In Conversation with Dr Michael Preuss

In this exclusive interview with Reputation Today, we delve into the insights and experiences of Dr. Michael Preuss, a seasoned professional with over two decades at Bayer. As digital communication continues to evolve and reshape industries globally, Dr. Preuss sheds light on its impact, the transformative journey of communication, and the exciting challenges and opportunities it presents.

During his recent India visit, Hemant Gaule, Dean of the School of Communications and Reputation got a chance to interview Dr Preuss and speak with him on various issues.

Hemant Gaule: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Preuss. Can you share a little about your journey at Bayer, especially in the context of the evolving digital communication landscape and its impact on your industry?

Dr. Preuss: Firstly, a lot has evolved over the past few years. I joined the company over 20 years ago and have been the head of communications for a little over seven years. The magnitude of changes in communication patterns, the way people engage, the transformation of the world, and even the company itself is profound. It feels just like yesterday when we were considering establishing an internet presence due to the rise of the internet. Now, we are discussing how regenerative AI like ChatGPT will revolutionise communication.

What makes this profession thrilling is its ever-changing nature. It’s also a reason why I have been with Bayer for so long, because of the different businesses, global presence, and the pace at which our communication is evolving. It is always engaging and never dull. From establishing an online presence and mastering search engine optimisation to navigating various social media platforms across countries to which debates we participate in, the landscape is vast. Now, with the introduction of AI tools and methods, the way we perceive the world is undergoing a shift. This is not only an enabler but also a captivating journey. I value the insights gained from our country organisations and the fresh perspectives the younger generation offers. For instance, I’ve learned a lot about social media from my children. You have to be a learner as this space is constantly evolving.

HG: Any specific ways in which perhaps life sciences organisations like Bayer, their journey on digitisation is different from what might some expect otherwise?

Dr. Preuss: Well, I think the question is always if you translate public relations into presence and relevance and not just, you know, public relations like PR. Then, if you are in the life science industry, in our case, in the three businesses of agriculture, prescription pharmaceuticals and OTC consumer health products, that is basic human needs and that is something that has always been the centerpiece of what people are truly passionate about because it serves their basic human needs. What we also see, is a rising interest of stakeholders in what we do, so there is a lot of interest in what a company like ours does in order to secure health and nutrition, and that also stipulates the discussions and conversations that are actually going on in the social arena.

So, especially in social media, the engagements that we have, and in appearances having our own employee base as our ambassador.  Also, if you look at it from, you know, years ago where you say it is a kind of one voice policy and the communications team shapes this and can do this.  Right now, we have 100,000 employees globally and those employees are passionate about what they are doing and sharing their stories, which is a totally different way of how communication is being managed.  There are as always and also in our industry, certain boundaries that you have to adhere to, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Depending on the regulations that you have, you figure out how you communicate and engage locally.  So, there might be some differences between what can and what cannot happen. But overall being open to what we are doing, allowing those conversations to happen and contributing with very meaningful, let’s say, inputs to basic human needs like health and nutrition that makes it extremely meaningful and of course in this, we have a consumer health business and that’s where we target the consumers, but we otherwise are a B2B business where we are going to make that impact for society that we have to share over those platforms. And in that journey, content is king and of course, digitalisation helps us to broaden these platforms.

HG: How do you see AI, and generative AI in particular, impacting the communications space overall and especially for your organisation?

Dr. Preuss: It will definitely be another moonshot change that we are going to see in communication.  I think it’s much too early to say exactly how that is going to shift or change, but it will, and starting with the texts, that we already see, I think there is a good opportunity.  Also, the jobs that we have within communications might be changing a lot. So far, there are companies that have listening capabilities, have data analysts and they are looking at the data and what that actually means.  But I think in the future, we need capabilities in prompting to really get the answers from regenerative AI machines that we would definitely want to have.  So, totally new skills are going to be required in any communications team, but for now, it helps to make our job better.

Is there a better way to express things?  It is an enabler, it helps us.  Is there a better way to draft stories?  Right now, you can create explanation videos. It’s not really there yet, but we are taking mini steps.  Everything that I see doesn’t really impress me enough to say that we can use it immediately for communication purposes, but it helps us to get better. Maybe there will also come a point in time when entire campaigns can be planned through AI tools.

Right now, there still needs to be a human being in control and making an assessment of what works, and what doesn’t work. The quality you basically get right now is still poor. But again, for me, it reminds me of the very first step, when a cell phone was invented and see where we are today! So, in a few years from now, that may become a very natural tool and it will definitely change our job.  I wish I could say exactly how, but right now I see it as an enabler, a supporting tool that we can use. In the future, we have to see what all is possible, what all is thinkable.  I’m still a big believer that humans need to be in control because there is also a debate about regulating AI, what that means, and what you get out of this, but it is something every communicator needs to deal with these days.

HG: What’s the most significant risk you see with AI for your business?

Dr. Preuss: It is really the question of what are the sources that those AIs are actually using, which might lead to some intellectual Property (IP) related issues. Since content is being created, where does that ownership of the IP ultimately lie? Furthermore, there might be different regulations applied from country to country, so for international organisations, this might become more challenging, what does that actually mean, and how do we basically apply this. While I currently view AI more as an opportunity, especially for communicators, we must be vigilant about the risks I’ve already mentioned. Despite these concerns, I believe AI presents vast possibilities, especially when thinking beyond just the communications domain. There might be different issues coming up, but when we talk about communications, I would say, it is largely an opportunity for us. 

HG: Have you experimented with ChatGPT? What has been your experience, and what concerns and opportunities do you see?

Dr. Preuss: Certainly, I’ve explored it extensively. It’s intriguing what one can achieve with it. However, there are limitations, like not being able to input sensitive prompting questions into ChatGPT. For stock-listed companies, this poses challenges when seeking assistance in formulating certain content. Data privacy and data handling are also concerns that need addressing.

Despite these challenges, many are experimenting with ChatGPT. The quality of its output is impressive, and it’s continuously improving. This progress suggests that, in the future, communicators might be able to delegate some tasks to ChatGPT, freeing up time for more strategic work. For instance, in community management and social media, chatbots are already being used in this direction.

When using AI tools like chatbots or ChatGPT, it is crucial to clarify the source of the information. We need to differentiate between human and machine interactions for transparency and credibility. Currently, I view ChatGPT as more of an inspiration rather than a tool for automatic content generation. The quality isn’t quite there for direct online publishing, but it’s advancing rapidly.

HG: I’d like to understand your views on fake news, especially its impact on your organisation. Do you see any vulnerabilities, perhaps on the consumer or B2B side? How do you address this issue?

Dr. Preuss: There’s definitely a substantial risk with fake news. The danger amplifies when such misinformation finds its way into echo chambers where individuals aren’t exposed to a diverse range of information. To counteract this, traditional media and dedicated journalists remain crucial. These professionals typically prioritise a comprehensive, fact-based approach over biased views.

When confronting fake news, speed is paramount. News spreads rapidly, and in a global company, misinformation in one region can quickly permeate others, especially when fueled by insular bubbles resistant to broader perspectives or factual corrections. In response, organisations must act swiftly in two primary ways: first, by promptly correcting any misinformation and proving its inaccuracy, and second, by sensitising journalists and liaising with reputable media sources that can validate the truth and label the misinformation as fake news. Ultimately, fact-driven narratives should guide our approach, and being agile in countering false information is essential.

HG: Can you discuss any incidents where fake news directly impacted your organisation?

Dr. Preuss: Thankfully, we haven’t had a major incident with widespread fake news that I can mention. However, there are times when certain opinions, especially in the realm of science, get amplified while others get sidelined. When this happens, we engage in conversations to present a comprehensive perspective, mostly through media relations.

We’ve also encountered fake profiles of senior executives. In such cases, we act swiftly, collaborating with the platform hosts, since they too wouldn’t want fake accounts on their platforms. Our monitoring and listening capabilities play a crucial role here. The quicker we become aware of such issues, the faster we can respond.

We’ve managed to shut down several fake accounts effectively. While these accounts didn’t post much content that could cause significant harm, the risk is that if left unchecked, they could gain credibility and followers. Such accounts could then spread false information that doesn’t represent our organisation.

HG: I’d like to discuss the pandemic and its impact on global communications. Can you share your approach, challenges, and solutions during this period?

Dr. Preuss: Our mission, “health for all, hunger for none,” underscores our role as a system-critical company, especially during a pandemic. It’s not just about ensuring access to emerging treatments like vaccines, but also maintaining supply chains for essential medications like those for cancer or cardiovascular diseases. The primary goal was to avoid disruptions despite the challenges of the pandemic and the shift to remote work.

To manage this, we established a global crisis management team led by the CEO for immediate decision-making. We also had local crisis teams in various countries, all focused on ensuring product supply and safeguarding employee health. The shift to remote work brought its own challenges: technical requirements, information dissemination needs, and addressing employee concerns. Our small global team, which I was a part of, worked tirelessly to communicate both internally and externally.

We had to act swiftly and decisively, with the primary focus on maintaining operations. Shutting down was not an option, given the potential repercussions. Apart from key decisions at the top, many ground-breaking initiatives came from our employees. Their insights were invaluable. For instance, in India, we supplied oxygen to hospitals during the acute shortage, supporting rapid COVID testing and even facilitating vaccination. We set up vaccination centers in some countries, which we later opened to the public to accelerate the process.

In essence, while top-level decisions were made quickly, we also empowered and trusted our employees in the field to act. Their proactive approach and the freedom to implement solutions without waiting for top-down directives made all the difference.

HG: Was the bottom-up decision-making approach introduced during the pandemic a new shift, or was it already in place?

Dr. Preuss: During crises, like the pandemic, the bottom-up approach proved highly effective. It is worth considering, what practices from the pandemic can be continued. Before the pandemic, many might have doubted the efficiency of remote work. However, the pandemic demonstrated its viability. While face-to-face interactions remain valuable, combining them with digital collaboration has been very effective.

We plan to further decentralise ownership and accountability, pushing them to the levels where the actual work happens. The success during the pandemic shows this approach works and is fulfilling for employees. Being empowered to make decisions, ensuring product supply, and keeping everyone informed were pivotal during the pandemic. We aim to carry these lessons forward. Decisions being made at the grassroots level will be a theme for Bayer in the coming months and years.

HG: Can you discuss your strategy for managing both internal and external stakeholders, especially in light of recent leadership changes? Given the group’s diversity, how do you synchronise expectations and bring everyone together?

Dr. Preuss: Communication plays a pivotal role, especially when there are leadership changes. Stakeholders have numerous questions and desire clarity about the direction we are heading. The optimal approach is to engage in open dialogues with these stakeholders. For instance, after a CEO change on a global scale, the initial weeks are filled with “get to know” meetings with diverse stakeholders. There are town halls, site visits, and even smaller coffee chats to facilitate engagement.

When the CEO comes from outside the company, like ours, who joined from Roche, internal communication becomes even more vital. Employees are naturally curious about the new leader, their vision, and their plans. On the other hand, investors want insights into the company’s future direction and the CEO’s strategy. Our CEO, being from outside, had a learning curve and often shared his experiences and insights after visiting various company locations.

Media engagement is crucial too. Different media outlets, some unfamiliar with our company, need access and information. Our approach has been open and approachable, ensuring continuous conversations. While it’s understood that not all answers can be provided immediately, it is essential to communicate timelines and future plans as they become clearer. This journey involves a comprehensive communication outreach program to various stakeholders, including politicians and customers. It’s about ensuring a 360-degree engagement, and communication is undeniably the key, especially when someone is stepping into the role of leading the company.

HG: Does the new CEO rely on you for guidance, especially when interacting with internal stakeholders? What insights do they seek from you?

Dr. Preuss: It is crucial to grasp what matters to the stakeholders. Understanding what is relevant to employees, investors, and politicians at any given time is vital. They might have differing topics of interest and priorities.

Being the internal adviser, I represent the voice of the stakeholders. It is essential to anticipate their concerns and understand their perspectives. This knowledge is particularly helpful when someone from outside joins. They need guidance on the company’s internal dynamics and historical context. If the CEO says something, how might it be perceived based on past communications or actions? Providing this context helps the CEO avoid misunderstandings and ensures that messages resonate correctly.

In communications, there’s minimal time spent explaining our role. We jump into action immediately. As I mentioned earlier, speed is crucial. There is hardly any onboarding time. While planning and strategising are essential, we often find ourselves in action mode straight away. Efficient communication is paramount, especially when there’s a change in top management.

HG: Navigating the complexities of geographical and multicultural nuances must be challenging. How do you harmonise all these differences?

Dr. Preuss: Indeed, digital media ensures that any communication in one country is seen globally. A close connection with our communication teams across various countries is essential. This helps us understand regional perspectives and potentially differing stakeholder expectations. When you are surrounded by familiar voices, you might assume a global consensus, but often it’s not the case. Conversations with our country colleagues provide diverse insights that are invaluable. It is vital to be aware of regional sentiments so that we’re not caught off guard when forming a global position.

HG: On another note, Bayer’s dedication to sustainability and innovation has always impressed me. How does your communication team champion these efforts?

Dr. Preuss: Innovation and sustainability are the heartbeats of Bayer. When a company invests over 6 billion Euros annually in R&D, innovation is vital. Pairing innovation with sustainability is key, ensuring that sustainability is integral to our business operations. Sustainability targets are even tied to the remuneration of our senior management. It is not just a PR move; it is core to our ethos. For instance, innovations in digital farming can lead to reduced chemical usage, representing both business growth and sustainable practices. Effective communication on these topics is only credible when there’s substantial action behind it. This stance gives us a voice in global conversations and positively impacts our reputation.

The responses above are from Dr Michael Preuss as shared with Hemant Gaule.

Hemant Gaule
Hemant is an education leader based in Mumbai, India, and is passionate about education, policy, and media. After graduating from the Indian Institute of Management -Ahmedabad, he has counselled several private, social, political & government initiatives. He was a Co-founder & Director of Citizens of Accountable Governance, a team that spearheaded the national election campaign of India’s current Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi in 2014. After that, he has Co-founded (and is Dean of) India’s only institute dedicated to education and research in public relations – School of Communications & Reputation. In 2019 he became the first Indian to be conferred as a Fellow Accredited Public Relations Practitioners by ASEAN PR Network. In 2022, he was named among 40 Young Turks of India by Reputation Today Magazine. He can be reached at @HemantGaule on Twitter.

Be the first to comment on "In Conversation with Dr Michael Preuss"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.