By: Diana Bradley
The COVID-19 pandemic started to unfold as Kym White was in her final interviews for a number of roles — one being SVP and CCO at CVS Health. But White, who left her position at Edelman for Vertex Pharmaceuticals in the spring of 2018, actually had her eye on younger companies with a huge potential to disrupt and impact healthcare.
However, when the virus started ramping up in March, White found herself more and more compelled to join a company that would play a role on the front lines of addressing the pandemic.
“I knew CVS Health would be one of the few companies keeping its lights on when things were at their worst,” says White.
She adds that CVS Health’s “simple and clear purpose,” which is to help people on their path to better health, also attracted her to the company.
White actually has a history with CVS. Earlier in her career, when serving as global chair of the health sector at Edelman, she led the CVS Health account and was part of the company’s landmark decision to stop selling tobacco products in 2014. So she already was familiar with and admired the company’s mission and values.
White officially took on the role as CVS Health’s comms head in April. In her first 90 days, and from her dining room table no less, this is a sampling of what crossed her desk: Hero pay for frontline workers; the return of CARES Act stimulus funding; and figuring out how to respond to the various social justice matters happening nationally. Additionally, some CVS stores suffered vandalism and destruction from protests.
A key focus White had was ensuring people still had access to care and could take their prescriptions during a pandemic.
This, of course, was in addition to the ongoing communications work of a Fortune 5 company operating in three very complex business units: Aetna, CVS Caremark and CVS Pharmacy. And all of the company’s ongoing activities, including external, internal, content development, corporate events and business unit communications, were adapting their operations and content due to COVID-19.
White’s boss, Tom Moriarty, EVP, chief policy and external affairs officer and general counsel of CVS Health, has been impressed with how she’s handled everything thus far.
“[White’s] client service mentality, knowledge of healthcare communications and leadership skills have made a significant impact at CVS Health since the day she arrived,” says Moriarty. “She capably led the CVS team at Edelman and we’re thrilled to have her in-house now, leading our communications team at a critical time for our continued transformation.”
Campaigns born out of the COVID-19 era
One major undertaking by CVS since March has been standing up 1,800 testing sites and addressing issues with evolving technologies and lab timelines. The company has opened testing sites in areas serving communities disproportionally impacted by the pandemic, such as Black and Latino communities.
“We have done eight major waves of media relations work to make sure people understand how and where they can be tested,” says White.
In mid-August, CVS introduced Healthy Conversations, a monthly video and podcast series developed to showcase its clinical expertise and demonstrate how it is innovating in healthcare. It targets healthcare professionals, includes conversations with outside experts about clinical issues and is focused on COVID-19 response and recovery.
“CVS Health wants to be seen as a reliable source of info in a world where sometimes people aren’t certain who to believe,” explains White of the effort.
To celebrate the company’s frontline workers who “bring their heart to work,” CVS launched its Heart@Work campaign, supported by Edelman. The activation included a page on its website sharing employees’ stories through blog posts and videos.
CVS also launched an initiative called #TimeForCare focused on encouraging people to seek help for chronic conditions, and not let a fear of going to the doctor postpone necessary care.
“In this era of COVID, we know that in the first half of the year, a lot of people deferred medical care, particularly for chronic conditions,” White says. The campaign, which includes a microsite and TV spot, aims to alert people to any extra solutions Aetna can provide.
Re-evaluating the chessboard
CVS Health’s comms team hasn’t seen any furloughs or layoffs and has actually been “needed more than ever” in the current environment to make sure stakeholders, customers and staffers remain connected and informed as the business continues full throttle during the pandemic. White does plan to reorganize the comms team in the coming months, but she notes that the changes will be “nothing dramatic.”
“I am looking at the pieces I have on the chessboard and making sure people are in the right places and that they are doing the highest value work for the company,” she says.
CVS works with firms including Edelman, Glover Park Group, W2O and Sloane. White says she is very happy with the company’s agency partners, but may be making changes to what each one works on.
“I am taking a look at our agencies and making sure we have the right partners assigned to the right activities,” explains White. “I want to look at duplication of effort.”
Another area she is looking at potentially changing is how CVS uses various social media platforms.
Aside from the pandemic, CVS also wanted to respond to the social injustice conversation taking place in the U.S. A number of brands, such as The North Face, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and REI, pulled their ads from Facebook in July to support the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which calls for a boycott of the social media network due to its positions on hate speech and misinformation.
CVS took a pause on social media, but not just for July and not necessarily as part of the general Facebook boycott that was happening.
“We are evaluating our partners and the steps they are taking to eliminate hate speech,” says White. “We didn’t join the boycott per se because we wanted to make sure we could play by our rules and we could make sure our criteria were satisfied without having to move en masse as a group.”
Internal comms and keeping staffers safe
White oversees 120 staffers. Her team has been working from home since March. Once the pandemic has ended, employees will be offered more flexibility on how and where they get their work done.
“Companies have learned very quickly that productivity hasn’t suffered,” White says. “I don’t think we will go back to how it was before [working full time in an office].”
White admits she has still never gone to the CVS Health office and doesn’t even know where it is. Even so, she has had no problem getting to know senior people at the company remotely. But with working from home, it has been harder for her to acquaint herself with other people in the organization in the spontaneous ways she might have bumped into them if she was in an office environment.
“The disadvantage of working from home is not getting to know other department members as quickly or easily as I would in a normal working environment,” White explains. “There is no running into someone in an elevator or talking to a more junior colleague at the coffee machine. Those opportunities have disappeared.”
But while White is focused on her team and how they are staying connected, she has also been working to keep employees who are required to work on-site safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
CVS Pharmacy locations have remained open during the crisis. The company has made sure employees have personal protective equipment and strongly encourages all customers to wear masks “out of respect for our colleagues,” says White.
But it has been a challenge enforcing face mask rules for customers, and some patrons have become abusive or have damaged stores when questioned for not wearing masks. White says CVS does not ask employees to play the role of security officers.
“The whole issue of wearing masks has been politicized,” White notes. “We don’t want to put any colleagues in danger of having to enforce the policy. They are not law enforcement.”
Along with COVID, a more general challenge White is keeping her eye on within the healthcare industry is making it more affordable and accessible to people. To help with this, last year, CVS expanded certain retail locations with HealthHUB offerings for primary care alongside its basic Minute Clinic services.
“There is a shortage of primary care physicians,” says White. “We see ourselves as a supplement to primary care — a support system to make sure more care is provided at community levels and affordably to keep people on their path to better health.”
CVS Health, which raked in $257 billion in 2019 revenue and has nearly 300,000 employees, is best known for being a retail pharmacy. Three quarters of all Americans live within three miles of a CVS, and often have longstanding relationships with their pharmacists. The company has 10,000 stores across the country, DC and Puerto Rico and 4.5 million customers are served by CVS pharmacies daily. Additionally, 1,100 Minute Clinic locations serve 54 million people a year.
“The idea that we have that footprint is really important as we think about COVID-19,” says White. “It has been speeding our evolution of serving our customers and clients in the community and home and in the palm of their hand through digital solutions.”
One unexpected consumer behavior to come out of the pandemic has been the massive response to telehealth.
“We have seen an acceleration and the acceptance of and adoption of telehealth solutions that will advance that business segment,” explains White. “We have probably advanced telehealth as much in five months as anyone thought we could in five years.
Going forward, CVS Health is focused on transforming the delivery of healthcare.
“That won’t happen overnight,” says White. “We want to make healthcare more accessible, affordable and connected. New products and initiatives will launch going forward to bring that to life.”