Phil Myers, WFA Deputy President and SVP Public Policy and Government Affairs, PepsiCo, on how the policy function has had to adapt during the pandemic
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A year ago, when the spectre of the COVID pandemic started changing from something you saw on the news to something impacting your own community, few could have predicted the changes to our daily lives. COVID has tested us in many ways, both personally and professionally. Clearly, those who have lost loved ones or been severely ill have suffered in ways that many others haven’t, and my heart goes out to them.
Challenges in our professional lives are of a fundamentally different order, but dealing with them has been key to making sure society and the economy continue to function as best they can. Making sure electricity gets generated, water flows through the pipes and – closer to home for me – food and drink fill the shelves of the local shop, have been fundamental to helping society soldier through an unparalleled situation.
What has the pandemic meant for my team and the work we do in pursuing the right policy context for our operations and growth agenda?
As any manager, when a crisis comes, the first task is to ensure that the team is OK. For PepsiCo broadly, this meant making sure our frontline workers had the equipment necessary to keep them safe – and a big thanks to them and essential workers everywhere for their ongoing efforts. As for the public policy and government affairs team, we moved rapidly to working from our home offices, bedrooms, and kitchen tables around the world. For a team whose main pastime is being out and about, engaging with stakeholders in person, this came as something of a shock to the system.
However, we had work to do. At the start we had two areas of focus. First, how can we help those in need? We worked quickly to donate millions of meals to frontline workers, those whose income had been hit and children who lost access to in-school meals. We also used our distribution network to get PPE to where they were needed. This meant a great deal to us, as PepsiCo employees, supporting the communities in which we live and work.
Second was to ensure that we could maintain operations. Myriad lockdown measures had the potential to bring our plants to a rapid halt. We worked closely with national, state and local decisions makers to ensure our colleagues could get safely to the plants to produce the porridge oats, tortilla chips, water and juice which were so much in demand. But we also had to be able to ship the raw materials to our plants and transport finished goods out to local stores. Keeping the food supply going was essential for society – both in terms of physical well-being and morale there was enough for people to worry about without fearing food supplies would run out. The lesson here was the importance of having people on the ground around the world, with well-established networks so that we could liaise quickly and directly with decisionmakers in everyone’s interests.
As it became clear that the pandemic would have a more lasting impact as a team we began to reflect on how the world of public policy and government affairs would change. We took a step back and considered what politics might look like in the coming years. Would governments be rewarded or punished for their handling of the pandemic? Would this mean more multi-lateral cooperation or a retreat to the nation state? Would scientists become more trusted? We came up with a bunch of hypotheses – now we will have to see if any of them play out.
One prediction we are certain of – society is going to have greater expectations of corporations, the kind of which belong to the WFA. Interest in “ESG” (environmental, societal and governance) topics is morphing from being a side issue to a mainstream area of concern. There is a desire to know that companies are doing the right thing, not just for investors, but for the environment, their employees, those working in their supply chain, their local communities, and the world at large.
For those working in public policy and government affairs, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. It means you can’t be seen just to advocate for your narrow interests with no regard for the broader impact. At PepsiCo we’ve believed for some time that was not a winning formula. Rather, companies need to embrace the responsibility to serve our broader communities and embrace the chance to talk about the breadth of what they are doing – that includes pursuing their commercial interests, but also how they are contributing to society more broadly.
Our stakeholders, investors, consumers and employees expect no less.