If Monday’s message at the PRSA conference was all about speaking to the customer, Tuesday honed in on the art of telling your story to that customer. In one of the most inspirational talks of the conference, Joe Rohde, senior vice president and creative executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, discussed the importance of theme in telling your story to convey an authentic and memorable experience. Well, certainly Disney has that concept down pat.

As an aside, I guess those rumors about Disney’s harsh rules banning its cast members from having facial hair or wearing jewelry have been dispelled. Joe not only sports a scruffy face, but also one heavy (and painful looking) earring, comprised of a collection of souvenirs picked up on his exotic travels. Joe is the lead designer at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the new Aulani resort in Hawaii.

Unlike many creative types, Joe was able to channel his artistic passion into practical applications that PR professionals can apply to our campaign thinking. Here are a few of his gems:

1. The art of storytelling starts with landing on your theme, which sets the roadmap for “what this is going to be about.” From that point on, all decisions on how to do it are driven by the theme. In Animal Kingdom’s case, the theme was the “intrinsic value of nature,” and everything stayed true to that concept.

2. Of course, there are metrics that need to be built in to projects, but according to Joe these will come naturally as long as you follow the theme. For example, when Disney told him that Animal Kingdom needed a thrill ride, Joe traveled to the Himalayas to explore how to incorporate that ride into his theme. As it turns out, the native people believe that the Yeti is the protector of the mountains (fitting into the intrinsic value of nature theme), and from there Expedition Everest was created. Joe said that theme expands opportunity and allows us to diverge from metrics.

3. When telling your story, audiences don’t have time for what they think they already know, so it’s important to combine natural storytelling patterns with interruptions and tweaks to keep their attention.

4. When asked how to spark creativity, Joe said it comes from distraction and not falling into predictable feedback loops. In closing, he told us that success is a willingness to always continue to learn.

With education in mind, I headed off to the next sessions of the day, which also seemed to follow the theme of storytelling. In a seminar about reputation management, John Doorley of New York University talked about the importance of brands realizing their “intrinsic identity.” He also dispelled the common saying “perception is reality.”

In John’s opinion, “perception” doesn’t give practitioners the opportunity to do much about it. Instead, he quoted Abraham Lincoln: “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it while the tree is the real thing.” John’s point: A tree can be changed to affect its shadow.

Now, normally I avoid the social media workshops while we wait for the pundits to stop telling us things we know (remember we don’t have time!) and start showing us those results. But PRSA tweeps were saying great things about Mark Evan’s “Your Social Brand,” so I wandered in. As it turns out, although we may think we already know all the social media best practices, Mark says 71 percent of customer complaint tweets get no response at all. Why?  1. Fear  2. Resources.

A few more interesting points:

1. With an almost uncomfortable number of references to Justin Bieber and his social media influence, Mark reminded us to party where the party is happening. In other words, listen and monitor where people are talking about you.

2. Sometimes it’s best to pause and let someone else in the online community respond to a negative comment.

3. You must be doing one of the three E’s: Engaging, Educating or Entertaining. If not, what are you doing there?

4. Mark doesn’t put too much emphasis on social media ROI and quoted KFC’s manager of public affairs, who said “We don’t get a lot of pressure to justify ROI. Social media is a very important customer service element and that’s enough for us.”

5. Mark equated social media to going to the gym. You have to be consistent and committed to see results.

That sums up my recap of the best from the 2011 PRSA International Conference in Orlando. I’m pretty excited to head back and start weaving my stories with my theme and keeping my customer always in mind.