Sara Lee sets its course with a healthy serving of PR

Consumer goods manufacturer Sara Lee has trimmed down its product line and installed a fresh CEO while ensuring that consumers, staff, and other stakeholders are kept in the mix.

Consumer goods manufacturer Sara Lee has trimmed down its product line and installed a fresh CEO while ensuring that consumers, staff, and other stakeholders are kept in the mix.

For Sara Lee, February 10, 2005 has become a pivotal date.

Breaking from its history of serving up everything from cheesecakes and hotdogs to T-shirts and shoe polish, Sara Lee announced a dramatic plan to slim down its portfolio. The consumer goods manufacturer made a bold decision to slice approximately 40% of its revenues and spin off its apparel business into a standalone company. Sara Lee also relocated its North American corporate staff to a single site in Chicago and appointed Brenda Barnes as chairman and CEO.

All of these changes added up to a cornucopia of challenges and opportunities never before served to Sara Lee's corporate communications team.

"PR was seen as an elective here, or an enhancement of marketing and promotional efforts - it really wasn't a required course," says Jon Harris, VP of media development and communications for both the food and beverage (F&B) and food service divisions.

"In the past, with several of the brands, PR might have been in a silo," adds Sara Matheu, director of media development and PR for F&B. "What we're doing now is working across all of the brands to maximize the opportunities out there."

Outside the bread box

According to Matt Hall, VP of media development and PR for Sara Lee Bakery, cross-promoting brands used to be a bureaucratic process. "Before, each one of those divisions had their own operating style and philosophy," he says. "Some didn't have a dedicated PR function. But now it's so much easier to work with our colleagues... We'll see an opportunity to do PR around a sandwich, not just the bread."

Even products with obvious tie-ins, such as Ball Park Franks and Sara Lee Bakery Buns, were never promoted together, adds Harris. "It just goes to show you how segmented the company and the brands were, and how we really are changing the game."

Sara Lee has brought its new game to some unusual places for the brand, including ESPN. A recent segment on the morning show Cold Pizza about the just-completed World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros was used by Sara Lee to focus on the off-the-field "battle" between Chicago-style and Texas-style hotdogs. Brian Averna, corporate executive chef for Sara Lee's Ball Park Franks, made an appearance, helping the company position itself as a leader in the food industry.

"The goal is not just to put our brands out there, but to put them out there in a way that they're going to be interacted with, and are going to take on a life of their own," says Harris.

The company also made a splash on Martha Stewart's nationally syndicated lifestyle series during its Halloween special, when chef Wes Martin created a "Ghoul's Graveyard" dessert made entirely from Sara Lee cakes.

"It's about anticipating what people might be looking for," says Harris. "It's about knowing the media that we work with and being fans of theirs. We respect all of our contacts. They know that we will go through walls to provide them with what they're looking for."

According to Maggie Kuypers, supervising producer for Martha Stewart's show, Sara Lee's PR team was fun and easy to work with. "Not only did they give us the freedom to create new things with various Sara Lee products and brands, but they also trusted and supported our vision all the way."

Working in the newly organized communications department, Matheu says, "We don't have to wait for a new product launch. We don't have to wait for a new advertising campaign or marketing strategy... Instead of spiking around launches, we're going to have PR consistently throughout the year, and moving forward."

Such was the case when the corporate communications team rolled out an educational website to help launch Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread, which claims to combine the taste and texture of white bread with whole grains.

"We didn't want to get coverage for a day or two and then go silent," explains Hall. As a result, was created to focus on nutritional information primarily written by either an in-house nutritionist or a professional outside the organization.

The site's content is not generated from a marketing standpoint, according to Hall. "It's generated from a pure, viable, objective standpoint. We're trying to build credibility for the brand within the nutrition industry and among consumers who look for strong nutrition in the daily diets of their families."

The team also developed a database of nutrition experts, educators, and researchers that they contact via e-mail in order to drive those people to the site, ultimately creating a buzz within the circles of nutrition experts.

Serving the staff

But the communications team uses technology for more than just media relations - it's a vital link to company employees as well.

"When you're going through a transformation, the most important audience you cannot forget about is the employees," says Harris. "Our goal, because we were very separate companies before the transformation, has been to eliminate any of the anxiety and potential skepticism."

To enhance the flow of information to the recently displaced employees, a company intranet was created to help alleviate any feelings of separation. The communications team also updates employees by sending articles and e-mailing them information on media segments so they are kept in the loop.

"It really does make a big difference; they are just as important as the media, the customers, and the analysts and shareholders," says Harris. "The goal throughout all of this is to empower employees at all levels of the organization to feel a great sense of ownership, so that they become the best brand ambassadors they can be."

Harris insists that it's critical to not just have top-down communications, but to promote an ongoing dialogue between managers and employees - a belief that's passed down from the C-suite, as Harris reports directly to the CEOs of the F&B and food service divisions. In addition, he serves on the respective leadership teams, sitting alongside CMOs, CIOs, and CCOs, among others.

The PR teams and senior executives meet once a week to talk about ongoing opportunities and issues, and how "we can continue to further live our mission and values as they pertain to the respective divisions," says Harris. The team works with executives who understand and support what the team is trying to accomplish.

Leading brands such as Pepsi, Hershey, and Home Depot have always realized the importance of having PR as part of their plan, adds Harris. When looking to reposition a company, you want to make sure you have an energetic, creative, and insightful team, so that every brand and every part of the business is getting the attention and direction it deserves, he explains.

"From my past experiences at both Pepsi and General Motors, I know that PR can significantly impact the overall business in a very positive manner," says C.J. Fraleigh, CEO of Sara Lee F&B. "As we continue to transform the company, it is critical that we have a smart and talented team in place who can lead our efforts to ensure that all of our audiences are aligned going forward. Retaining a strong PR team, such as the one we currently have in place, is critical for ensuring that the great stories surrounding our current and new products, as well as our future business results, are relevantly highlighted within the media."

"Media development and communications will continue to play a tremendous role in making our vision a reality," adds Harris. "But it's still very early, and this is truly just the tip of the iceberg."

PR contacts

VP of media development and comms (food and beverage, and food service divisions)
Jon Harris

Director of media development and PR (food and beverage)
Sara Matheu

VP of media development and PR (Sara Lee Bakery)
Matt Hall

Director of PR (food service)
Dawn Mann Charles

Manager of media development and PR (food and beverage)
Karen Stolman

PR agencies
Blick & Staff Communications, Fleishman-Hillard, MS&L, MWW Group

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