Alan Marks is senior vice president of corporate communications for eBay Inc., and is responsible for leading communications strategy for all areas of the company, which includes business and consumer media relations, employee communications, executive positioning and issues and reputation management. Prior to joining eBay, Marks was at Nike Inc., Gap, Inc., and Avon Products. He began his career as a journalist.
March 22, 2012
New York City
Interviewers: Dick Jones & Cinda Kostyak
Videographer: Karen Bryan
INTERVIEWER: We’re at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, talking with Alan Marks, senior vice president of corporate communications for Ebay. Thank you Alan for taking time out of your day to talk with us.
MARKS: Thank you, great to be here.
INTERVIEWER: Well, we’ll jump right in and ask you to tell us a little bit about your career trajectory from your days at the University of North Carolina to where you are today at Ebay. What happened? How did you get where you are?
MARKS: [Laughs] the mystery ride right? Well, I come from a family of journalists. I grew up in North Carolina and my father was a journalist and editor of the hometown paper in High Point, North Carolina. My older brother started in journalism and then went into law; my mother was a public school teacher but also wrote a weekly column in my hometown newspaper, so I grew up around newspapers and grew up around journalism. I have a great love for newspapers and daily journalism, so I went to school at (University of North Carolina) Chapel Hill. My father and brother had gone to school at Chapel Hill—we’re a Tar Heel family—and studied journalism there. I started working for the Raleigh News & Observer while I was in school, and helped them start a zoned edition and a bureau in Chapel Hill at the time, and went to work full time for them after I graduated from college. And so at the time, I thought journalism was definitely my profession and my career. It was in my blood and the family, and I really enjoyed the work. About 2-3 years out of college, I had some friends who were journalists in North Carolina doing some consulting work for Avon products in New York. They came back from a couple of trips at Avon and said you know, Avon’s really trying to change and evolve its public relations department, and they’re looking for journalists. The head of communications at Avon at the time was a former journalist, so as he was trying to evolve and expand the function, he was partial to hiring journalists and they said would you be interested? They want somebody who can start a magazine. At first, like any journalist, I said public relations—this was 1986, 87—I said no, I’m a journalist, I’m not going to do public relations. Then they came back a month or so later and talked to me again, and it became really enticing. This idea of can I apply my journalistic skills in a corporate environment and the idea that they wanted me to come start a magazine for the company, felt like it was more akin to what I was doing at the time than moving purely into public relations. So I made the decision to do it and try the adventure, and 12 years later I was still at Avon and I had not looked back and had a great career at Avon and fell in love with public relations. What I found about it is what I loved about journalism, storytelling. When I got inside a corporation and was doing communications, what I loved is that in journalism you’re primarily trying to inform people, when you’re inside a company you’re trying to inform people and create a change of behavior, create some kind of action, some kind of advocacy and engagement on the part of your audience. So I found over time that I really loved marrying those two things together. I’ve spent the rest of my career on the corporate side. I’ve never worked on the agency side and one thing I find, the reason I’ve chosen to do that, is I love being part of an organization. I love being attached to a brand and love being part of an organization and helping to use communications and communication strategies to influence the organization and how people engage with the organization.
INTERVIEWER: So, you moved from Avon to Ebay.
MARKS: Ended up spending 12 great years at Avon, I love the company, great experience. Started in employee communications at Avon and then over the years did a variety of everything in the communications function and was able to travel the world, and so ended up with a very global experience at Avon as well. Then from there, in 1999, I went to Gap, Inc. in San Francisco and ran corporate communications for Gap and was there for 6 years. Then went to Nike and ran corporate media relations for Nike for 3 years, and then joined Ebay in April of ’08 so I’ve been at Ebay for 4 years now.
INTERVIEWER: Are there public relations challenges that are unique to firms that are doing business primarily through new media, such as Ebay does, and if so, what they are and how do you meet them?
MARKS: Well I think the challenge of social media today is it’s constant and it’s real time, and everybody has a voice. That’s very different from traditional media and traditional journalism, where you build a relationship with a media outlet, build a relationship with a journalist, and have a little more control and perhaps influence in the story that resulted in a final product. There was a story placed, and that was often the end of it. Social media is 24-7, and instead of managing it, what I say to my team today is if the primary goal of media relations is to place an effective story, get your messages in the story and get your messages in how media was covering your company. Today, media is really a distribution channel to reach your end audience and you really have to pay more attention today to who your end audience is. Companies today have tools to be their own publisher and they’re not reliant, purely reliant, on third parties. Media is still critically important and incredibly influential, but it’s not the only way today that a company has to drive engagement with its stakeholders. You’ve got your own publishing platforms, you’ve got your own social media tools, and your stakeholders are engaging in that as well. So today it’s more about participating in a conversation, and having a dialogue and placing that story. That’s a different dynamic today, and it requires more constant vigilance about what kind of conversations are happening about your business, and which kind of stakeholders are engaged in your business and how you are responding. It not only requires participating and responding, but it requires listening. And it really is more about having a conversation and participating in something, rather than placing something and pushing something out.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing public relations executives today? Speaking in general terms, and how can these challenges be met?
MARKS: Well, I think in large respect—I mean obviously there’s the communications. Communications technology is rapidly changing, as is how information is disseminated and consumed. It’s challenging to stay abreast of that and understand it and understand what may be a fad, versus what may be a permanent change. I think broadly speaking, for a chief communications officer, it’s the challenges that face any business executive today and that’s the broader pace of change that’s happening in the global business environment. How do you stay abreast of that and the disruption that’s happening in many industries and many companies? And how do you…you’ve got to understand—obviously you’ve got to understand communications and you’ve got to understand the communications environment you’re working in. But it’s critically important to understand the business environment that you’re organization is operating in. And what are the forces affecting that environment and creating disruption and innovation in that environment. And then how do you effectively adapt and innovate and stay ahead of the curve to affectively use communications as communications evolves, to meet the business challenges that companies face today?
INTERVIEWER: Well that’s a good lead-in for our next question, which is basically, that the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State, and the Page Society—which you’re a member—their aim is to help individuals become counselors to leadership, in all these areas of change that are happening in corporations today. How can individuals best prepare themselves for this role as counselors to leadership?
MARKS: Well I think it goes beyond counseling today, particularly if you’re in a chief communications officer role. You have to deeply understand the business. I think increasingly today—and I work today in the technology environment and there’s constant change in technology and e-commerce. You can be disrupted from so many different directions every day. And so you almost have to think like a general manager and really be deeply grounded in the business, the business model and what the business is trying to solve. Then your role as a chief communications officer is to apply your communications expertise to how we help address those business opportunities and business challenges. So I think it goes beyond an advisory role, and really to be effective in today’s environment, you have to be a strategic business partner. That means you have to be able to exhibit almost a general manager like mindset, and a general manager type understanding of the business and what the opportunities are. Then your role is to bring communications solutions to those business opportunities and those business challenges.
INTERVIEWER: What would you say the status of chief corporate communications persons is in this environment today? Is it growing in importance? Is it diminishing?
MARKS: I think if you stop to think about companies you admire. Companies you respect, companies that you see doing innovative things, I think more often than not you would see the chief communications officer role increasing in strategic importance in those companies. Our profession is rapidly changing and rapidly evolving. So every company is structured a little differently and modeled a little differently. When I look across industries and across our competitive set and across the global business environment, companies that I see innovating and really driving effective change—both with their employees and with their broader group of stakeholders—typically in those companies, a chief communications officer role is increasing in strategic importance, not diminishing.
INTERVIEWER: What do you feel are the keys to building trust and credibility within an organization?
MARKS: Authenticity. And it’s something that the Arthur Page Society has been advocating. I think that’s essential; authenticity, transparency, what we talked about earlier with social media. Everybody’s got a communications platform today; I think there are no barriers anymore. There’s no internal-external. There are communication that crosses easily throughout a company and across borders and across geographies, across audiences. And so you’ve got to be authentic. You’ve got to come across as transparent and real and honest. Otherwise, somebody’s going to call you out on it. Somebody’s going to refute what you’re saying or disagree with what you’re saying, and today they’ve got a platform to do that and give themselves a voice to do that. So that authenticity piece is important, and for a lot of companies, that’s a significant change where the business environment has grown up, where it’s more of, “We control the message. We manage the message. We push out messages.” It’s a very different environment to say, “I’m participating in the conversation now about my business and I understand that many, many stakeholders now who are connected to my organization and my enterprise have the power to have a voice and build an audience around my business and what I care about. And so it’s a different dynamic to sit back and say, well how do I participate in that and listen to that and understand that versus; how do I manage a message and how do I push out a message to audiences?
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that senior management understands this change—and I’m not talking about at any specific company but in general?
MARKS: Again I think the change is happening right before our eyes and so it depends on what company you’re looking at, what industry you’re looking at. I think everybody is starting to understand how social and how technology is influencing everything. So I don’t see social media, for example, as just a channel. I see social media as an idea, a way we engage with each other that is starting to influence every aspect of our lives and every aspect of our business environment. I think more and more executives are getting that social media is not just Twitter, or let’s throw up a Facebook page. Social media is a way of operating and a way of communicating, because it influences the way we connect with each other and the way we engage with each other. And again, depending on what company you’re looking at or what industry you’re looking at, I would go back to if you look at a company where you say wow, I really respect that company, I respect that brand, I trust that brand, I trust that company, that company seems to be innovating—I think if you looked underneath the hood, those would be companies where the senior leadership team truly does understand the fundamental changes that are going on in the world, and how those fundamental changes are affecting the way we communicate with each other and communicate on a global basis.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that it is important for a corporation to have an ethical mission statement or a credo? Is that useful?
MARKS: Absolutely. I think a company—you have to define—you have to know who you are. And you have to be able to define that to your stakeholders, and certainly to your employees and to your customers – to all your stakeholders. And that means you need to have a defined ethics statement, you need to have a defined purpose, a set of values, a mission. Getting that down on paper is critically important because it codifies who you are and what you believe in, and what you stand for. In today’s world, where authenticity is so important, you’ve got to be clear about what you believe in and what you stand for, and it creates a road map for the organization. In a very complex business environment, in a very complex global environment, having a clear road map about what we believe in and what we stand for and what we will do and not do, those are important guideposts for employees out there all over the world making decisions everyday in a very complex, very fast changing environment.
INTERVIEWER: Beyond mission statements and credos, should ethics training be provided for corporate staff?
MARKS: I think ethics training should be provided for all employees in a company and it’s an ongoing challenge. We do it on an annual basis. In our company we have online training modules that people are required to go through in a certain defined time period, and there’s a set of materials that are refresher courses. Each year we add new modules to that and we ensure full compliance to that. I think that’s one step of it. You have to make sure employees aren’t just going through the motions of the training but are really internalizing what the training is about, and what the company stands for. And again, today, for a company like Ebay, we operate in a global dynamic, rapidly changing environment. Employees are faced with complex decisions every day, and if they don’t understand what we believe in…what our ethics policies are, what we value, they’re not well equipped to make the right decisions that are consistent with who we are as a company and consistent with our brand and our values.
INTERVIEWER: What education or previous professional experience would best prepare a person for the rigors of ethical decision making?
MARKS: That’s a good question. Part of it is…certainly there is training and education, but there’s also real life experience. I think it’s important whatever your academic background is, or whatever your formal training is, you’ve got to be able to marry that with what the real business world is. Where do you find the balance, and are you looking at real case studies? Are you looking at examples in your own company? Do you talk about it? I think the important thing is; ethics can’t just be words on a paper, right? Ethics are something you live every day. It’s something you’ve internalized, and that’s the challenge. How do I not just study it, or go through a training exercise, but how do I internalize it as a set of values and a decisions framework that I use in terms of how I go about my work and how I do my job?
INTERVIEWER: How important would you say mentoring is to the fostering of ethical decision making in the workplace?
MARKS: I think again, it’s critically important. I think mentoring, in general, if you’re looking to develop a strong, robust career, one thing you should always do in all stages of your career is develop mentoring relationships. And not just one, you should always be looking at people you can learn from, and reach out to people in diverse fields and different backgrounds, because that’s where the richness of learning comes in. I think part of that mentoring relationship is how do you deal with that ethical situation? Have you ever had a situation that was a tough, ethical dilemma for you? How did you respond to that? What kind of decision did you make? In hindsight, would you have done something differently? And being able to do that, if you’ve got the opportunity to work in a global environment, being able to build those relationships in different cultures, and understand different cultural perspectives on how decisions get made and how business gets done in different parts of the world, is critically important as well.
INTERVIEWER: What are the most important issues, the enduring truths that you’ve learned in your career?
MARKS: You have to keep it real. Again, back to authenticity, what are we really trying to solve, and are we simplifying it? Are we telling an authentic story in a transparent way? Are we delivering our messages? Are we really engaging with people? I think those are the universal truths, because when you don’t do that, people get that – people understand that, and it undermines credibility, it undermines everything that good brands and great companies stand for. Great companies are typical values driven companies. They have a strong set of principles. They have a strong set of values that they live by. Business cycles come and go. Companies have good times and companies have bad times. Great companies come through the bad times even stronger because they’re grounded in a clear set of values and what they believe in. They’re grounded in a clear set of ethics and operating principles. That helps them whether the inevitable downturns in a business cycle – they come out stronger. And I think, you know in the communications profession, always digging down to; what are we really trying to solve for? What’s the real business issue here? What are we really trying to communicate? Who are we really trying to engage? Do we really understand who our intended audience is? What action do we want them to take after they’ve heard our message and engaged with us? Those are critically important things to always keep in mind. You typically derail when you lose sight of those things.
INTERVIEWER: What are the changes you’ve observed in the practice of public relations during your career – you might have eluded to some of this actually when you were talking about your career trajectory – but, what are those significant changes that you’ve seen?
MARKS: I think the most significant change I see is that in leading companies; communications is becoming a core business strategy. Executives at these types of companies, operating management of these types of companies, see communications as a strategic operating tool and something that’s essential to the business. I think that’s very different from when communications was seen as an afterthought, or communication was seen as more of a support function or a service function versus a strategic function in the organization. And so that change is very exciting. I am more excited—and I’ve been in this for 20-25 years now, 25 years now—there’s more opportunity and more innovation happening in our profession and in the communications world than I’ve ever seen. And that’s incredibly exciting. I was having a conversation a few weeks ago with a friend, and I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be in a journalism school today or in a communications program today and I think it would be an extraordinary thing, because the opportunities you have as someone just starting out in your career, are exponentially greater than when I was going through school. When I was going through school, you either picked the editorial track or the advertising track. And if you’re on the editorial track, are you going into newspapers or are you going into broadcast? And now it’s like well, how do I want to communicate? Do I want to be my own media outlet? I’ll create my own blog and I’ll be my own publisher and I’ll create my own audience. Or, how do I gauge…how do I help shape new media? It’s an incredibly exciting time. And I would encourage people just starting out in their career to embrace that. And one thing that I see now being this far into my career—you never stop learning right? And there are a lot of external factors forcing you to reevaluate and rethink the way you do things but I guess another universal truth is, you’ve always got to fight for complacency and inertia right? Push yourself to innovate because that’s what’ll help you grow and develop and it’ll make you a better communicator and it’ll make the organization you’re working for a better organization. Always figure out where the next innovation is coming from and drive for that.
INTERVIEWER: Are there any things that you’d like to talk about in terms of ethics in public communications we haven’t talked about?
MARKS: I was at the Edelman Trust Barometer at Davos [Switzerland], and it is certainly distressing to see how corporations are perceived and the lack of trust with government officials and CEOs that show up in the trust barometer every year. I think that if there is a critical issue facing our profession, it’s that broad issue of trust. How does the public perceive…where do they get their information? Who do they rely on? Who do they trust? How do they perceive corporations? How do they perceive CEOs? How do they perceive media? How do they perceive government officials? We play a critical role in all of that. And as communication professionals, how are we seen when we talk about something, when we represent our organizations? Which gets back to the importance of authenticity, and transparency, and engaging and listening and not just talking. I think those are some of the changes affecting the world, and affecting our profession. If you don’t have trust, you’re on a pretty shaky foundation, if you don’t have trust with an audience you’re trying to communicate with. And so I think how we think about that, and how we help shift perception of the things you trust and the sources of information you trust, is one of the critical challenges facing companies today, facing government today, and often facing media today. And certainly communications professionals and chief communication officers play a critical role in that.
2nd INTERVIEWER: So, in the 25 years that you’ve experienced the industry, what was your greatest challenge? Can you tell us an example of a personal experience that you’ve had—maybe there was an ethical dilemma…what was a personal challenge that you had to deal with in these past 25 years.
MARKS: I think the greatest challenge I ever experienced, which you see happening in some other companies today is, I was working for Gap when globalization first started to really occur and stakeholder attention was brought to supply chains. For Gap and the apparel industry, it was about the issue of sweatshop labor in apparel factories. (W)ith Gap and Nike, I spent almost a decade working for those two companies, and in the 1990s and into the first decade of this century, Gap and Nike were poster children, so to speak, of those issues in the apparel and footwear industries. Initially, that was an enormous communications challenge, because globalization was really just starting to be understood, and some stakeholders early on were very savvy about focusing on brands to draw attention to the issue. And how you respond to that, how you understand what’s the reality on the ground…when the business model…and you see this today…the business model was third party manufacturers. If you go back 20 years, the business mindset was, those are third party vendor relationships, those are not my employees or my factories. So how do I deal with this? So it was a big learning curve, as a communications professional, well, how do I understand what the real issues are? How do I understand what’s really going on in these factories? How do I engage these stakeholders? How do we start driving longer-term solutions that are really going to solve a very complex issue? And so there was both…it was the first moment in my career where a typical communications tool kit was insufficient to address the issue. You had to dig deeper. You really had to start getting into fundamental business issues, and supply chain issues, and it was creating a new model of stakeholder engagement. It was one of the first examples of seeing outsiders suddenly having the power to dramatically influence your brand reputation and brand perception. So that was a great learning experience for me, and I’m very proud to have worked for two companies that became leaders in how these issues were being dealt with on a global basis. And then you see these issues still with us today, and emerging in other industries as we move forward. So that was my first experience where there was a disruptive force happening in a business and happening in the outside world that was effecting—having brand and reputational impacts above and beyond the normal business environment--that forced me and the people around me to rethink the way we approach a problem. And to adopt a longer-term view about how these issues are solved and again, how you create new models of stakeholder engagement. The exciting thing about the work at Arthur Page Society today is Arthur Page is trying to further the thinking and discussion around that, around what are new models of engagement and how should corporations think about their stakeholder community. How do you drive engagement that results in advocacy. And for me that’s exciting, because I feel like my learning in that started 20 years ago when these issues first started to surface.
INTERVIEWER: Alan Marks, thank you.
MARKS: Thank you.