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Acts of Leadership: Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca

In the first episode of our new series, Managing Director Jordan Greenaway and PR Director Sam Patchett discuss AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot, and his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. We took a closer look at the decisions he made, and reflected on whether he made the rights calls, and what impact they had on his public image.

In the first episode of our new series, Acts of Leadership, we spoke to Managing Director Jordan Greenaway and PR Director Sam Patchett. In this episode, we took an in-depth look at AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot and his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Jordan Greenaway: Welcome to Acts of Leadership, a new podcast from Transmission Private. Each episode we discuss a news story that is making headlines for the right reasons, whether it's a CEO taking a stand, an investor rethinking how to make an impact, or a brand bucking the trends. I'm Jordan Greenaway, Managing Director of Transmission Private. Let's get started.

On this episode, we're talking about AstraZeneca and its CEO Pascal Soriot, and we're gonna look at a specific story. Today I'm joined by Sam Patchett, our Head of PR at TP. Can you take us through the story quickly?

Sam Patchett:
Thanks Jordan, absolutely. We're talking about a story in the BBC this week. And, as you said, it's about AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriot. He's reflecting on the pandemic. He's talking about how the jab managed to save a million lives despite facing many setbacks.

He made quite a bold decision to do it at no profit and in the end he says he delivered about three billion doses of the vaccine and he thinks he saved a million lives. He also talks about the challenges throughout the process, particularly the blood clots and the vaccine hesitancy that we've seen throughout the world.

The punchiest quote that came out of that article is "I don't think I would do anything differently from what we did." Look, if you were to put Pascal in a time machine, back to the start of the pandemic, of course he would've done things differently, but it's still a bold statement nonetheless. And I think that's kind of what shows so much leadership about it.

Jordan Greenaway:
Completely Sam. I've been reflecting on this over the last few days, and I was asking myself, whether, if he was a client or if we were working with him, or if he called us up, whether I would've advised him to say that. Does he feel like he's got a stronger profile, or does he feel like he's putting AstraZeneca's best foot forward by doing this interviewing slot rather than saying nothing at all. Then I've decided actually I think it was the right decision because AstraZeneca is a hugely well-known company. It's come under lots of public scrutiny for the last two years or so, and you can do two things when you come under public scrutiny.

You can either batten down the hatches, put on your little helmet, and hide from the public and from the media, or you can go out there and tell them about the challenges, tell them about the setbacks, tell them about what you've done and answer the questions.

And I think actually he's consciously, and the company has consciously made the decision to say, the public's looking at us. And, if you don't come out, if you don't come out and tell people the good, the bad, the ugly, and otherwise, I think it just creates this void, you're not part of this public discussion, and I think you just end up succumbing into criticism. So, I think actually it was the right thing to do and I think it's the right thing to do because there was so much interest in him and the company that he has to come out, put a brave face on it and tell people what he thinks.

And actually the public at large, I think, is quite forgiving of companies making mistakes, going through challenges, facing setbacks. So, as I was going through this question, should he have done it? I've come to the conclusion for me, it's not that I think this is the best article possible, or this is the best thing he could have said, but the alternative was for him to say nothing, and that would've been wrong.

Sam Patchett:
100%. There's no reason that he can't own the conversation, he can't set the record straight, but kind of on top of that, adding to what you said, the most important thing about him, wasn't actually what he was saying, it was how powerful and emphatic he was, and that in itself is actually more important than the message a lot of the time.

I mean, throughout the pandemic we saw it from day one, there was so much dilly-dallying around from government policy, from public health decisions, to company policy. People were struggling to make decisions, and from the outset AstraZeneca owned their own kind of decision-making process, were very emphatic in that, and Pascal in his public interaction and his voice in the media was very consistent with that emphatic kind of journey that AstraZeneca went through.

Jordan Greenaway:
That's right. I hadn't properly reflected on this, Sam, until you've just triggered the thought now. But actually all those decisions that were decided internally were probably discussed, debated, and after a decision was made, that was the decision, and then it was communicated. Even if people disagreed with it, there was a consistency in message there.

But then it also triggered in me a broader discussion or thought about what leadership means, and to me, leadership is not necessarily saying the right things all the time, leadership is not about getting necessarily the big calls right. I think leaders can make mistakes. What it is about is about having a voice in that discussion. And if we look at Pascal in general, I know that he's a member of this task force, talking about how different pharmaceutical companies can help countries get to net zero. It's about having a voice in those discussions, and that's what I think he's done right, and why he continues to attract headlines and stories.

Sam Patchett:
Absolutely, and he is coming from a position of credibility and authority. He is very experienced in the sector, in the industry, and having that kind of diversity of opinion and voice within those big decisions is actually very important. But also having that diversity of opinion with Pascal coming in with a slightly more business background, and big public policy and public health decisions and processes like that, it's completely invaluable.

One thing I wanted to ask you about Jordan was the no-profit decision, which was again, a very bold decision to make that they'll effectively roll out millions or in the end billions of vaccines without actually turning a profit at all. Do you think that helped his public image?

Jordan Greenaway:
That's a really good question, Sam, and it's one that I've been thinking about as we've been preparing for this discussion, because I don't think the alternative decision was actually a feasible option, and I don't think probably they even considered or countenanced the opposite decision.

So, given that the other option wasn't really feasible, or if they were to take that decision, they would've been literally crucified in the media. Should he get any reputational benefit and should AstraZeneca get any reputational benefit from that decision? I still think the answer is yes, because they still did it, they made a clear statement, that they would do it.

But maybe I would add something else. In that situation, they could have made a huge amount of hay about how they were providing it on a non-profit basis, and of course, they made that clear to the public at large. But it wasn't a big campaigning point that they pushed widely into the public domain and into the media.

They didn't want to say, oh, look how good we are, we're not taking a profit. They never presented it like that, and I think they should get the benefit for doing something in the public health's interest without trying to necessarily claw back lots of reputational benefit.

Sam Patchett:
And that's a really good point you bring up actually Jordan, that first and foremost, it was a public health decision, and it's important we make that clarification that it wasn't some sort of cynical ploy to come across as the good guys, so I think that's a really important point to make.

His kind of outward public image aside and let's just forget about his media engagement and what he's been saying in the public realm and instead shift our focus to him actually leading the company itself and his inward management of the company. As I mentioned at the start, Pascal thinks he saved over a million lives, and I think that raises quite an interesting point about how adaptable and how resilient a company can be. But the pandemic showed that so many businesses and governments as well fell well short when it comes to resilience.

On the other hand, AstraZeneca, they scaled up, they partnered with Oxford University and they got a vaccine approved in the UK by December 2020, and that was within one year of the virus being discovered, all without a profit. And within that same timeframe, most other companies were unable to divert their phones from the office to home.

Jordan Greenaway:
Really, really interesting Sam. I think I would add an additional point to that. An act of leadership is I think about giving an organisation a direction and a purpose. And, during the midst of a crisis, like a pandemic, especially if you are a pharma company, I think it clearly sets the direction and purpose in your whole organization. And I think it's important after you've decided that internally, to then communicate that to the public at large, to the media, and to drive that discussion, and to showcase the purpose of the organization, you yourself as a leader and the team itself.

So, if we return to that question of resiliency, why do I think that AstraZeneca did so well in a situation where other companies weren't doing so well actually. It's because in the midst of that crisis, they found a very clearly defined, crystal clear, tight-cut purpose, and it was articulated internally and externally. Everyone knew in that organization, what they were doing. Of course, some of that is because the external circumstances raised everyone's heads, and that kind of forced that purpose on the organization. But it also kind of underlines another really, really interesting discussion point, which is when we talk about comms, when we talk about PR, we generally think about, you know, this bit of paper here, the news coverage, the external comms.

Comms is also about communicating well with purpose internally. Having that clear message as an individual about what you're doing, what the company's doing, and saying it to the team internally and to the team externally, and when I think you do that well, and you articulate it well, that's where resiliency comes from.

So we've had this kind of broad discussion about Pascal, AstraZeneca et cetera. If there was one or two takeaway points for other executives, one or two pieces of crunchy practical advice, in your head, what would they be?

Sam Patchett:
It would be one piece of advice and I'm gonna keep it very, very simple, Jordan. Be bold, be emphatic, and stick to your decisions. It's that simple.

Jordan Greenaway:
So on that message, thank you for joining us for the first episode of Acts of Leadership. To find out more about Transmission Private and our work supporting entrepreneurs, CEOs, and investors with their personal profiles, go to www.transmission-private.com. Thank you. See you next time.

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