Friday, September 18, 2009

Brian Solis and the PR elephant in Kansas City

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Brian Solis, Principal of FutureWorks, an award-winning PR and New Media agency, the guy who came up with the PR 2.0 catchphrase and co-creator of the Social Media Club, spoke in Kansas City last night to a group of PR people attending the Public Relations Society of America chapter meeting at the new Power & Light district’s glitzy AMC Mainstreet theatre. I think the crowd was expecting more of a Purple Cow and got an elephant in the room pointed out to them instead.

The wake-up call from Brian about the state of public relations was to go do something about the pitiful state of the commercial propaganda that people are calling public relations. He had the gall to tell us that it wasn’t a “summer of love” any more and it has to be all about business. No clapping ensued.

In fact, I don’t remember any cheering, ataboys or rude remarks yelled at the podium for the duration of his thoroughly convincing hour of downright obvious conclusions that PR has changed from a top-down control the audience form of communication to that of a participatory form of influence. Bloggers have influence. You should pay attention to bloggers because bloggers control your brand. Simple.

Instead of shouting your message louder, the soft-spoken Solis wanted us to believe that you should think about the person you are trying to reach and then, listen closely now…, TALK to them. He wants us to use social media to have a conversation. He wants people like executives to have a conversation with real customers instead of with middle management who have conversation with the interns and then write a blog. You let interns make the decisions on what to tweet and eventually you end up with Habitat’s hash tag spam PR nightmare that happened in June this year.

Of course, he let some of the executives off the hook by realizing that if an executive like the shoe superstore Zappos’ Tony Hsieh aligned the entire corporation around solid social guidelines that would always speak the same about the culture, the brand, the core values, etc., then every employee would be tweeting and twittering the same message and Tony wouldn’t have to even have a Twitter account.

But Tony does have a Twitter account because he knows the importance of the conversation. He has 1,317,394 followers and doesn’t even talk about shoes. Here’s the most recent tweet today from the magical multi-millionaire of MBTs on @zappos:
Can't sleep. Head filled w/ deep thoughts. Wondering what happens if a vampire bites someone that just ate garlic bread?
Tony Hsieh has met the audience and the audience is himself. He’s completely transparent and believable. And he empowers his employees to create relationships and conversations that influence people to buy his shoes online. According to Brian, that’s putting the public back in to public relations.

Brian is the creator of the Conversation Prism also and had posters for sale beside his recent book. I’m not sure the meaning of the prism was understood as I heard acclaim that he could get so many little pieces on the diagram instead of knowing what the analysis really said. He does his homework well and tends to fill his charts up with very relevant detail underscoring his principle that you need to be relevant when you talk to your audience. I respect him more for having the data than just making it up like some social media authors. But I need better glasses even sitting in the third row in a movie theatre viewing his TMI PowerPoint slides like an influence diagram showing hundreds of people relationships that crashed the demo.

I think we’ll be hearing from Brian Solis in the future because he understands that public relations is an offshoot of sociology and psychology. It’s about understanding how the “human network” communicates with each other. He said that the currency of the exchange is attention. When we engage our customers, we give them attention and they give us their trust and loyalty. The influence that we garner is what public relations has always been about instead of controlling the message and the response.

Another reason that we’ll have to keep hearing from Brian is because the elephant isn’t moving out of our room very fast and he’ll keep telling us about it until we do something about it. Keep the conversation going, Brian. We’re listening.
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