Cynthia Isaac
Cynthia Isaac

Finally, people are paying attention. In the stillness, quiet and anxiety of COVID-19, leaders are being called upon to address immediate needs around systemic racism and inequities in their communities and workplaces. And to do something. Corporate reputation, employee morale and leadership trust is at stake.

Unequal care creating unjust outcomes

In my field, the business of healthcare, the stakes are higher, and companies accustomed to focusing on symptoms, treatments and outcomes find themselves called to account for undeniable impacts of systemic injustice on the health of the populations they serve.

I know firsthand that workplaces within the biotechnology, pharma and hospital arenas aren’t as diverse as they need to be. In the biopharma industry, only 15 percent of executives and 12 percent of CEOs are people of color. Only 30 percent of executives and 16 percent of CEOs are women. The PR and communications offices are no better; data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2019 show that the PR industry itself is 89.8 percent white at the management level.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)

Institutional privileges, biases and preferences that favor one class of executives are reflected in outcomes. For example, our industry took on cancer and touted its great breakthroughs, and yet the mortality rate for Black women diagnosed with breast cancer is 42 percent higher than the comparable rate for white women.

Advances in care have steadily lowered the total infant mortality rate in the U.S. from 1995 to 2017. And yet, even in 2017, the infant mortality rate for infants of non-Hispanic Black women (10.97) was more than twice as high as for infants of non-Hispanic white (4.67), non-Hispanic Asian (3.78), and Hispanic (5.10) women. Pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births for Black and American Indian and Alaska Native women older than 30 was 4-5 times higher than it is for white women.

Looking inward before acting outwardly

Nearly all executives in healthcare recognized the necessity of taking a position on diversity and inclusion during the recent protests for racial equity. They saw the need for change, but the tentative steps they took reflected their uncertainty about how to proceed. Our own top-line review of leading pharmaceutical company responses in social media to BLM and George Floyd protests from late May to July 2020 revealed that:

  • Only about a third of content from pharma companies had an executive as the carrier of the DE&I message; most were general social media posts.
  • Few pharma companies tied social justice posts directly back to healthcare.
  • Only a fifth of mentions on social media had a connection to healthcare lines of business, health education or health inequities.
  • Few linked concrete steps companies are taking to pursue social justice.
  • Less than a third of pharma’s social justice posts were about taking concrete actions to improve DE&I in workplace or healthcare outcomes.

Most organizations are eager to engage with and communicate on behalf of their employees and the communities they serve. Many leaders, however, are unclear on where to start and fear getting it wrong. This comes in part from the realization that the nature of leadership is intertwined with the embedded injustice itself; the homogeneity of c-suites is well-recognized.

As companies and organizations tackle this important issue, here are three considerations:

First, evaluate where you are as an organization in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion journey. We saw in our clients a range of engagement levels within their own companies and leadership teams, fitting into four categories:

Disengaged. From the outside, these companies appear unresponsive to DE&I issues in society and lack diverse representation among their leadership.

Awakened. These companies behave reactively to social issues, articulating a need for change – but not a plan.

Active. These are engaged in some level of tracking of diversity and in measuring the impact of DE&I programs.

Leading. Companies that usually have established and robust DE&I initiatives in place, and participate in cross-industry engagements on DE&I issues.

Second, envision your goal. We recommend starting with a prompt assessment of your stakeholders’ biggest needs versus company actions to identify where you can make an impact as an organization.

Quick pulse surveys, social media analyses and advocacy relationships can all fuel insight into DE&I commitments and proposed messaging. Use those outputs to close the gap between where the company is and where it wants to be, identifying strategies for immediate and longer-term wins based on company ethos and stakeholder needs.

Third, bring in the experts. As we tackle some of society’s most challenging and sensitive issues, we need advice from people who are part of these communities, who have engaged their organizations and worked to align their company leadership behind DE&I commitment. We also need expertise from arenas outside of healthcare—from media, technology, finance, academia, non-profit and government—to provide diverse -perspectives and expert advice with real world insights. That’s why at Syneos Health, we’re putting together a cross-functional advisory council to tap the brain power of a cadre of experts to help move our clients’ positive intentions into potent action. We facilitate workshop-style sessions where leaders and these advisors can co-create solutions to reach corporate DE&I goals. The -output is a plan that’s creative, adaptable and -focused on solving your most critical needs by forging unique partnerships and embracing your most important stakeholders.

Responding today, reshaping tomorrow

The biopharmaceutical industry is working to save lives threatened by COVID-19, and I know that science and medicine will create the solutions we need. As healthcare leaders, we have the opportunity to drive overdue social change to improve outcomes and public health long after the pandemic has passed. The world is paying attention. Let’s use our voices and influence for good.


Cynthia Isaac, Ph.D., is Head of the Corporate Communications Practice at Syneos Health Communications.