Unusual days for communications – Interview with Marian Salzman

Unusual days for communications – Interview with Marian Salzman

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to speak with an American author and one of the most successful managers of modern communication strategies, Marian Salzman. Salzman is currently the Senior Vice President of Global Communications at Philip Morris International, where she is working on executing the company’s ambitious plan to reduce tobacco harm. Prior to PMI, she served as CEO at Havas PR, an international communications company, for nine years. 

The main topic of discussion with Marian Salzmann was the daily order which was globally changed by COVID-19 and the role and function of communications in this shifted reality.

What role does social media play in this crisis? – With the background of social distancing, how much of an important connector is it for society?

Marian Salzman: Most of the last quarter of a century can be said to have been devoted to debates on how big the disadvantages or benefits of living in an online space are. Nonetheless, all of us acknowledge the simplicity and flexibility of such a category/type/kind of communications. However, with this simplicity, most of us believed that living in front of a computer or a smartphone screen was a more slothful/lazier and morally weaker alternative to “the real life” and that a valuable relationship “definitely” needed to be in physical space with other people. In my opinion, the COVID-19 crisis has led to a fundamental revision of such views.

To put it simply, online life has become our real life/ the reality of our life. In light of the situation of this pandemic, virtual space is no longer just a place where we go only for entertainment or communication. Today it is a completely real and tangible space where we are employed, we go to school, we buy food, and in times of need ask for help. Hence, in a period of fear of spreading the virus it has become the main link between us and other people. Therefore, despite the physical distance, people still manage to be together. Due to social media, virtual space has become a vital component of our real life. 

I’d like to ask you about the Media, in your opinion, what was the biggest mistake made by the Media concerning the pandemic?

Marian Salzman: Any mistake that we have seen throughout these last few months was probably due to the reason that given this specific situation, it seems the media has forgotten they must put facts in opposition to misconceptions. It is especially important, that Media stays loyal to the scientific truths regarding COVID-19 and clearly states/expresses their position against placing panic or ignoring facts by their own free will.

In addition, it seems like spreading information solely about the severe news resulted by the pandemic was not enough. Which was followed by the deliberate spread of various kinds of misinformation. We know that there have been attempts to use social media as a tool for influencing elections, and now we have seen that deliberately spreading deception during pandemic conditions can have even more severe consequences. 

From international experience, in light of COVID-19, which companies’ responsive actions against the crisis would you name to be the best examples of practice?

Marian Salzman: I think a lot of companies stand out in this regard. For example, the company Bauer, which used to produce hockey helmets, now manufactures personal protective equipment and masks for medical personnel. Breweries around the world and other producers of alcoholic beverages are currently manufacturing sanitizers to fight the virus.

Among them is Philip Morris, whose separate factories are currently used to produce sanitizers. Rolls-Royce, Ford, Virgin Orbit and Tesla have switched to manufacturing respiratory devices and other equipment. The list goes on and on. For example, Kering SA, the parent company of Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, is now producing facemasks, UPS is occupied with transporting rapid tests to laboratories, and Microsoft has created an online map showing the exact locations of infected individuals. I can say that even before the pandemic, I appreciated many of the products or services offered by these brands, however, given the current situation, I can say that they have all appeared in a newer and more interesting way.

Companies can now see clearly, how important it is to express that they put the well-being of people first.  Now is not the time for firms to conduct cost-benefit analyzes on what losses or benefits they will receive with the help of the public. Now, action is the most important.

COVID-19 has caused the global economy an enormous harm, in your opinion, how much time will it take for it to recover?

Marian Salzman: No one will be able to predict how much time the recovering will take. In addition, it is without a doubt, that many changes we have gone through by experiencing social distancing or transferring to virtual workspace will not be simply temporary. Although economies are starting to open up and crossing borders is becoming possible, there is a high probability that the way we purchase, travel, or participate in various social activities will remain changed. Maybe it will not be the same it was in the era prior to COVID-19. As for the businesses, big or small, they need to be prepared for this new reality.

Given the competitive market, what is the secret behind achieving success and claiming a leading position?

Marian Sazlman: I would say that there are no specific secrets to achieving this. What’s more, there is no secret at all.

One of the primary objectives is for the brand to find its own authentic self and speak from that position. Creating this foundation and strengthening relationships with customers is key.

It is also quite important to find the distinguishing factor in this competitive environment that sets you apart from your competitors and provides you with uniqueness. For Philip Morris International, it is our company’s aspiration to create a smoke-free future that gives us our uniqueness. In order to achieve this goal, we have to transform the company internally. In this regard, I am unable to recall any other business that has implemented such changes. 

After the situation has gone back to normal, what do you think, what will be the first steps that the companies take?

Marian Salzman: Even when businesses will be able to reopen, it is crucial/essential to use creative marketing and the right business approaches. For example, the restaurant business will have to fully revise its operating business models in order to maintain safety levels. In light of this situation, what will restaurant halls look like when they are 50% occupied? Or what kind of experience will the service be when/while using protective equipment? 

We can all take an example from the creative thinking we see around us (on our screens). Developing brand value does not consist of only marketing and sales, but also of understanding the importance of building a deeper connection with our customers and the communities in which we work.


About Marian Salzman:

Marian leads Global Communications at Philip Morris International (PMI) as it embarks on its transformation to a smoke-free future. Named one of the world’s top five trendspotters (her most enduring contribution: popularizing “metrosexual” for brand marketing), Marian is one of the most-awarded female public relations executives in the world. She has been listed in PRWeek’s Global Power Book, was named a PR News Top Woman in PR and inducted into the 2017 PRWeek Hall of Femme. Prior to joining PMI, Marian was CEO of Havas PR North America from 2009 to 2018.

She was chief marketing officer at PR firm Porter Novelli from 2008 to 2009, CMO at JWT Worldwide from 2005 to 2008, and executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide (later rebranded as Havas) from 2001 to 2004. In the early 1990s, she co-founded Cyberdialogue—the world’s first online market research company. 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). She has executed award-winning thought leadership, reputation management and social media programs.

Marian graduated with honors from Brown University with a degree in sociology. She lives in Lutry, Switzerland; South Kingstown, Rhode Island; Tucson, Arizona—and mostly in the cloud.

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