In this episode, Curtis Sparrer of Bospar shares secrets of his award-winning boutique tech public relations agency. One of these secrets: The most important thing with PR is asking your clients what business results they want to achieve, and then reverse engineering a PR program around that. Curtis also describes secrets to connecting a journalist with a client’s story.
This episode is sponsored by our official transcription partner, TranscribeMe. In fact, the transcript below was prepared by TranscribeMe. For a 25% discount on their services, go to transcribeme.com/betterprnow.
Thanks. Thanks for having me.
So, as we jump in, I’d like to find out about how people got into public relations, how they started their career in communication. You graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a degree in Radio-Television-Film. What’s happened between graduation and ending up in San Francisco as a principal at one of the nation’s leading agencies?
Well, I think what happened in the short term is I got smart. But the long-term is a much more complicated story. I went to LA, worked for Roger Corman. He’s a famous B-movie producer and I discovered that I just did not have the patience to pay my dues in Hollywood.
Working as a journalist
When I was going to school at UT Austin, I worked as a video film editor for the local TV stations, and I used that skill to go back into news. And my first job as a producer was in Toledo, Ohio. I cut my teeth as a producer there for about three years, rising up the ranks and even moonlighting as a restaurant critic and advice columnist.
I then moved to Houston, where I worked the overnight show. And then I got an amazing offer to produce the 9 PM news at KRON in San Fransisco. I worked there, won a regional Emmy, and was promoted to executive producer. Then, as I kind of ended my career at KRON, I was faced with the choice that I could either move to a different city, or I could change my career trajectory, so I could stay with my friends.
Moving into Public Relations
I gave it a long thought and determined that it would be best if I took all my skills and applied them somewhere else. I applied at a lot of different PR firms, thinking that would be the best use of my skill set. I was really surprised by the obnoxious response of a lot of people.
I got some responses like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly qualify to do PR. It was far too complex.” “Oh, PR is just so difficult and you would not just understand it.” A lot of self-satisfied responses about how complex PR was and I didn’t get a lot of encouragement.
I answered a craigslist ad for a PR position, an internship really, and I met this woman named Chris Boehlke. After Chris and I had a very long conversation, she called me back and said, “I don’t want to do an internship; I want to get married. I want to hire you as our senior associate and I want to get things started.”
So I started as a senior associate and started learning, very quickly. I learned that a lot of people in PR were really good at telling clients “No,” and I decided that my fastest route for survival would be learning how to tell clients “Yes.” I treated clients like anyone would treat a television anchor, with the utmost respect, and I learned that really paid off well. I also learned that a lot of times the press release material that clients were trying to get in the media was not useful for any journalist, having both been a TV producer and also having been a writer.
Before we go any further, why was it not useful? Was there a pattern there?
Yeah, there was. A lot of the content was jargon-heavy. A lot of the content was something that would not fit in any kind of current narrative or current story that journalists were already talking about; it was very tone deaf.
“We needed to understand what our journalist contacts were working on and then reverse engineer our story so we would better match their priorities.”
A lot of the content was just tone deaf and it was as if a bunch of marketers were thinking, “I want to have this content run in TechCrunch,” without really bothering to think, well, what is TechCrunch [focused on] right now? What’s important to them? So my point to all our clients was that we needed to understand what our journalist contacts were working on and then reverse engineer our story so we would better match their priorities.
That sounds a lot like in the startup community, where people are tempted to — they have an idea and they say, “This is a really cool thing; let me go find a market for it.” As opposed to looking at the market, seeing where the pain points are, where people are having challenges, and then coming up with a solution for those challenges.
Working with journalists
Just because I have a story I want to tell in a certain way doesn’t mean that anybody is going to be interested in hearing it.
That’s exactly it. And that’s the problem that a lot of companies have and they kind of — the expression, of course, is drink their own Kool-Aid, but it’s kind of a reality distortion field where they seem to think that the news that’s important to them will be important to other people. The thing that I try to tell our clients is that’s not the case.
That’s true; how did the client take it? Were you able to convince them to take a different path?
“The most important thing with PR is asking your clients what business results they want to achieve and then reverse engineering a PR program around that.”
I have. I have been able to convince a lot of clients that the crazy thing they want to do is not really what they want to achieve. I think the most important thing with PR is asking your clients what business results they want to achieve and then reverse engineering a PR program around that.
I also counsel our clients that just because a story is published, doesn’t mean your target is going to see it. You need to take that story and put it in front of your target’s face, so that they can actually see it. I think it’s resonated with me more now than ever, since I’m a principal at my own firm and I use PR as our principal means of business development.
What you’re talking about is helping them shift from focusing on tactics, which is where all the bright, shiny objects are, to focusing on a more strategic level [that asks] what do you want to achieve? And then, figuring out, how do we get there?
“Sometimes it’s a matter of counseling a client out a bad idea.”
Absolutely. I find that when I do that, I am providing a much more full-service approach along the PESO model, where some clients will say, “Well, I really want the sense at this convention that everyone’s talking about us.” And then I can say, “Well, that’s really not going to be any story placement. What you’re going to want is to buy advertising space all over that convention, so that you are the only thing people see.” And the client’s like, “That’s what I want to do; you’re right.”
Sometimes it’s a matter of counseling a client out a bad idea.
I remember one client wanted to have a press conference. If you’re Facebook, Google, or Apple, you can probably do that. But when you’re a startup, that’s impossible. So I had to work very hard to not insult the client, but to convince him that wasn’t going to provide the results he was looking for.
Yep, that’s absolutely right. And frankly, that’s really challenging sometimes.
That is really challenging sometimes and I think that it’s one of the big things that all agencies and all people of marketing really face.
PR brilliance and humiliation
As you’ve been around the public relations world for a while, you’ve seen people execute in ways that I’m sure are just stunningly brilliant. And you’ve seen people do the opposite, where they fall on their faces. I’m not asking you to out anybody, but can you describe an example where somebody did something just incredibly dumb in public relations? The reason is, I think there’s a teachable moment and good lessons for all of us every time we see something like that happen.
You know, I think everyone has done something really stupid that they regretted. When I think of all the dumb things I have done, I think the stupidest thing was, I was trying to get a story placed because I had a crush on someone and I thought this would be helpful. I had the whole backstory with the journalist about the crush and how great it was. Finally, the journalist coughed up the story and I was so excited about it that I forwarded the whole thread to said crush.
Talk about being transparent.
Yeah, how’d that work out?
Well, let’s say I’m not married to them.
Okay. Got it. Got it. So flip it around. What’s the most brilliant thing that you’ve ever done in your career or that you’ve seen somebody else do?
You know, I will probably think of the brilliant things a lot later as I’m doing something else mundane and boring. I think one of the prouder, yet smaller, things I did is, I was faced with this press release that needed approval from this marketing company and everyone from the marketing company had gone home for the day. Their New York line was closed. Their San Francisco line was closed. And I really was beginning to panic, until I realized that this marketing firm was an international marketing firm. So I called their Australian affiliate. They were up. They were just starting their day and they managed to approve the whole thing. While that’s not an, ‘Oh, my God, I’m the next Einstein,” sort of thing, it’s that kind of thinking that has saved me time and time again, where we get in the mode of thinking in just a very narrow, narrow focus. The more that you can expand your thinking and expand your approach, the better you’re going to do.
Brand ambassadors and influencers
You recently wrote a blog post on the Bospar blog about how audience targeting is changing in the age of digital transformation. In that article, you talked about turning brand ambassadors into influence. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
You know, when it comes to turning brand ambassadors into influencers, it’s all about increasing their reputation and their footprint. You really need to promote them as you would promote any brand or company. And you need to do your very best to amplify what they’re saying, so that more people will see it and more people will see them as a respected third party who’s credible.
Advice for a career in PR
If you were talking to your younger self, as you were getting ready to finish college and start your career, what advice would you give yourself? Or what advice would you give young people who are just getting started or contemplating a career in communications?
Take more Botox; take more Propecia. [laughter]
I’ve never heard that advice before. It’s usually about “Hey, take more of these kind of classes,” but, okay.
An important thing that you can do is take an internship, because I think that everything is good in theory. But learning about something, that scholastic environment versus doing it, are two different things entirely. If I could have done something differently with how I was approaching that, I would have broadened the scope of my internships. I focused very heavily on journalism internships and wish I had done a public relations or marketing internship. I think that would have given more experience in the other side, and maybe I would have started off with PR instead of broadcast news.
Just because of the economics that are happening now, there are so many people moving from journalism into public relations. So that transition that you did, there are a lot of people doing the same thing. As you look around the field of PR practitioners, there are lots and lots of former journalists, people with journalism degrees, who, for whatever reason, made that change.
Absolutely. One of the things that I find is that I frequently counsel people who are looking to make the switch about how they can do it and what they can do. My number one advice to media people, journalists, who are trying to transition to PR, is to start doing charity work. That way you can get your toes wet and really get an understanding of how it works. I also recommend that they start taking informational interviews.
Finally, I recommend that they work at an agency, and they don’t go too big too quickly. I think the biggest example of a kind of Icarus falling situation was with one CNBC reporter who was brought into this war between Facebook and Google over privacy concerns. It was revealed that the former journalist was trying to get people to place contributed content under various names of reporters that would raise privacy concerns about the two companies. And it just blew up in his face in spectacular fashion. I think if he had been in PR longer, that would not have happened to him.
It sounds like the ethics lessons that we learned as we’re studying public relations or earning our accreditation, ethics is a major component to that. And that would have helped, I think, steer that person away from whatever temptation there was to take that shortcut.
“It’s always the cover-up that’s worse than the crime.”
I think there are a lot of marketers who want PR people to practice the black arts. And I’ve always advised marketing people who brought that up that generally, they always have a habit of blowing up in your face and just making you look bad. I have recommended often that you should just steer away from that. That’s just something that’s going to haunt you. It’s always the cover-up that’s worse than the crime.
Oh, that’s absolutely true and it always comes out.
It always does.
Whatever it is, it will always eventually come out, and it will be worse.
The importance of relationships
What’s your perspective on the importance of relationships in public relations practice?
It’s only the second word in Public Relations [laughter]. I think that media relationships are so important, because they give you a sense of what you can and can’t do in a story. And they really give you the reality check you need, outside of your experience with the client.
I make sure that I attend journalism conferences every year. I’m a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. Your listeners may have been able to figure that out themselves by the butch tone of my voice [laughter].
I find that being able to talk to journalists on a regular basis is the best way to inform a strategy and then come up with creative ideas. So I encourage every one of my colleagues to meet journalists, take them out for lunch, breakfast, dinner, drinks, whatever, and really get to understand what they’re up against professionally and personally, as well as understand what sort of story narratives are really important. I find that those relationships are key in really making some stories really work well for our clients.
You talked earlier about knowing what stories they’re following, what they’re interested in, and in reverse engineering your plans to fit that, which you only know if you’re talking with them.
And you can only intuit, or even better, have them tell you, “Hey, here’s what we’re looking for. Do you have anything that would fit?”
Absolutely, and during a crisis situation, having one of the journalist friendlies help you with your response or your reaction is critical.
I think that’s spot on.
Motivation to do great work
When you think about this as a career, like any career, there are challenges. It’s hard; it’s busy. I know in every job I’ve ever had in communications, there’s way more to do than you can possibly get done in a day. What keeps you inspired? When you wake up in the morning, and you think about going to work, what really gets you psyched up to go and tackle everything again, one more day?
The fear of being homeless [laughter].
You’re very practical.
No, I’m kidding. I think the thing that makes me most excited is when we do something wacky or crazy that just might work, and it does. I think that when I hear my colleagues achieve something that they didn’t think they could do, I love being a part of that. Saying that, I love cheerleading, I like to see people excited about what they’re doing, and I like to see people overwhelmingly happy with what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it.
Ultimately, I’m very, I guess, platonic, if you will, in the sense that I believe the end goal of life is to be happy. If people are getting that happiness out of their work, then I’m happy, too.
If you think about the real essence of public relations, it’s to help organizations have better relationships with the publics that they depend on and that depend on them. As a result, things should be better for everybody; everybody should be happier if we’re really effective at doing our jobs.
So that, generally, is what gets me going. I think the challenging part of this job is that I get that what we’re doing is of real value. Because what we’re doing is of real value, is transformative, and has the opportunity to make sales and make budgets happen, there sometimes is high anxiety and high pressure. Sometimes nerves are rattled and sometimes tempers get really, really out of control. So I bring that to bear when I’m working with these people, who are some brilliant executives, some brilliant minds and sometimes are really needing PR to be transformative in their business designs, and I get that.
On personal improvement
“Get things out quickly, fail quickly, and improve quickly.”
If there was one thing that you could do better, what would it be?
Everything [laughter]. I recently had a colleague call me and she was complaining that an email I sent wasn’t deep enough, it wasn’t thoughtful enough. I said, “Sometimes I just suck, and I just suck because sometimes there’s just not enough time to be as good as I need to be or as you need me to be.” So, I think that if I had anything, it would be more time in a given day. I know that’s pretty pat and cliche, but I think that is the one thing that you need in order to do your best work.
That said, I think the thing that annoys me the most is people who let perfection be the enemy of the good and will sit on things forever and ever, until the moment is lost. I remember one colleague who met a journalist who said she was interested in any kind of pitch, and that colleague took two months perfecting her email to the journalist until she sent it. And the journalist probably forgot who she was and never responded. So, I’m a big believer in get things out quickly, and fail quickly, and improve quickly.
The nature of the business we’re in, those windows of opportunity close pretty quickly. And if you’re spending too much time on perfection, the window of opportunity is closed.
I was a journalist and I didn’t have time for you to come up with your Gettysburg Address. I just needed someone to cobble together five sentences so I could get it out and meet deadline. I think a lot of marketers fool themselves into thinking that if they write the Magna Carta or something, that that’s really going to move the needle for them. But, it’s not that which is going to help them, it’s being responsive and being quick.
Sure. So, there’s that time component. There’s also the expectation of what it is the journalist might need from us. They don’t necessarily need us to write their story for them. They might just need a quote, or some facts, or something that allows them to complete their story on deadline.
Doing our homework
“You have to understand what problem you’re solving for somebody.”
Yep, and I can tell you, as a journalist, that’s so important. I think the other thing I’m seeing is, since I’m writing for a variety of outlets as well, I’m seeing some very lazy pitching. I had this one person pitch me this story, and she wrote, “Thought you might be interested in this,” and slapped the press release, and that was it.
No personalization, no doing some homework, trying to figure out why you might actually be interested in it and making that obvious to you.
I mean, in this very interview, Mark, you have shown that you have looked at my blog entries, my LinkedIn profile; you’ve done your homework. But this PR person did nothing. So, I wrote back and asked, “Why?” I forced her e-mail after e-mail after e-mail to do the work that she should have done from the beginning. I know that that’s not possible in every pitch. I know that that’s not something that can scale, but I do think that a lot of our new crop of PR people are needing to put in a lot more energy and a lot more thought in what they write. And so, whereas, I’m seeing that more and more, for example, and of course I can plug my own company, I have seen a lot of people —
This is a plug-friendly space [laughter], so plug away.
I have seen a lot of people pitch me who clearly have not ever considered what a journalist would need for a pitch to be successful.
You’ve got to know what they need. It’s no different than any other business. You have to understand what problem you’re solving for somebody, and then make it easy for them to understand how you can solve that problem for them. It’s no more difficult than that.
Yeah, it’s no more difficult than that. And, yet, it’s still that difficult [laughter].
I hear you.
I think even the simple things are hard.
Yes, that’s true. We talked about what kind of advice you would give to people starting their careers or to your younger self. What advice would you give, or do you give, to CEOs or other organizational leaders to help them be more effective in their communications?
Talk in shorter sentences!
Very, very true.
“Did I explain that well?”
I find that a lot of CEOs are brilliant people, and because they’re brilliant people, they think in a thought process that almost comes off like an impressionistic painting when they are talking. And yet, for a reporter who is trying to write it all down into short succinct sentences and thoughts, it becomes very difficult. I find that the reporters who come back to me are the ones who’ve been exposed to CEOs who could speak simply and easily — like you would talk to any regular person at a bar.
Is that unique to the tech world?
I don’t think so. I think the higher up you go, the more likely it is that you are brilliant. And so, I would say that the CEO of Home Depot is going to be just as brilliant as the CEO of an AI company, by virtue of all the work and talent required to get there. And I think the challenge they find is that they have been used to speaking in so many different kinds of dialects, if you will, professional dialects, whereas as an AI scientist, I might have an AI shorthand for all my researchers. When I’m talking to a journalist who may not have AI as his/her only beat, I’m speaking at a level that they can’t possibly understand.
And sometimes, that might actually be okay, if the audience speaks the same language. But if the audience doesn’t, if you’re speaking not to your peers, but you’re trying to speak to, say, consumers, it might go right past them.
It absolutely might go right past them; I think the real challenge is calibrating it correctly. And also, calibrating in a way that isn’t obnoxious. When we trained CEOs and other executives to talk to journalists, one of the things that we say is, “You should put the onus of selling your message on yourself.” Instead of saying to the journalist, “Did you understand that,” which makes it clear that the journalist might be the idiot in the room, you need to say, “Did I explain that well?”
That’s brilliant; you’re keeping ownership and responsibility for communicating.
Absolutely. One of the ways that this has really kind of come up is, I mentioned we are doing PR for ourselves just like we would do it for any of our clients, we practice what we preach at Bospar. So when I went in to the hot seat to do a TV interview, I really had extra pressure. I wasn’t just presenting this as the executive of a company, but I was also doing an interview as a expert in how to do an interview. When I was doing that, I really had to think about how I should take an interview and what are the best practices. And that made me evaluate everything I did, from what I would eat that day and what I would avoid – like dairy, for example – to how I would stand and how I would react facially, physically to questions, because this was on TV.
When executives are going in front of the camera, they really need to take an extra step to make sure that they are completely ready for the experience, because TV interviews are the very interviews that could make you an Internet meme forever, if you goof it up.
Artificial intelligence in PR
“Get smart about AI.”
If you look 10 years or so into the future, how do you see public relations and marketing changing, particularly in the tech space?
I think PR is increasingly going to adopt artificial intelligence. We already use artificial intelligence in a lot of our sales communication. And one of my clients, Conversica, for example, is telling me that probably one in five Americans have already talked to its AI platform. And that’s just one company. So if we’re looking at one in five Americans talking to AI right now, that number is going to increase where it’s a matter of how many times a day we’re interacting with AI.
The reason why that will be important for PR people is in their outbound communication. I mentioned the bad pitch I got from this random PR person. I suspect that if an AI platform had crafted the pitch, in about 10, 20 years, it’d probably be way better than this person had ever written. And it would be thoughtful and filled with links. And I think that’s one of the things that’s going to happen is that AI will be increasingly used for outreach.
I also think that AI is going to used for analytics that make the current analytics we’re using seem like caveman-like drawings by comparison. While that will be scary for a lot of people, I think that just like any sort of computer or technological revolution, it’s those people who really lean into it who are going to do well.
My advice to my PR colleagues would be to get smart about AI and understand what it does and what does not. That’s going to be the real challenge PR professionals face in the next 20 years.
I think the other challenge, of course, is going to be just the variety of outlets. We always hear about outlets shuttering and outlets closing and people being laid off. I think that’s going to continue to be a part of the PR landscape. That’s also going to be why social platforms are going to continue to grow in importance as they replace, in some instances, the media content that new sites used to have.
Is there anybody out there right now that you’re aware of who’s leading the charge on using AI for either analytics or for outreach?
I would say when it comes to outreach, one of the companies that is leading the way is a client of mine, and it’s called Conversica. And what Conversica is, is a sales assistant. It will send people emails or text messages about something that they showed interest in. If you were looking at a car, for example, on a website, you might get an email from someone who says, “Hey, I saw you’re looking at this Lexus, and I was wondering if you’d be interested in a test drive? We can schedule something.”
I think that is going to be adopted more and more for our PR model. I think that it’s going to take some further sophistication before we get to the point where a journalist gets a story like, “Hey, I saw you wrote about Battlestar Galactica and thought you’d be interested in this prequel. Would you like to go and see a reel?” But, I could very well see the day when that does happen.
Can you see a day when bots are pitching bots? That there’s AI on both ends, and we don’t even have to be part of that? [laughter]
I do see that. I think that’s interesting and I’m not sure what we’ll get. But I would very much like to see that experiment take place. I know that not all AI has worked out. I think the biggest example of AI that kind of blew up was Tay and that was too bad. It did blow up because of humans were mean. But I think that bots pitching bots will happen. I think the question is, will they produce anything that people will find interesting to read?
“I love email.”
On a day-to-day basis, what tools do you use? What do you rely on to be successful every day?
Don’t we all! [laughter]
Caffeine, and more and more caffeine. The other tools I rely on — I really love email; I know it actually sounds very old school.
I’ve never heard anybody say that.
I do. I love …
Seriously; I’ve never heard anybody say, “I love email.”
I find it is effective, not only as a means of communication, but as a means of a public record, and as a means of organizing projects. I can follow a project from start to completion by an email thread. I can make sure that things happen in a timely fashion.
I know that there is a rush to go into all sorts of project software. But in my estimation, or at least for me, that seems like an extra step. Whereas the email thread is a perfectly fine way of following a project on how it’s going.
When it comes to looking at resources, I’m fond of Harvest. I think Harvest is a very easy way for us to track where time is being spent. It’s also good for expenses, because who’s going to want to get all your receipts. At some point of the day, it’s much better to expense as you go. So Harvest is a great tool for that.
I’m also very fond of Zoom video conferencing service. And I find it to be so much more superior than any kind of pure audio conference, because looking at people physically gives you clues and ques. I can tell when someone wants to interrupt me. I can tell when people are bored with me. And that’s very useful for someone who probably is on a lot.
That non-verbal feedback really is important.
“Video is going to have a renaissance.”
What have I not asked you about that I should have?
I think that the big question that PR people have to face is not the coming AI invasion. It’s really going to be what people read, and how people absorb information. More and more young people are reporting that they are just visual, and they are following Instagram; they’re getting a lot of their content from that.
As PR people, I think the big challenge is “How do we make an impact when words seem to matter less and less?” I think that’s why video is going to have a renaissance. Because, if younger people are focusing less and less on words and more and more on pictures, then the best way to reach people will be through video. That’s what I see as important as the years go on.
Curtis, this has been a fantastic conversation. I tell you what, I’ve learned so much from you.
Shucks. Thanks. [laughter]
And that was Texas coming out right there!
Thanks for joining us for episode 14 of Better PR Now.
I want to give a shout-out to Professor Enrique Planells of the University of Valencia in Spain. He wrote a wonderful note expressing how he was using the podcast as complementary material for his students. He also noted how the podcast was bridging a gap between academia and the professional world. And that really is the main intent.
Thank you so much for listening and sharing the podcast, Enrique!
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