Marian Salzman on Leading in a Time of Pandemic


Marian Salzman on Leading in a Time of Pandemic

Marian Salzman, SVP, Global Communications, Philip Morris International (PMI)

Italy, Ireland, and Denmark on lockdown, the United States on partial lockout, stock markets in free fall, and a steadily mounting toll of fatalities around the world as the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a global pandemic. It’s unsettling, to say the least, especially for the many people who’ve never before experienced a major crisis. 

How long since business leaders have had to steward their employees (and shareholders) through a full-blown global crisis? It’s at least 12 years. Back in 2007-2008, it was the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis that paralyzed the world’s financial system and had everybody freaking out—even top central bankers. But that was a digital lifetime ago, in the early years of the iPhone when Facebook had a paltry 100 million users (versus the 2.45 billion active users today). There’s a rising generation of employees who may have experienced some patches of turbulence over the past few years, but nothing like the COVID-19 storm the world is now riding. And none of those patches carried with them the risk of wide-scale fatalities.

This is one of those times when being a seasoned been-there-done-that businessperson (i.e., older) has its advantages. That’s not to claim that any leader who lived through the 2008 financial crisis, 9/11, or the late-’90s dotcom crisis has a strategic road map for spring 2020. What those events showed is that global crises now happen too fast and too unpredictably for any set routes. Part of the leadership a seasoned businessperson can bring is knowing how it feels to operate without a map in uncharted territory. 

It’s a scary time. It’s especially scary when leaders are visibly rattled—or visibly clueless. We all need to see leaders in action, and many of us need to be leaders in action. Below are a few things I suggest we all keep in mind.

There will be pain—for leaders, too: As the global airline industry braces for layoffs and passenger revenue losses currently estimated as high as $113 billion, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce announced he will forgo his salary for the remainder of the financial year. It’s an example other CEOs may want to follow. To stay afloat, the airline will have to slash schedules, cut wages, require unpaid leave, and lay off some workers. Like so many other businesses, it must cut deep enough to stay solvent for as long as the crisis lasts but maintain enough capacity to get going again as quickly as possible when it’s over. 

Stay in your lane: At a time when the media is full of corona punditry, Liverpool F.C. manager Jürgen Klopp has impressed even non-fans with his refusal to jump on the bandwagon. Keeping his eye on managing the $2.18 billion brand he leads, Klopp emphatically told journalists he is just a football manager and his opinion on coronavirus didn’t matter. His comments went viral as an example of blunt good sense: “It’s not important what famous people say … people with knowledge [should] talk about it.” 

Intentions yes, predictions no: Nobody knows how this crisis will play out. Leaders who talk as if they do know, with cocksure pronouncements and authoritative predictions, risk losing the trust of stakeholders. What fosters trust are clearly stated and explained intentions, with concrete plans to implement them and consistent actions to back them up. 

Critical thinking: In times of crisis, people are on high alert for danger signals. Rumors, misinformation, and panic spread with alarming speed, especially now that there’s digital technology to carry them far and fast. Employees are likely to be feeling a whole range of fears: for their jobs, for their health, for their families and friends, for their finances, and for life as they know it. It’s a time for leaders to set an example by how they seek out information and respond to it. What’s the source, how reliable is it, and does it jibe with other sources? How does it fit into the bigger picture? 

Connection: The irony of the COVID-19 crisis is that we are all facing this together, and yet social distancing is the order of the day. We need to stay apart as we face it together. That means avoiding gatherings, public places, public transportation, and even the workplace. One of the most critical functions of leadership is fostering togetherness in common purpose. That’s a lot easier to do face-to-face in a meeting room than through Zoom or emails. The current crisis is challenging leaders to find new ways to connect with employees and help employees stay connected with each other.

One way or another, this crisis will end. They all do eventually. Ultimately, the toll it will take on your business may have less to do with the virus itself than with your leadership’s response to it.

(This article was originally published on The Forbes CMO network blog)


About the Author:

Marian Salzman, senior vice president, global communications at Philip Morris International (PMI), has been named one of the world’s top five trendspotters and is among the world’s most-awarded public relations executives. In recent years, she has been listed in PRWeek’s Global Power Book and as a PR News Top Woman in PR. She is also the recipient of the She Runs It 2017 Changing the Game Award, has been inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Femme and Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, and was on the Holmes Report Top Innovators List and on Business Insider’s 25 Most Powerful PR People.

In April 2018, Marian moved to Switzerland and embarked on her greatest challenge to date, heading global communications at Philip Morris International (PMI) as it embarks on its journey to build a smoke-free future. Charged with developing a proactive, multilayered communications program to accelerate PMI’s vision, Marian is forging active and productive alliances with NGOs, advocacy groups, regulators and other parties involved in shaping the environment in which a smoke-free future can be realized.

Since Marian took charge of global communications at PMI, she has made bold strategic moves to transform the function itself and how it sits within the company. Her goal: reintroduce PMI into, as she puts it, “civilized society” and engage that society in meaningful conversations about the future of tobacco. Reporting directly to Global CEO André Calantzopoulos, she is remaking the group—including directly overseeing a staff of almost 100 communications professionals based on three continents who are responsible for media relations, scientific engagement, content development, crisis management, internal communications, sponsorships and more. She is ensuring that PMI is positioned at the forefront of a new discussion about tobacco and the reduced-risk products (RRPs) available today and in development.

Before joining PMI, Marian was CEO of Havas PR North America for nearly a decade, and chaired its global PR assets known as its PR Collective (networked but not a network). There, she reshaped the creative output, creating one of the most buzzed-about boutique agencies in North America and achieving top-five status at key U.S. and global awards shows. Marian also served on the Havas Worldwide general managers group and as co-chairman of the company’s first international steering committee for its social media assets. In recognition of these efforts, she was named PRWeek’s PR Professional of the Year for 2011.

Prior to Havas PR, Marian was the chief marketing officer at both Porter Novelli and JWT Worldwide and the chief strategic officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide (Havas Creative). Her first international assignment was in the 1990s, as the Amsterdam-based lead of TBWA’s Department of the Future. Marian was also an entrepreneur who launched American Dialogue (Cyberdialogue) focus groups in cyberspace back in the early 1990s, when the online world was seen as a place for geeks and oddballs, ultimately selling the company a few years later. Her business partner then was advertising agency legend Jay Chiat; ultimately, he appointed her Chiat/Day’s first head of emerging media and consumer insights ahead of Chiat/Day merging with TBWA International. Among her most famous consumer campaigns are the launch of “metrosexual” to create a marketplace for SABMiller’s Peroni (metrosexual became the word of the year in 2003 and continues to be used around the globe more than 15 years later); Pepsi’s “It’s Like This”; and “It’s America Online.”

As a sought-after speaker, she presents across the globe on topics from health trends to branding to generational differences and more. Marian is the author or co-author of 16 books, including Buzz, the first big business book on buzz marketing, and her latest, Agile PR: Expert Messaging in a Hyper-Connected, Always-on World (2017; AMACOM). Marian is an honors graduate of Brown University.