© Tobias Tanzyna
Virtual stakeholder dialogues – Interview with Susanne Straetmans & Julian Rosenkranz from Pfizer Germany
Being part of the highly regulated healthcare system, stakeholder relations are crucial for Pfizer. In recent years, Pfizer Germany’s Corporate Affairs department has intensified the development and maintenance of relationships through network analysis, targeted outreach and stakeholder events. But then the COVID-19 outbreak ensued, and with it the public focus on the vaccine business – as well as new ways of stakeholder networking.
In our interview, Susanne Straetmans and Julian Rosenkranz emphasize the importance of staying in touch with stakeholders. They also share their experiences cultivating relationships online – and explain why it is sometimes preferable to conduct stakeholder dialogues in a digital setting.
There was a great public interest in Pfizer during the pandemic. Maintaining stakeholder relations from the home office was certainly a big challenge – especially because in-person dialogue formats were no longer possible. How did you cope with this at Pfizer?
Straetmans: We have always said: we want to have a seat at the table, we want to have a voice, and for this we’ve established formats and platforms over the years. For us, it was clear that we would continue doing this because cultivating relationships is the most important thing – especially during a pandemic.
Rosenkranz: At Pfizer, we also conduct many stakeholder dialogues with an eye toward the future, on topics such as innovative healthcare and prevention. We want to work together with stakeholders, achieve progress together, and collectively generate improvements in our system. Interrupting the dialogue would therefore have been wrong.
How did you then continue your existing stakeholder dialogues virtually?
Straetmans: From the beginning, we looked at what was possible online and what made sense. One of the biggest adjustments is time management. For us, a virtual meeting lasts exactly 60 minutes. This is very important to me because I personally think that respect for time is a crucial aspect in our current situation, where we all have many, many more appointments than before. And if we want people to come, then we simply have to take that into account. And that’s why we basically fill up this hour so much that afterwards people say: I’ve got a lot of great takeaways, these 60 minutes have been worthwhile for me.
To what extent was this change a challenge?
Rosenkranz: We’d already used digital tools in face-to-face meetings before the lockdowns because we’ve experienced that they can help bring stakeholders together and achieve a joint result. And because we’d done this before, it was relatively easy for us to adapt such a format to the virtual world. On the other hand, it very much depends on the digital literacy of the target group and to what extent interaction can be created in virtual workshops or multi-stakeholder formats.
Straetmans: A big advantage is our online platform landdergesundheit.de, which we’ve already established as part of our stakeholder management. There we are in asynchronous conversation with our stakeholders and they share their positions. During the pandemic, we added audio formats, used them for our social media channels and definitely generated an outreach with that. That’s helped, but it’s also a very complex issue and you have to be sensitive. It’s one challenge in terms of content, but to bring people together and to build a relationship is even more challenging.
Looking back, how satisfied are you with the results of these virtual formats?
Rosenkranz: One point that I found to be the big advantage is our outreach. We’ve often experienced a better availability of expert participants and sometimes accomplished a massively higher reach than if we’d done a traditionally-attended event. And of course, it’s also nice to have bigger audiences. But a crucial part of stakeholder relations is an informality that is very, very difficult to replace virtually.
Straetmans: I’m positively surprised by the willingness of participants to interact virtually. But it’s nowhere near as personal, and stakeholder relationships are personal, and you won’t be able to replace that. I’m convinced that some formats will definitely remain online. But there will be other formats that cannot be replaced.
Susanne Straetmans is Director of Communications at Pfizer, Germany. Julian Rosenkranz is Senior Project Manager for Pfizer’s vaccines unit and conducts stakeholder projects on the topic of disease prevention. The interview was realized as part of the research project „virtual stakeholder dialogues“.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us!
About the study
Is it possible to conduct stakeholder dialogues virtually? This was a question often asked during the COVID-19 pandemic when no face-to-face meetings were allowed. The research team consisting of Dr. Ansgar Zerfass, Daniel Ziegele and Hannah Kurtze from Leipzig University conducted 39 interviews with communicators form 35 German corporations, consultancies, and service providers between April and May 2021.
The study analyzed one of the five trends of the Communications Trend Radar 2021 – virtualization of communications – in more detail. The Communications Trend Radar is a recent research project by the Academic Society for Management & Communication. The study identifies each year five key trends that will influence corporate communications in the near future.