Elizabeth Hurley may be the current face of Estee Lauder, but to
the beauty media at least, Sally Susman is the company's voice. As
senior vice president of global communications, she's in charge of the
creative PR teams behind brands such as Clinique, Mac, Aveda, and
Some of the firm's PR programs evolve more organically than others. Take
one of the company's best-selling product lines, Bumble & Bumble's Surf
Spray, a favorite of Susman's. The hair-care product was featured in a
story by The Wall Street Journal in July about the current craze for
"beach hair," the wild and woolly look that has replaced the sleek manes
As Susman reports, a third of the company's revenues come from products
launched in the last three years. "There is a huge emphasis on newness,"
Susman's latest task, however, is launching the fragrance Intuition in
the US. The ad campaign, starring Hurley, is already running. But
strangely, this American product has been available to French women for
the past 14 months. "We launched it in the world's toughest market
first, as opposed to the US, so that it didn't seem like a second
thought," says Susman, well aware of the Gallic sensitivity to all
things foreign. "When we launch products in Europe, we stress the
science and technology. Europeans are very knowledgeable, and take a
serious approach to protecting their skin, so we'll take a scientist on
a tour to lead a symposium."
In a few months, Susman will be headed to another tough market:
She's set to accompany chairman Leonard Lauder on a trip aimed at
opening new stores in the country, and they'll be meeting with
government officials and local media. "What is required here is
patience; things happen on a different orientation," she says.
Susman has used her knowledge of overseas markets to rearrange the way
the firm handles its PR. "In the past, it used to be a domestic
operation organized by brand. Now we are reorganized globally." Susman
brought in two new global VPs in March: Hill & Knowlton's Janet Bartucci
and Bari Seiden from agency M. Booth and Associates. A third person,
Jennifer Mann, was hired from Saks Fifth Avenue to work as executive
director of global communications. Susman describes her new staff's
mission: "The goal is to help communicate the strengths we have as a
growth company - that we are global, and that we have multiple
distribution channels, not just the 500 retail stores."
As well as dealing with the media, consumer relations sits within
Susman's remit. "It was the genius idea of Leonard Lauder to combine the
two functions: consumer and PR. They report directly to him so that the
company will always have its finger on the pulse."
According to Susman, Estee Lauder has never had a product recall, but
she faced a tough situation with mad cow disease hitting the headlines
earlier this year. Some cosmetics use beef by-products in their
Susman was part of an industry-wide round table on the subject. "We felt
it was honest to do a thorough review, product by product, to make sure
they had no beef-derived input. It was important to move quickly to
eradicate the problem. Potential formulations had to be changed in a few
Former American Express colleague Gail Wasserman, now with The Maloney
Group, says of Susman, "Whether she's with her own staff or managing a
meeting for the board of directors in China, she is able to engender
loyalty." Wasserman tells how Susman, on vacation last month, spent a
good part of her time off writing staff reviews. "She is someone who has
worked for everything and earned everything she's got. She remembers
what it's like to be working your way up."
Susman started her career in government in the early '80s as a
legislative assistant on a Senate commerce committee, working for
congressional representatives such as Al Gore. Ten years later, she
found herself working for commerce secretary Ron Brown as deputy
assistant secretary for legislative affairs.
Then American Express called, asking if she'd like to return to lead
corporate communications in Europe.
Susan Koshak, American Express VP of public affairs, says that Susman
created an environment that helped turn people's small ideas into major
projects by throwing the weight of her enthusiasm behind them.
Susman spent three years at American Express in London, which gave her a
wider view of the world. "I strongly believe that all wisdom does not
reside in the US. For a US company, it is really important to appreciate
A modern art enthusiast, Susman can certainly lay claim to supporting
new ideas. She has a video installation in her office overlooking
Central Park's ice rink. The screen looks like a mirror at first, but
then shows someone applying lipstick, looking back at you. Ask Susman
about her own beauty routine, and she'll tell you there's nothing better
than getting in the bath at the end of a long day.
1984-1990: Legislative assistant on Capitol Hill for Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science and Transportation
1990: Joins American Express as manager, leaves as VP of corporate comms
1993: Joins Commerce Department as deputy assistant secretary for
legislative and intergovernmental affairs
1995-1998: VP, then head of international PR, American Express Europe
2000: SVP for global communications, Estee Lauder.