Newsmaker: Jon Harris, Sara Lee

An ability to be creative while maintaining consistency of messaging has allowed Sara Lee's SVP of global comms to effectively lead amid numerous changes.

An ability to be creative while maintaining consistency of messaging has allowed Sara Lee's SVP of global comms to effectively lead amid numerous changes.

While the whimsical ties and fanciful sartorial habits might have dulled a bit, Jon Harris' charisma, diverse PR experience, and business smarts have helped inform the positioning and cohesiveness of Sara Lee, a $10 billion-plus global food company transitioning from its heritage in baked goods to a product portfolio heavy in protein and coffee.

As SVP of global communications at Sara Lee, Harris credits past stints in healthcare PR at firms such as Medicus Intercon PR and Ketchum, as well as at fitness-club operator Bally, for having greatly influenced his work in an industry increasingly scrutinized for health effects.

While focused on healthcare at Ketchum, Harris always had a personal affinity for brand work and followed a handful of colleagues to PepsiCo. Of those, Brad Shaw, now VP of corporate communications and external affairs at The Home Depot, brought him on as a global public affairs manager on various beverage brands. Harris handled brand communications work and drafted speeches for Brenda Barnes, who had become the first female CEO at PepsiCo. She was most recently CEO at Sara Lee.

"He basically put the product on the map with creative tie-ins with Rosie O'Donnell and other high-visibility placements," says Shaw.

Harris left PepsiCo as senior global public affairs manager during the dot-com craze to join OurHouse.com, but, like many others when that bubble burst, he moved onto a more sustainable post as VP of business development and global communications at Bally.

The entrepreneurial dot-com experience would be invaluable for Harris at Sara Lee, which about five years ago sought, under Barnes' lead, to bolster internal and external communications during a restructure.

About five years into Harris' role at Bally, Barnes asked him to lead North American communications at Sara Lee. At the time, she was president and COO at the company.

"She said, 'We have had tremendous growth. Would you consider working with me again?'" he reminisces. "When Brenda says that, you immediately say, 'Of course.'"

In 2005, Harris joined Sara Lee, which at the time owned various personal care brands (recently sold to Unilever), among other non-food brands. Over the past two years, the company has sold global business units with annual revenues of approximately $4 billion. Most recently, it sold its bread unit to Grupo Bimbo. Harris says the company continues to look at acquisitions in coffee and protein.

"When a company goes through change, there must be a sense of continuity between investors, employees, and shareholders, and someone must coordinate that," notes Barnes, who recently left Sara Lee for health reasons. "Jon understands who needs to know what about the things we're doing and why."

An end to silos

In 2007, when the company had better defined its core mission to align its portfolio, he began leading a parallel strategy in the global communications function. Harris' goal was to raise awareness of Sara Lee's transformation, as well as ensure consistent messaging among external brand and internal communications staff. He formed a Center of Excellence of top communications executives to implement best practices throughout the organization.

"We had the number-one hot dog and bun and never did a promotion together. The company was continuing to work in silos," recalls Harris. "This Center of Excellence was created to break down silos, share best practices, create a communications mission, and really align this team behind the business goals, making sure our communications objectives would help drive sales and increase awareness."

Since he joined the company, budgets for global communications - corporate, brand, and internal - have steadily increased, while total spend on PR support for all US brands has more than tripled.

A reflection of this heightened investment in PR and push to align its corporate positioning with protein brands was a recent Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farm sponsorship activation at BlogHer. Targeting mommy bloggers, Harris and his team shelled out for the conference's largest space and targeted key bloggers for exclusive video interviews, a strategy it plans to evolve as it continues to invest in social media. Harris' team just launched a Sara Lee corporate Facebook page.

"We worked with influencers to engage with and experience the brands," he says. "That [activation] never would have happened five years ago."

These low-sodium Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farm products and associated messages also represent Sara Lee's commitment to health and nutrition. It's a message largely funneled through the PR team and is in line with Harris' past experience at entities like Bally.

"With nutrition messaging, there's so much involved in how we shape and say things," he explains. "A lot we're dealing with now, such as regulations, is no different from what we dealt with in healthcare communications."

Today co-host Meredith Vieira has worked with Harris many times. When she was at The View and he was at Bally, they teamed up to develop and promote a childhood obesity program with a Kids Club and Bally trainer.

"He was extremely concerned about doing this right, about the children and their health," she notes. "He's so much more than his job. Once you have him in your life, you have a friend that will always be there."

Harris constantly partners with Sara Lee's government relations function and its nutrition group. He also supports the company's strategic partnerships with organizations and programs such as The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign.  

With a more in-sync corporate team, and Harris taking at least quarterly trips abroad, he says the company is aligning its global PR activities for complementary products. For example, Harris has leveraged best practices in sustainability and CSR communications for Sara Lee's Douwe Egberts coffee brand, which exists across various global markets.

To execute such a cross-regional program and facilitate global employee communications, he helped set the communications priorities and objectives within a 70-member global leadership team implemented by Barnes.

At present, Harris holds biweekly meetings in the US and biweekly video meetings with global communications executives in Utrecht, Netherlands - Sara Lee's global headquarters - discussing strategy, results, metrics, and critical issues at hand. (At press time, Brazilian meat processor JBS was reportedly in talks to purchase Sara Lee.)

Valuing education

Harris also champions continued education via training and business seminars, an approach mirrored in his work at the University of Chicago, where he has been teaching an integrated marketing course for the past four-and-a-half years. He splits his class into two agencies that pitch a 12-month marketing and PR strategy to a series of judges, "รก la American Idol."

"I teach that you have a responsibility to know the business inside out, to tell the story and enable others to tell it as well," he says.

With Sara Lee's staff the most aligned it has ever been, according to a global employee survey Harris implemented in 2008, he hopes to expand his knowledge base on experiential marketing, develop global CSR programs, and leverage digital media platforms for both consumer outreach and feedback.

"I enjoy educating people and learning," he says. "For me, it's all about creating a team that I'd like to continue to be a part of."

"For adding value to the company," says Barnes, "I'd put Jon at the top of my list."


A STAR NETWORKER

Bill Rancic

Harris saw Rancic and Donald Trump at an upfronts event, just following Rancic's win on The Apprentice. He asked Trump if he'd feature Bally, for whom Harris worked at the time, on the show's next season. Not only did he get a placement on that season opener, he also got a friend in Rancic, with whom he remains close. As a groomsman, Harris sang at Giuliana and Bill Rancic's wedding.

Meredith Vieira

They met at a charity event. She was a celebrity waitress. He, with PepsiCo at the time, was at a company-bought table. "By the end of the evening," recalls Vieira, "I was sitting next to him having a glass of wine."


2005-present

Sara Lee Corp., SVP, global communications

2001-2005

Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp., VP, business development and global communications

1999-2001

OurHouse, VP, communications

1995-1999

PepsiCo, senior manager, global public affairs

1992-1995

Ketchum PR, account supervisor

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