Our feature this week focuses on Zappos.com and its approach to customer service. Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh is in a group of frontline CEOs – those unafraid to communicate directly with the public. He speaks at new media events and is active on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams are two other leaders cited for their openness and communications prowess.
Despite their attention to communications, they tend to respond reflexively to conversations about PR. Hsieh says that all staffers are tasked with communications, and it hired only Kel & Partners as its first AOR in December. Stone has asserted many times that he doesn't anticipate hiring a PR firm, despite the company's growth and occasional crisis situations. While neither agency has the market capitalization of a Fortune 500 company, they could be vanguard CEOs – it's not crazy to predict that this recession will cause smaller, healthy companies to be held up as the blue chip firms of this century.
Whether they like it or not, Zappos.com and Twitter are among the most PR-savvy companies. There is much to learn from Zappos.com and other companies building up their brands through social media.
Nimble thinking: Today's class of CEOs tend to shun bureaucratic thinking. They want the ability to respond quickly without much filtering. Social media has, in some respects, required this shift in response time, but it's always been good practice to respond quickly. PR pros will have to learn about issues faster because their clients won't wait for them to catch up.
Value beyond influencer management: CEOs previously built walls between themselves and reporters. This created delays when a company hoped that bad news might be minimized by lack of access to the CEO. To be fair, PR pros had more time, experience, and skill maintaining those relationships, but there is a reason why companies make it so hard to find a CEO's contact information. Tomorrow's CEOs are more likely to intermix with those who cover them. It's not important to know a CEO's e-mail address if he or she is your Facebook friend. PR pros should still identify influencers, but it's possible the CEO will be the prime contact.
Messaging can't be created in a vacuum: Some might say messaging is dead, but that's not true. The CEO's message is more intertwined with his or her personal habits. Because there are more spontaneous interviews and public statements, there is no way to separate a business persona from personal communications. To help tomorrow's CEOs communicate, offer advice that builds off their traits and has regard for their personality.
The task for PR pros will not change in the future, but tactics and approaches will. Everyone in the industry should ensure they are prepared for the next crop of CEOs and their approach to communications.