining Pfizer four years ago. During his time at Pfizer he has guided the communications team successfully through an incredible period of change. In July he was acknowledged as the 2009 Communiquétor of the Year Award at Communiqué.

24th September 2009


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