The making of the come-to-Jesus speech

For many executive communicators, the holy grail of the job is writing a speech in which the CEO calls for nothing short of social reform, first acknowledging that reform has to begin at home, in the company and in the industry and in business in general.

Well, Pfizer’s director of leadership communications, Grant Neely, wrote a speech like that recently for CEO Jeff Kindler, and he reported to us: In the current economic environment, it wasn’t all that hard.

We excerpt and critique the speech on pages 4-5; but here are the ingredients of the Neely/Kindler triumph:

A CEO with a genuine interest in affecting public policy. Something of a healthcare policy wonk, Kindler attended both U.S. political conventions this year, Neely says. And Kindler spends days every month in Washington meeting with members of Congress. So Kindler is conversant on the issues — and understands what’s politically possible.

A high-profile speaking engagement. Back in the fall Kindler was invited to speak at the Economic Club of Chicago. “We knew exactly what we were going to talk about,” Neely said. “It was just a question of the situation at the time.” As the Feb. 9 date approached, the economic situation was dark, and Pfizer had just acquired Wyeth, became the fourth largest U.S. company and announced 20,000 job cuts. This speaking platform was burning.

Groundwork already laid. To Pfizer employees, “Jeff has been talking this way for a while,” Neely says, referring to the section of the speech about how the company has to reform itself before it has credibility on the subject of national healthcare reform. “This is just the first time we’ve talked this explicitly and directly to an outside audience.”

And most important — an undeniable problem and a real need to communicate a plan to solve it. Drug companies have been criticized for years, and spent most of their rhetorical efforts defending their practices. But the dissatisfaction with the industry is universal. “We’re getting hammered on every front,” Neely says. “You’ve got to look yourself in the eye.” That’s what this speech does.

“We feel good about it,” Neely says. He didn’t poll the audience afterward, but he says they “passed the head-nodding test. You could see people leaning to each other and whispering to each other at the right points in the speech,” he says.

And the speech received the standing ovation it deserved.

Neely may be reached at: [email protected].


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