Arthur W. Page Society

The Central Role of the CCO - Revisiting the Spring Seminar Conversation with Ken Frazier

Ken Frazier served as chief communications officer, general counsel, and chief executive officer at Merck. Here’s why the CCO role was his favorite.

Rising through the corporate ranks at Merck, Ken Frazier had his eyes set on the role of general counsel. Being a lawyer by training, the role seemed to align perfectly with his skills and expertise. His CEO, however, had another idea, making him the company’s Chief Communications, Public Policy and Governmental Affairs Officer. Ken reluctantly agreed. 

After six years in the role, Ken finally attained his dream job of general counsel, but it was not what he imagined it would be. “Don't tell my lawyer friends, but the law seemed a little bit flavorless after having been on the outside world, dealing with these issues after all your job is dealing with the critical issues in the company and in society.” He preferred the CCO role. 

Throughout his tenure, as both CCO and CEO, Ken made it a point to stand up for his principles. He realized that while every organization has values, it is by living those values that an organization gains conscience. One of the most public episodes which showed this character was when Ken stepped down from then-President Donald Trump’s manufacturing advisory council, following Trump’s remarks on the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally. 

At the 2022 Page Spring Seminar, Ken sat down with industry icon and longtime Page Member Bill Nelson to discuss his leadership philosophy, his love for the communications function, and the role business can play in bettering society. View the videos below to hear the insights, in Ken’s own words.

On Why the CCO Role was His Favorite Job

“The chief communications officer for me was by far the most enjoyable intellectually stimulating rewarding job because I was outside the four walls of Merck. It was the one job in Merck where I had license to be outside and I have attention deficit disorder. That's my problem. And so I preferred not sitting through staff meetings. I was out in the outside world where we were bringing drugs to the market. The first drug that actually changed the standard of care for HIV was called Crixivan. You don't need to know that. But you know how fascinating it was to deal with the HIV-AIDS community? When we were developing that drug, I could come back and tell my colleagues stories about what it's like to be outside the four walls. Every time I see that movie, the Shawshank Redemption. It makes me think about what it's like to be in a corporation, right? Everybody's rooting for the guy to get outta there. Even if you do have to crawl through the sewer. That's why that job was so great, because I lived outside and I could come in and translate what I was hearing.”

Conscience of the Company

“Bill, you said years ago that the CCO is the conscience of the company. And I happen to think that's an important aspect. Hopefully you're not the only person of conscience in the company. That's really uphill climb, but I think there's two things. Number one, as I just finished talking about the importance of values and principles, but the second thing is this business of conscience. We all have stated values, right? In the United States, we have certain stated values. The question is, are our behaviors consistent with those stated values? That's conscience, it's the conscience that points to our behaviors, our strategies, our words, and says, 'are those consistent and complementary what we say we believe in?'

“I'm a lawyer. One of the things that I do, I chair the legal services council, I go around and I talk to people about the fact that we have these words on the Supreme court about equal justice under law. And then you look at how many Americans can't afford to be represented and they can be thrown out of their houses. They can have their children taken away from them. They can be put into an institution with no representation. How is that consistent? That's the conscious thing that we need to do. We need to make sure that if we say we believe in certain things, is our company behaving consistently with that.” 

Good Trouble

“So my colleague Cristal Downing, she's Merck's chief communications officer, and I often say to her, your job - and I'm using John Lewis' phrase - is to cause good trouble inside the company. You know, because often when it comes to taking a stand on an issue, there are three things that the business people know intuitively; that these are issues that are difficult, they're complicated, and if you take the wrong position, it can cost you from a reputation standpoint and a financial standpoint. So people want to go out on that limb only when they have assurance that it's the right thing for their company over the long term. And I always say data plus transparency equals trust… I think that's really important because otherwise people think, well, that's your opinion. We get into this argument about whether or not the outside world has a particular perspective.”

On Stepping Down from President Trump’s Business Advisory Council

It was important for me to establish that many of my employees voted for President Trump and I needed to make sure they understood that I wasn't judging them. I wasn't calling them a bunch of ignoramuses or a bunch of racists, because I realized that President Trump represented more than his comment about Charlottesville to them. At the same time, I want to be absolutely clear. I could not live staying on that Business Council after what the president did not say. And so by acknowledging their beliefs, I could therefore say, you need to acknowledge my beliefs… So I called my chief communications officer and my general council and said, I intend to step down. This was on a Saturday. I intend to put out a tweet on Monday morning before the market opens. Not only saying I'm stepping down, but I want to articulate my reasons. And we had a debate about whether I should have a quiet withdrawal or a noisy withdrawal. And I thought noisy, because if you know, unfortunately for me, I was down at the White House three times. And by coincidence, I was always seated next to the president. It was just a coincidence… Anyway, we decided that we would put a statement out. The second group that I consulted was the Merck board and I called the board and I said, I intend to step down. This is a matter of personal conscience. I ask you the following. Should I step down by saying, it's my personal values? Or should I invoke the company's values? And I'm very proud to say that they unanimously said, we want you to speak on behalf of Merck too. So I did consult people and I was giving support. 

Business Addressing Polarization

“When you look at our society, we are so politically divided today. Most of us, if we think about it, live in enclaves, surrounded by people that are like us as a result. Our children, if they go to public schools generally, or private schools that are approximate, they go to school with people that are not different from them, right? We go to church or synagogue or mosque with people who believe what we believe. And importantly, we can turn to broadcast media or social media where the opinions are exactly the same as ours. And it's a reinforcing mechanism. Business is the last place where people cannot choose to associate only with people who are like them and who believe what they believe. It's the last place. And I think it's important for us in business to recognize the role of business, to bring people together.”

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