Oral Histories

Alan Marks

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

Alan Marks Biography

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.


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 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.