Kym White, SVP & Chief Communications Officer at CVS Health, discusses the challenges of integrating communications for multiple businesses under one cohesive brand. Kym also shares with us her experience of taking on a new leadership role amid the ongoing pandemic.
Having been on both the agency side at Edelman and now the client side at CVS Health, Kym gives tips on building successful relationships between the two.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: KYM WHITE
DOUG: Kym, people do think of CVS as their corner pharmacy, but they’re much more than that. Can you maybe explain a little bit about that?
KYM: Yeah, that’s absolutely right, Doug. CVS is so much more than just a corner drugstore. There’s a lot more to the company than that. And I don’t think that that’s really well known. We’re actually Fortune number five now, we have more than $250 billion in revenue, and we’re involved in a lot of different aspects of healthcare. We’re actually three huge companies really rolled under one roof. There is Aetna, the insurer, there is CVS pharmacy or CVS retail I think which so many people know across the country since we’ve got more than 10,000 stores, and there’s also a business that’s called Caremark, the pharmacy benefits management business, meaning we manage the prescription drug benefit plans for lots of companies across the country. And all three of those companies plus some others that may be less familiar collectively makeup CVS Health.
DOUG: That’s a great explanation. One challenge might be navigating… there’s different public feelings about each of those types of companies say your local pharmacy versus your health insurance provider. How do you navigate those different public feelings about that?
KYM: Yeah, that’s very true, Doug. That’s exactly right. The way that our communications is structured is we’ve got business unit communicators, because of course each of these businesses is so big and so complex with its own stakeholders and customers and constituencies that they need to be handled as though they are independent businesses. But, of course, we need that bigger picture thinking too, especially as we look to integrate these businesses and to make healthcare more affordable and more accessible. So, you’re absolutely right in hitting on one of the key challenges. Lots of people don’t love their health insurer and that’s something we have to keep in mind when we think about communications programs and how we try to humanize Aetna for our members. Many people don’t even know what Caremark is. It’s one of those businesses that works behind the scenes for you, but if you’re a big corporation, or a benefits manager you might. But PBMs oftentimes are sort of villainized because lots of folks don’t really understand what they do, and that they’re there to be the middleman to reduce the cost of drugs ultimately for consumers. And then of course there is CVS pharmacy, and that’s the retailer that there’s a lot of brand love for. So that can give us a halo effect certainly. We know that people across the country trust their pharmacist, that they turn to CVS Health, and we certainly hope as we think about the whole package that we can take the best of each of these businesses and ultimately bring a more integrated offer to market as time goes on.
DOUG: For CVS itself their move to stop selling cigarettes as a statement of what they were about was a very powerful move that generated a lot of goodwill. Now to add to your excitement as Chief Communication Officer, you started at that job when the pandemic was just getting underway. How was COVID impacting what you’re doing in your business and in your communications, as well as how did it affect your startup in that role?
KYM: Oh gosh, there’s so much there. Well COVID of course has changed my world, it’s changed the world of CVS, it’s changed our working world. I haven’t been to our office yet. I have been working from my dining room table since I started with the company in late April, but since you mentioned tobacco, I think that’s an important part of the story. I had had a prior relationship with CVS Health. In fact, I led the CVS health business when I was with Edelman. And in 2014 when CVS decided to stop selling cigarettes I was a part of that announcement and a part of that program, and to this date it is one of the things I am probably most proud of of having been associated with, and it left an indelible impression because what it demonstrated then and now is that when CVS wants to use its force for good, when it really wants to leverage its footprints, it can make a big big difference. Because now that six years have passed, there are lots of public health experts who actually credit that move with helping to reduce smoking in the United States. So, that work left its mark on me, and I think we’re in a whole new era now with COVID where I think as you’ve seen, and many of your audience may recognize, we have gotten very involved in COVID testing, and that was not necessarily what our business was about six or 12 months ago and yet more than 1,000 parking lots had been repurposed, and there are now nearly 2,000 sites and we are deeply deeply involved in COVID-19 testing. What COVID has really done for us is it’s accelerated a lot of the change that was already underway at CVS Health. It’s really accelerated that strategy as people have changed their behavior in very very short order.
DOUG: It’s impressive that a Fortune 5 company could also be nimble, as everyone’s been required to be during this time of COVID and also social justice issues. One point you referenced with your work at Edelman when you were on the agency side, there’s often possibly a disconnect between agencies and brands. Agencies have their wishes… “if only the brand did this we could do a better job.” But the brands have a different perspective possibly. Being on both sides, what can you sort of shed light on about what makes that relationship work best?
KYM: Oh gosh, well, I think it all comes down to true partnership. It comes down to operating as though you are all part of one team, and not really thinking about who is on which piece of letterhead. Those have always been the best agency client relationships for me, whether I have been the agency partner, or I’ve been on the client side. But when you sit within the client organization you become I think really aware of certain things that are challenges that that are maybe harder to appreciate on the agency side. For example, I can think of so many instances when I was on the agency side and I would think, gosh if these people would just partner together or bring these business units together in service of one common objective this would be so great. And of course what you learn once you’re inside a company that sometimes that can be a little bit more difficult because there are other agendas and other objectives, and just real life things that can get in the way.
DOUG: That’s an interesting perspective. And finally, there was an issue you requested we consider, for some it’s a very important issue, others might look at it as somewhat the lighter side, but I will do that, honor your request. What is the story with the long receipts at pharmacies and will that be changing?
KYM: I’m just the Chief Communications Officer, I’m trying to solve the pandemic. I’ll try to move on to that one once we’ve solved for the need for testing in America.
DOUG: Yeah that sounds like a more important priority at this point, so hopefully we’ll have you back to address the receipt issue. In the meantime, I think you’ve given our viewers awesome advice and lots of things to think about. Congratulations on your role and success and continued good luck to you.
KYM: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.