‘It rekindles such deep-seated pain.’ CMI/Compas’ Stan Woodland on the death of George Floyd and teaching health marketers to be anti-racist

For Stan Woodland, the horrific deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor brought back an all-too-familiar pain, that of inequality and injustice. But the ensuing devastation – the burning and looting – brought him back to a specific day.

Thursday, April 4, 1968 – the day civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was felled by an assassin’s bullet while standing on the balcony outside his second-story room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. – would see a conflagration erupt in Woodland’s North Philadelphia neighborhood. Any stores not destroyed by the fires were ransacked by looters. Living through that time, and its gut-wrenching emotions, left a big impression on the then 10-year-old.

Fast-forward 52 years, and protesters have again taken to the streets of his hometown – and across the country – decrying racial inequity. In this interview, Woodland, who is the CEO and founder of CMI/Compas, reflects on the parallels between then and now, shares his thoughts on marketers’ response, and explains how he’s using his influence to effect change in thinking among the healthcare marketing community.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

I’m speaking with you after the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Their deaths, and the protests that ensued, were a painful reminder of the deep divisions ailing our country. What’s your take?

To be honest with you, I’m just heartbroken to see what’s happened to these individuals and this kind of behavior that’s still going on. It just can’t be tolerated. And I completely understand the peaceful protest that’s going on. It’s just a desire to get people to listen, to try to understand what this injustice means to the African American community. It rekindles such deep-seated pain, inequity, prejudice and bias. And we just want it to stop.

I am also really saddened by the violence and the looting that’s occurred, because it takes away from where the energies and focus need to be – and that is on the incident with Mr. Floyd. What happened to him was tragic and you want the focus to be on that, so that kind of behavior should never, ever happen again.

The violence kind of reminds me of when I was 10, in April of that year [1968], when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. And I watched my North Philadelphia neighborhood literally go up in flames, and just about every store was looted or burned. My grandma had nowhere to get us food, because she had no car and she had to walk to the local store. She couldn’t understand why our own community would destroy the things we needed to survive on.

What can we, as a nation, do to begin to heal these serious problems?

When I think about what needs to change, I think, “Now’s the time for those in law enforcement, who truly honor the ‘serve and protect’ motto, to do themselves what they’ve been asking us to do: If you see something, say something.” The blue-code practices in law enforcement to protect one another have to come to an end.

There are thousands of police who are not racist, and they need to stand up, take a stand and protect the integrity of the job. When they see something they know is wrong in their own ranks, they need to say something so change can happen. When people start to see this kind of change happening within the law-enforcement community, then everyone will have the opportunity to be encouraged because it’s a fresh opportunity to experience change.

Your company gave a donation to the NAACP, voiced support for several movements and use its social channels to post inspiring messages. Can you talk about why you felt that was appropriate?

We felt it was appropriate because without adequate resources, like the legal defense fund, innocent people who are trying to stand up and be heard and fight for change will not have the resources they need to do that. This is a very small way that we can at least contribute to providing resources. But beyond that, we are looking for other organizations that we can support.

We’re trying to identify organizations who are interested in donating to organizations designed to help the African American community and other diverse communities rebuild and clean up from all the devastation that’s been happening and the looting, and to try and rebuild those stores and businesses in those communities so they can survive. I will match dollar for dollar wherever our staff choose to donate.

We’re also looking to give some time off for staff who don’t want to donate with cash or financial payment. Maybe they want to roll up their sleeves and go into a community and rebuild, so we’re trying to give them time to do that if they want to.

But at the core, with everyone dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and violence happening over the past week or so, we want everyone in the organization to feel supported and safe. And this is especially true with our African American staff, because their communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, as well as the injustice and inequities by a very small but toxic portion of law enforcement. So we have to be uber-sensitive to that community, because they are really struggling with what’s happening in those areas.

What kinds of other initiatives are you planning and advocating for moving forward?

The support we’re putting forth is for a path forward toward improvement. We’re encouraging safe and open dialogue about racism and inequities that still exist in our society. We’ve been pulling together a wide range of educational resources, because in order for things to change, we have to understand each other – the struggles, the pain, the ignorance, the lack of knowing. Our People team has done a wonderful job of compiling a wide range of educational resources.

It starts with how can your voice be heard by your legislators. Put them on notice of the kinds of things you want changed, of what you will and will not settle for going forward, how to be an ally during a time of tragedy, acknowledging micro-aggression, understanding all forms of racism. It’s not just a black or white issue. There are many types of racism.

We provide a wide range of literature and books, such as how to be anti-racist and what is white privilege. A white person may not even understand there is such a thing because they can’t relate to it – and read about it, understand how it can unintentionally manifest itself and the impact that can have on others.

These are a snippet of the resources we made available to staff, because we want people to feel educated and empowered and have an open and honest dialogue with one another. (The agency actually built an internal wiki of resources ranging from books, like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, to articles, videos and events. All staff are encouraged to utilize and add to it. -Ed.)

We also provided resources for parents – because if you really want to eradicate racism, you have to start with our children. Teach them early on that we are all equal and that they should treat everyone equally. If you start there and arm parents with the right kinds of resources and tools, ones that give them the confidence to speak about these kinds of things, then maybe they’ll be more encouraged to instill that in their child.

We’ve given our Diversity & Inclusion teams and our employee resource groups freedom, so that a wide range of diverse groups have a voice to communicate to us and to leadership what it is we need to do to ensure they have the opportunity to be heard and feel equal and supported and have the same opportunity for advancement as everyone else. It’s been really beneficial to have our staff have a voice during these trying times.

A lot of agencies posted the black box in support of last week’s #BlackoutTuesday, with some also pausing social channels – and in some cases their own operations – to allow employees to join protests, etc. Not to get into any specific agency’s actions, but what’s your opinion of these kinds of acts?

Honestly, I’m glad that they’re doing it. I’m pleased with the initial response I’ve observed so far from agencies in biopharma and even brands. It’s basically been a universal condemnation of the tragic events. And equally important, it’s been an acknowledgement of the pain and injustices and racism that still exists.

And many have pointed out the need to take action, but it has to be more than a few tweets and going dark on social media for a few hours or a day. What really will matter is the follow-through on their posts and the kinds of things they say are needed. Go from needing to doing. That’s what’s going to matter.

What’s really important is, what are you doing when no one is looking? When the world isn’t looking to see what you might say – what are you doing and saying then? It was encouraging to see CEOs like [WPP’s] Mark Read acting swiftly to initiate the creation of a global inclusion council but with the commitment to track progress centrally. It’s one thing to say it, another to do it, and then let’s track what’s happening as a result of the efforts.

We know that the black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to a variety of factors, from pre-existing conditions and inequitable care access to many having a greater exposure to the virus because of being in lower-paying service jobs. As the country reopens, what is the biggest danger for these communities, and what should business leaders keep in mind?

I’ve participated in a couple of virtual meetings with a group of senior leaders from a wide range of agencies. And the initial focus is on creating ideas and actions to help the black and brown communities, who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. And that led to other dialogue about the need to educate our organizations, about the need to be sensitive to the fears and concerns of our staff returning to work from this pandemic. Because those fears are real.

It’s one thing to be working remotely from the comfort of home, but when you’ve lost your job and gone from having a job and providing for your family to standing in a line at a food bank – and then when you finally can come to work, you’re fearful for your health and safety – we have to be mindful and sensitive to those issues because they’re very real.

So when someone flips the switch and says, “It’s okay to go back to work,” we can’t have an expectation that everyone will be ready, especially people in those communities. So it’s been a great dialogue and sharing with people from all kinds of agencies. The ideas have been energetic, but it’s all about putting those ideas into action.

We saw many pharma company CEOs, after Merck’s Ken Frazier appeared on CNBC last week, join in the chorus condemning racism and calling for unity. What’s the appropriate response from biopharma CEOs in your view? 

I thought he summed it up really well, and it really applies to all of biopharma. Because in our industry, we’re not as diverse as we need to be. And what I would hope is those CEOs will ask themselves, based on the actions they’re now taking to improve and eliminate racism and bias in their organizations, “What are we doing in a tangible, measurable way to make sure that our African American staff, as well as other diversity groups within our organizations, feel better a year from now than they do today?”

That’s when you know things are improving, but you have to be intentional about that. That’s what I hope all CEOs of any business would do.

What else can businesses do “beyond the press release” to ease the barriers that lead to inequity for African American men and women, to close the opportunity gap?

We’re doing things like internship, but we found that we needed to do more. We had to recognize that we were never going to achieve the level of diversity we wanted because we weren’t even getting diverse candidates to apply for positions. So our fundamental net to attract candidates to the organization was not set up correctly.

We had to develop customized recruiting strategies to target diverse schools and diverse recruiting resources to even have a pool of candidates to even consider. And that has been beneficial, and we’re looking to expand it further to how we can perhaps rethink certain entry-level positions that could be done by a high-school candidate. And that opens us up to a wide range of inner-city high schools and potentially the ability to train high-school students to do certain jobs. This is a candidate pool that would have no idea what the healthcare media or the pharmaceutical business might even be, so we’re looking at some creative ways to do that as well.

Our goal is to have a candidate pool that is diverse and to make sure our hiring is in alignment with the candidates who desire to come into the organization. One of the things we’re pretty proud of is the level of staff development and training that we’ve formalized. We have the ability to take someone with no experience and train them on the pharma business and on how to do a number of our important entry-level roles as well as intermediate and supervisory roles.

Are there things that well-meaning people – whether they’re agencies, brands, corporations or individuals – shouldn’t do?

Don’t be afraid to talk about what’s going on. The thing that I hear universally is, “I don’t know what to say; I can’t relate.” Don’t be afraid to have the dialogue or acknowledge that you may not be able to relate to the pain that your African American coworkers are going through. And don’t be afraid to get your coworkers to share with you their feelings and their fears, so you can better understand, so that you can be educated and enlightened.

It gives you an opportunity to know what you don’t know, to learn and to find a way to be supportive. Don’t be afraid to ask them what they need and ask, “How can I help?” And then you don’t have to be fearful of not knowing what to say or do. Give them the opportunity to share with you what that is, and then you can fulfill that.

This is a tough time in our nation’s history, with two major crises hitting at once. Do you think that, like COVID-19 served as a rallying point for the life-sciences industry in terms of innovating on behalf of the world to come up with treatments, vaccines and tests, that the issue of racial inequality is a “signature issue,” one with which our industry can identify and one to which it can lead a constructive response? 

It is, and I think it should be easy to do. We are an industry that serves all people – every race, creed, color, you name it. Everyone utilizes the products and services of our clients. So who could be more motivated to have diversity and equality than our industry? Why would you not want to do that?

You have to ask yourself, “Have you given your African American staff and other diverse groups within your organization a mechanism to be heard and a willingness to be held accountable for creating an environment where everyone feels like they are equal and have equal opportunity to advance and succeed?” And you have to measure it year on year, and look at each of your diverse groups.

Each year those groups should feel better and better about their equality, their feeling of equality, their opportunity for advancement, their opportunity for success. And then you will know you are on the right track in serving your staff, and your staff will be better prepared to serve the diverse customers that pharma is serving today.

Anything else you’d like to mention for how business leaders can help employees be more sensitive to the issues raised? What should white employees do to improve dialogue with their black colleagues, and vice versa?

The only thing I didn’t mention is something I personally believe in: If everyone could give each other, as a starting point, the benefit of the doubt. As an African American, I need to give the non-African-American person I’m taking to the benefit of the doubt that we’re starting off equally, that they don’t see me – another African American – as a lesser person. But until then, let’s start as an equal.

And if you see something that you don’t think is right, be willing to share it in a non-accusatory fashion. Let’s not start from the perspective that the other person automatically sees me in a certain way, because that just may not be true and could set everything off on the wrong footing. Not everyone is a racist.

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A pharma graduate turned into a content writer. Her passion towards writing and enthusiasm towards marketing trends paved a path for her to become a writer. She Has prior work experience as a content writer for digital marketing agencies and Healthcare clinics.

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