A Visit with Jack Quinn III
Head, State Government Affairs
What have we learned from the experience of a pandemic? How will it affect the work that public affairs professionals do?
I’ve said this internally at Alexion and externally to our partners, whether they are contract lobbyists or at advocacy groups and more. So much of my time as a lobbyist has been spent sitting and waiting to meet with elected officials, outside bathrooms and cafeterias and other places. And this work can be a grind, where you travel all over the country for a 10-to-15 minute meeting. You fly in the night before, you have dinner with colleagues, you have a breakfast session to prepare for the meeting, and then you fly back — all for that brief meeting. We took all that for granted at the beginning of 2020, and there is no way the beginning of 2021 is going to look like that. There were a lot of inefficiencies built into that way of doing business, and our work is going to be different.
Some of those inefficiencies will be removed, but what, if anything, will we have to give up?
Yes, there will be sacrifices, especially by not having that in-person contact we once took for granted. We like our work. We enjoy getting to know the people we work with, and you just can’t get to know people in a Zoom meeting the way you do over a beer at a bar. And to the extent that business travel as we have known it continues, it will be different. If you fly from Washington to Houston for a meeting and that is approved as business-critical, then you will be expected to get in the next five meetings you might need to have in Houston when you go.
During the Council’s recent State and Local Government Relations Conference, you spoke on a panel about working with newly elected officials. You yourself spent six years in elective office, from 2005 through 2010, as a member of the New York State Assembly. What did you learn from that experience that you wish other public affairs professionals knew?
I learned that 99 of 100 legislators are really good people who are in it for the best reasons. That’s true whether they agree with your opinions about politics and public policy or not. They enjoy what they do, and most of them could find a more lucrative career, given how much work they do on the weekends and holidays, away from their family and friends. My father was in Congress, so I grew up around politics, and I see how much these elected officials sacrifice to represent their constituents. That’s easy to forget at a hyper-partisan time when “politician” has become a dirty word.
You’re not only a lobbyist. You’re a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company, and the pharmaceutical industry is among the least trusted sectors in America. Do you ever find yourself having to justify what you do?
I’ve been a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney, so I’m used to taking hits. I think people’s attitudes toward the pharmaceutical companies are similar to their view of trial lawyers. Everyone hates trial lawyers until they get injured or falsely accused of a crime. And nobody likes pharmaceutical companies until they need a medicine that will help their sick child or save their life. I used to work for Vertex, a Boston-based biotech company that manufactures the only drug that treats cystic fibrosis. Not so long ago, a person with cystic fibrosis could expect to live into their 20s and they have significantly extended people’s lives well into middle age and beyond.
My sister has a good friend who has cystic fibrosis, and this friend never had a serious relationship, never thought she would ever own a home. And she took part in a clinical trial, and her lung function has been restored to close to what it should be. She’s getting married, she bought a home, and she’s thinking of having children. This would not have been imaginable even 10 years ago. What people get upset about with pharmaceutical companies is drug prices, and I understand that. As in politics, there are some bad actors but they don’t represent everyone else in this line of work.
What can you tell us, as someone who works for a pharmaceutical company, about the development of a vaccine?
I also worked for Sanofi, which is the world’s largest manufacturer of a flu vaccine. And they’re now working on a COVID-19 vaccine. And I can tell you the people working on vaccines take their jobs very seriously. They want to get this right, and it will take time. They want to get a vaccine out there as fast as possible, but it has to be safe and it has to work. Vaccines effectively wiped out the threat of polio and measles, diseases that not so long ago could be fatal. But I would add this: When a vaccine becomes available, people have to take it. It amazes me, but only 50% of Americans get their flu shots, and most of the time, flu shots are free. So if people want things to get back to normal, they’ll need to follow the protocols — and get vaccinated!
Reach Quinn at 202.341.1824 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Contact Kelly Memphis, manager of government relations and stakeholder engagement practice