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HomeCorporate communicationsMaking big calls: Telstra’s Chris Marks

Making big calls: Telstra’s Chris Marks

Chris Marks, Telstra

Chris Marks has worked in PR for almost 20 years and says he “still looks forward to the opportunities and challenges it brings”. For two and a half years he has been SA Media Manager at Telstra. “I think it is of the best corporate PR jobs on offer in Adelaide due to the diversity it offers,” he says. “A normal month would involve helping resolve customer issues raised in the media, attending events, promoting sponsorship and community activations, crisis management, writing and pitching media releases, responding to media enquiries and building relationships with journalists.” Read more below …

You’ve worked in a variety of comms settings over the years: local government, agency and corporate. What were the key differences in ‘agency land’ as opposed to being in-house?
Everyone should experience working in an agency at some stage in their career. It hones your writing skills and as you are working to a budget and an hourly rate, you get very time efficient at identifying story ideas with the client, pitching it to prospective media and punching out a media release.

All that aside though, I prefer being in-house. You have
greater time available to find and develop stories ..

However, working for a client is not the same as working communications in-house. With most clients they are paying you to get media outcomes each month – it’s all about the quick hits and rarely do you get the chance to research ideas, immerse yourself in the organisation or get involved in strategy. You do however, get exposure to a wide range of business people and develop a veneer of knowledge on a broad range of topics. One morning you are writing stories about drilling rigs, then in the afternoon you could be writing about post mix machines or self-managed super funds.

All that aside though, I prefer being in-house. You have greater time available to find and develop stories, you get perspective of what the organisation is trying to achieve and get involved in a wider range of reactive and proactive communications.

Helping to manage a telco’s reputation is obviously a challenge for any comms manager, because you can’t keep every customer happy. Does this require a certain resilience or acceptance – and how does that affect your PR plans?
People’s expectations about telecommunications are extremely high – they expect to be able to make a telephone call or access high speed internet 24 hours a day from anywhere in Australia but don’t want to pay high rates or wait long periods of time for service.

Adelaide and the PR community is pretty small. You never know
who is going to be your next boss or who they know.

Telstra deals in enormous numbers – we have 32,000 employees, 1.4 million shareholders, millions of customers, annual profit is measured in billions, and on average, 55 million calls and 356 million data connections are made over our network each day. To deliver this service, we must manage and maintain a massive amount of infrastructure across Australia and there is always potential for poor customer experiences or network performance.

In terms of PR reputation, it’s a lot about education and managing customer expectations. Making sure we find and promote our good news stories is essential in helping us build and maintain a positive public perception. Visibility is important too – I spend a lot of time out of the office and in regional areas talking to local media and community leaders. It certainly helps both in a proactive sense and also when issues arise. Telstra does have extensive plans and procedures in place for crisis situations that thankfully, we don’t need to use very often.

During your time at Santos, you helped deliver a number of interesting activations including a branded hot air balloon. Tell us about a favourite activation or project including any challenges or mishaps!
At Santos I was responsible for activating community sponsorships in South Australia, the largest of which was the Santos Tour Down Under. As naming rights partner, we were always looking for new ideas to attract public and media attention to our brand.

My first year saw Santos purchase a hot-air balloon and I was responsible for getting the project off the ground – literally. Being gas powered, a balloon had a nice synergy for Santos. I started with a Google search entry of buying hot air balloons in Australia and saw the project through to completion, where we used the balloon to take up corporate clients and act as a giant advertising sign along the race route.

My other favourite Tour activation was coming up with the idea of building and riding the world’s longest bicycle and breaking a Guinness World Record. There were certain criteria required to achieve the record – one of which was riding the bike unassisted a minimum of 100 metres. Anyway, Santos, together with our partner University of SA, built a 42 metre long bike which weighed as much as a car and with TV media and judges in attendance we promptly crashed at our first attempt. However, if world records were easy, then everyone would have one so we literally dusted ourselves off and tried again – this time with success.

Santos 'big bike'

Today’s comms professionals need to be abreast of what digital communications offers. How do you educate yourself in this field?
Surround yourself with smart people and try to keep up. When in doubt, ask my teenage daughters.  Seriously though, there are so many platforms out there, it’s about finding a balance and identifying which digital platforms work best for your organisation. Whatever you choose, you still need to generate good content that is of interest to your audience. Traditional media and digital communications now go hand-in-hand – when doing one, you should always consider creating opportunities that would suit the other. It helps you tell your story to a wider range of people.

What advice would you give a third-year university student who’s keen to work in PR?

  • Get some work experience – Not for profits are usually under-resourced in terms of PR people and are great opportunities to get some experience writing media releases (good for portfolio building), helping with events and understanding how organisations work. I did volunteer work at Red Cross and the Asthma Foundation before I found a full time PR role.
  • Find a mentor – Mentors can help give you some direction, open doors and act a sounding board or touchstone for junior practitioners. This is especially important if you are starting out and there aren’t other people with PR skills in your organisation that you can bounce ideas off.
  • Be realistic – your first job may not be your dream job but all the skills that you learn will be invaluable and will set you up for future opportunities and better paying roles.
  • Don’t burn any bridges – Adelaide and the PR community is pretty small. You never know who is going to be your next boss or who they know. People talk. Be the best person you can be and professional at all times. Your role is representing the company and your behaviour and performance is always on show.

Time for a fun question: do you get to try new Telstra tech like smartphones?
You know the story about how the cobbler’s children have no shoes? I do get to see some of the new phones and tech devices when they are launched but my work mobile is a humble and outdated I-phone 6s.  We do get good staff discounts though.