Mark Truby in the driver's seat: 'I love to find great stories and bring them to life'

The incoming global comms leader at Ford talks about how the automaker can attract Silicon Valley talent, the advantages of his background as a journalist, and new CEO Jim Hackett's unique problem-solving approach.

Mark Truby, incoming VP of communications at Ford, has spent most of his career as a journalist, including stints as a metro and business writer and a business editor at The Detroit News. As an outsider, he got to know Ford, including VP of communications Ray Day and chairman Bill Ford.

In 2007, the automaker approached him with a job offer: help Ford tell its comeback story as a member of its comms team.

"At that time we were often bundled in with the Big Three, cast as a traditional Rust Belt manufacturer that didn’t have much of a future," Truby said. "I ultimately joined to help comms for the turnaround. It was thrilling, and I was hooked."

Since then, Truby has served as VP of comms for Ford’s EMEA operations for five years and, most recently, as VP of comms for Ford’s Asia-Pacific footprint. Now he’s moving into the driver’s seat, replacing Day as the company also changes CEOs, with former Steelcase chief executive Jim Hackett stepping in for the departing Mark Fields.

Truby chatted with PRWeek on Tuesday about what he plans to do in the top communications role at Ford.

What will be your priorities in the role?
We have a new CEO in Jim Hackett, and our strategy is going to be evolving. We want to articulate where we’re headed into the future and why we believe our future is so bright.

Secondly, we want to continue to build and develop a world-class comms team, understanding that the world of comms is changing quickly and we want be at the forefront of that change.

Our company has an amazing history of innovation and impact on society and popular culture and a really bright future ahead of us that’s still grounded in our core principles of innovating and giving people the freedom of mobility and improving people’s lives.

Bill Ford has been our chairman since 2001 and a guiding force for the company since then. In that sense, there’s a lot of continuity at Ford and in our mission and vision. As the strategy comes together, we’ll definitely share that with the world, Wall Street, our employees, and the media.

What are the biggest differences between you and Ray Day in terms of leadership style?
I knew Ray from when I was a business editor at The Detroit News and before that as a reporter. Obviously, I’ve gotten to know him better. He’s a real trendsetter in the industry. He changed comms for the better in the auto industry. Other companies saw what he was doing and tried to match it.

In terms of our styles, I don’t know about that. I was a journalist most of my career, so that informs some of my thinking. I think in terms of stories. I love to find great stories within the company and bring them to life. I love mixing it up with the media and finding what’s on their minds. I’m increasingly passionate about the way we can use video and other storytelling platforms on social media. That’s not a contrast to Ray, I’m just telling you about myself.

How about in terms of communications philosophy?
I’m not sure how to answer that. I don’t even want to do a compare and contrast. We’ve been working together for nine years, and I’m certainly going to put my own imprint on things.

I’m just trying to get a sense of what you hope to add to the equation.
Well, like I said, I had a long career as a journalist. I come at it from the perspective of storytelling, of compelling messaging, of being proactive in how we approach media relations, developing compelling content we can share with the media or the world through social media. I’m very hands-on. It’s a big priority for me that we have a vibrant culture within our team, one that encourages smart risk-taking and creativity, one where ideas not only come down but bubble up from our younger team members.

Having been head of comms for APAC and EMEA, what’s the unique insight you bring into this position?
It just gives me a sense of the whole of Ford. It’s easy to be North America- or U.S.-focused because that’s our biggest market. I’m really grateful to have worked all over the world, with not only our comms team, but the broader Ford team, so I think that gives me a global perspective that I hope will help determine our comms strategy and executing it.

What are the specific opportunities for comms that you see?
There’s massive opportunity in a country like China. We have a huge operation there from the manufacturing side and product development and innovation. They know Ford but not nearly as well as people in the U.S.

For us to tell story of Ford, I see that as a huge opportunity. [We can] bring all kinds of influentials and media under the tent so we can share our viewpoint on the future of mobility. We just had a huge event in China with many of our senior execs, where we rolled out our plan going forward. We had 700 media with us. That’s the kind of work we need to do around the world, so people understand what makes Ford unique in terms of culture and products and services.

Ford recorded yearly profits, yet experienced a 40% decline in stock value under Fields’ leadership. It feels as though part of this comeback story depends on whether Ford can change the narrative in the media.
If you look at the whole traditional auto sector, stock valuations are low. Although the companies are profitable, some believe that "maybe this is as good as it’s going to be." The U.S. economy has done well and there’s a lot of risk factors out there: potential disruptors in Silicon Valley, the world going into another recession, etc. So Wall Street’s looking at all these factors and that’s impacted the valuation of car companies.

One of the things we can do is continue to paint a picture of our future so they understand how that delivers earnings and growth going forward. They hear about things like autonomous vehicles, but they don’t see how that translates into earnings and growth.

We feel our future is brighter is than someone on Wall Street [does]. That’s also a challenge for us as communicators and our IR team. That’s part of the job, to help see our strategy for future and get them to believe in it as much as we do.

What is Ford doing to keep up with Silicon Valley’s foray into autonomous and battery-powered cars? What’s the role of comms?
We’ve been working on autonomous vehicles for 10 years. We’re quite advanced in that. We’ve started a company called Ford Smart Mobility in Palo Alto that’s been doing amazing work. We’re looking at this whole new world of mobility as being larger than manufacturing, building, and selling cars and trucks.

We need to tell a cohesive story of where our company is going, where we’re placing bets, and how we’ll win. It needs to be a story that translates to people, and it has to be convincing to them.

We have fans and advocates worldwide. We want to be a story that people have a real affinity for, so they go on this journey with us and want us to succeed. We’ve had that at times in our history, particularly after we didn’t take the bailout. It changed our reputation in many people’s minds that we weren’t just another Detroit auto company. We’re different.

Part of our job is to tell that story in a way that people understand it, believe in it, and want to be part of it.

It seems like you’re siphoning talent from Apple after it reportedly cut back on its own car initiative. Can you talk about that?
Without getting into specifics, it’s fair to say that as we’ve focused even more on the mobility side of the business and how we can use AI and leverage technology to evolve into a company that excels not only in the auto side but mobility, we’re also bringing talent into our team that understands tech, tech media, tech companies, and the players in Silicon Valley. That only makes sense as we grow our presence there and we’re becoming more of a tech company than ever. That’s the type of talent we want on our team that knows how to communicate in that world and is connected there.

How do you make Ford seem like a more attractive employer in the tech and engineering space than the players in Silicon Valley?
It’s a good point. We need to be seen as an exciting place to work, and the projects in Ford couldn’t be more exciting. Can you imagine working on driverless cars? Can you imagine working on the next transportation system, or the next Ford Mustang, or the next Ford-150, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S.?

Part of our job is to bring that to life, to let people know about that. Because you’re right, some people may default to working in Silicon Valley. When they get here and see what we’re working on, it’s impressive and exciting to people.

What does Hackett bring to the CEO position?
Obviously, Jim did a fantastic job as CEO of Steelcase for 20 years. He took a struggling Midwestern furniture maker and turned it into a company that not only made furniture, but reimagined the workplace. They created this mission of unlocking human potential and the way people work together worldwide.

He’s a person that creates a culture of curiosity and innovation wherever he goes. These are transformational times and having a transformational leader is exciting. Jim is certainly that.

Hackett has a way of looking at problems a different way. He loves to look at a big complex problem and find creative solutions to it. In addition, he brings the knowledge of Ford, [having spent three years on our board and one year leading Ford Smart Mobility]. He’s an innovative outsider with an insider’s view of Ford.

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