‘The media didn’t want our ads’: Philip Morris comms boss

Philip Morris International had a problematic culture of ‘no comment’ and didn’t put names on its press releases, the tobacco company’s senior vice president of communications, Marian Salzman, has told an audience at Mumbrella CommsCon.

As a result of being a faceless brand – and people’s increasingly negative attitude towards tobacco – she said she’s had to spend time with companies persuading them to take the company’s advertising dollar.

Addressing Australia’s frostiness towards cigarettes, Salzman told the CommsCon crowd: “I’ve never stood up in front of an audience in a country where I knew I represented something that’s kind of hated”.

She said that before she got to Australia, she “didn’t really understand just how severe the dislike was for what we’re doing and where we are on our mission”.

“One of my first experiences was trying to unravel the fact that media would call, and it would go to a voicemail that we might or might not check, we might or might not respond,” she said.

She said she had to transform the belief that media relations had no place within the company.

“We didn’t put people’s names on our press releases,” she continued. “My first big executive decision was that for every press release that goes out of here, someone needs to have enough pride in what we’re putting out to put their name and their cell phone number on it.”

This led to misunderstandings about the brand’s purpose and intentions, she argued.

“Most paid media didn’t really want our ads when I got here,” she said.

“I had to go with ads to meet with major media companies to persuade them to take our advertising, and to understand how our advertising worked, and to understand that our first belief is that if you don’t smoke, don’t start.”

According to Salzman, 80% of PMI’s revenue still comes from combustible cigarettes, but 80% of its marketing spend is focussed on promoting a “smoke-free future”.

She explained part of PMI’s strategy was to put a human face to the brand, because “it’s really easy to hate big companies”.

“You’ll notice almost all of our communications have real people, with real jobs, real names, really putting out their point of view.”

In order for her to do her job, the comms boss admitted she had to learn to be what she called “a flatliner”.

“I pick up the phone, I assume something bad is going to happen on the other end… in learning how to do these things, it’s really changed me,” she said.

During her talk, she anticipated the criticism that might be directed at her, saying: “It’s really easy for you to say to me: ‘Why don’t you stop selling cigarettes?’ If we stopped selling cigarettes this morning, our competitors will sell cigarettes and tobacco product to everyone who wants to buy it.”

Salzman made it clear she didn’t agree with smoking, telling the crowd that her dad had died of lung cancer.

“I told the builders to pull our fireplace out. I will not live in a house with combustion after everything I have learned in these 11-and-a-half months at Philip Morris. The burn is really the enemy of good health. We have to do what we can to explain that.”

In her presentation’s conclusion, Salzman contended that PMI was a “really easy target”.

“It’s probably really easy for one or more of you to stand up and tell me that I ‘should be ashamed of myself, why would you do this to you career, how can you possibility face yourself in the mirror?’ Those are all questions I’ve already had to ask myself, we’re already used to the criticism, and some of it is fair. Some of it is really fair.

“We have to ask ourselves: ‘Are we here to get people to stop using combustible tobacco?’ If we are, that’s a noble choice, and if we’re not, it’s not a good thing to do or be.”


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