Newsmaker: Sue Hensley, National Restaurant Association

Sue Hensley, SVP of public affairs and communications at the National Restaurant Association, serves up healthy strategies as she gives the nation some food for thought.

Sue Hensley, SVP of public affairs and communications at the National Restaurant Association, serves up healthy strategies as she gives the nation some food for thought.


It's Friday night, and Sue Hensley's stepdaughter Lindsay has some exciting news. She got a $20 tip on a $100 tab at a restaurant where she waitresses.

While elated for Lindsay's success, Hensley sees this as a teachable moment. “How much profit do you think the owner made off that meal?” she asks.

“I don't know. $50? $80?” Lindsay responds.

“Actually the typical profit margin is 3% to 4%,” Hensley replies.

It is not the last time she will ask this question. In her role as SVP of public affairs and communications at the National Restaurant Association, Hensley often asks it to lawmakers to gauge their understanding of restaurants. “We are an industry that has one of the lowest profit margins. Anything that impacts that is highly problematic,” she says. 

As the nation's second-largest private-sector employer, having members of Congress understand the restaurant industry's importance is critical. The sector employs 13.1 million individuals, representing 10% of the US workforce. Restaurant industry sales are expected to exceed $660 billion this year, a 3.8% increase from 2012.

To grab lawmakers' attention in a new way, the association launched a program in spring 2012 called America's Restaurant Advocates, which serves as an information hub for politically active restaurateurs. Through an interactive website, the program educates and engages operators on key issues that affect the industry. The website also allows restaurateurs to share stories about how those issues affect their businesses.

May 2004-present
National Restaurant Association, SVP, public affairs and communications

2003-2004
US Small Business Administration, associate administrator, office of communications and public liaison

2002-2003
US Department of Labor, office of public affairs, various posts. Comms director (2001-2002); later named deputy assistant secretary (2002-2003)

1995-2001
Office of Tim Hutchinson, various posts. Press secretary (1995-1996); deputy campaign manager, Hutchinson for Senate campaign (1996-1997); comms director, Senator Hutchinson (1997-2001)

The association also has a Capitol Hill fly-in day for 600 to 700 restaurateurs this April to discuss concerns with lawmakers. To expand this, the association is looking into having local fly-ins where policymakers go into restaurants and hear from the owners on a more grassroots level.

The industry is focused on getting legislation passed that will continue to allow restaurants to write off or depreciate the cost of improvements and new construction over 15 years, rather than 39 years.

Along with this,  the industry is also working out how an employer mandate to provide insurance in the Affordable Care Act will affect restaurants.

Communications plan
Getting the word out to members and lawmakers involves a mix of media relations, social media outreach, and lobbying. As of December 2012, the trade group spent more than $2.2 million on highlighting issues with policymakers, according to research group The Center for Responsive Politics.

“The number of issues and the complexity of them on both the federal and state level has never been larger and more challenging,” Hensley explains.

Engaging in promotion work aimed at its membership and consumers about new nutrition-disclosure requirements for chain restaurants kicking in this year is expected to be a major area of focus for the trade group. Once the policy is in place, restaurants with 20 or more locations will be required to provide calories on menus and menu boards, and make other written nutrition information available upon request.

As American waistlines continue to expand, the restaurant association has taken an aggressive stance on nutrition and creating healthier options on its menus.

About one in three Americans are obese, according to the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Nationwide, about 17% of children less than 20 years old are also
obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In response to this growing problem, the association created a consumer-facing program in 2011 called Kids LiveWell that sets nutrition criteria for restaurants.

The program is unique not only for the National Restaurant Association, but also for most trade groups in that its outreach focus is consumers versus members, Hensley notes. To continue to promote the ef-
fort, the association hosted Twitter parties with mom bloggers in 2012. One Twitter party ended up trending worldwide, reaching 6 million individuals.

To complement the program, the association unveiled a Kids LiveWell app, which allows parents to find establishments offering healthy children's menu items. The app is geo-coded so users can find restaurants nearby. The continued PR momentum has resulted in the program growing from 19 brands and 15,000 locations at launch to 115 brands in 30,000 sites 17 months later.

“Not only have we seen growth and momentum, we have also seen greater resonance with parents,” Hensley says.

While the association has had success using social media, some of its largest members were burned last year.

At the start of 2012, McDonald's sent out two tweets with a #McDStories hash-tag to showcase hard-working employees. The campaign backfired when consumers posted negative stories about experiences at the fast-food chain, such as finding a press-on fingernail in some French fries.

Later in the year, Burger King and Taco Bell employees made headlines for tweeting pictures of themselves stepping in buckets of lettuce about to be served to customers and urinating into a plate of nachos.

When incidents like these happen, the association works hard to get the message across that for an industry that serves 170 million meals a day, “the number of incidents is extremely small,” Hensley explains.

When there is a national food recall, the association often provides crisis communications to its members, encouraging them to be as transparent as possible about how they are responding to an incident.

It has also promoted the various changes establishments have made to supply chains to avoid future issues from having an impact on their offerings.

Nutrition made fun

When not in the office, Sue Hensley likes spending time at home, cooking healthy options for her husband and four children who range in age from 3 to 23.

Her two youngest children can be picky eaters, so Hensley tries to get them involved in the food-preparing process. She has also found creating funny pictures with food or coming up with fun ways to describe what they're eating can help.

“My 3-year-old daughter eats raw broccoli because she thinks they're little trees,” she says. “Finding some fun terminology goes a long way.”

Hensley is also much more active in talking with her kids about the health benefits of food, a departure from how parents spoke to their kids when she was growing up.

“All I heard when I was young was that carrots give you good eyesight,” Hensley adds.

Safety beliefs
The association and members believe fiercely in food safety. In July, the trade group announced it had surpassed a milestone by issuing its 5 millionth ServSafe certificate, given to those trained in the trade group's ServSafe Food Safety program, which educates restaurant and food-service managers and staff about food-safety requirements and best practices.

Being clear about what exactly is being done when things have gone sour is a philosophy that has served Hensley well in her career to date.

“Her focus was never spin. It was always on communicating the facts,” notes Lisa Goeas, who was chief of staff at the Small Business Administration when Hensley was director of communications. “She always thinks in terms of what people are hearing as opposed to what a reporter is going to write. Her strategy isn't trying to second guess how a reporter is going to write the story, rather she tells the story that needs to be written.”

Hensley is also credited by the National Restaurant Association with creating and launching its sustainability initiative called Conserve: Solutions for Sustainability, now in its fifth year. The program educates restaurant operators and staff about how to conserve energy, water, and divert waste.

“She personally procured the funding and has led the way for our industry to be more conscious of the impact and improvements it can make,” adds Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the trade group.

With all the issues the association's members face on a regular basis, Hensley says she works by one key motto. “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”

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