014 – Secrets to Win Tech PR – Curtis Sparrer of Bospar PR Shares Secrets of His Award-Winning Boutique Tech Public Relations Agency

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.

What business results do you want to achieve? Curtis Sparrer explains how to connect journalists with your client's story.
What business results do you want to achieve?

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.

TranscribeMe special offer - 25% discount! Excellent transcrips make it easier for journalists to use your content.


Transcript:

Today, we’re fortunate to be joined by Curtis Sparrer, principal at Bospar in San Fransisco.  Bospar recently won the PR Week Boutique Agency of the Year award. Congratulations and welcome, Curtis.

Bospar can help connect journalists with your story.

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.

How so?

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.

Absolutely.

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. 

Counseling clients

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 FacebookGoogle, 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.

Awkward.

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.

Yup.

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.

Yeah.

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.

Executive communications

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!

Soundbite size.

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?

Favorite tools

“I love email.”

On a day-to-day basis, what tools do you use?  What do you rely on to be successful every day?

Caffeine.

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.

Absolutely.

Communicating visually

“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!


TranscribeMe special offer

TranscribeMe is the official transcription partner of this podcast.  You can enjoy a 25% discount on transcription services at TranscribeMe.com/BetterPRNow.  They really do terrific work and the turnaround is super fast.

012 – Roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches – Megan Driscoll of EvolveMKD

Founder and CEO of EvolveMKD public relations agency, Megan Driscoll discusses what drew her to a career in public relations, what the future holds for PR and marketing, and the interplay between media relations and social media.  She also provides frank advice to those who are starting (or thinking about starting) a career in PR:  “Roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches.”

Episode 012 - Roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches. - Megan Driscoll

Starting a PR agency:

Megan shares surprising lessons she learned from starting her own business three years ago, including the importance of rallying people around your effort, and the challenge of gaining access to credit to fund the business.

As a business owner, she likes controlling her destiny, choosing who to work with and who to hire, how to invest in the business, and whether to expand.

Why a career in public relations?

When working on an internship, Meagan says that she essentially fell into a career in public relations after her boss suggested it as a good career opportunity.  She loves how dynamic this kind of work can be, as well as how you get a behind-the-scenes view of other industries and companies.

Advice for a successful career:

We have to continue to learn and grow, and we must be willing to always be challenged.  As technology changes, and we consume news and media in new ways, communications professionals have to adapt.  We also need to become adept at balancing the needs of our agency with those of our clients and the media.

Megan recommends that young PR professionals get well-rounded, diverse experience, especially early in our careers.  This will help us avoid getting pigeon-holed as having expertise only in one particular area, such as digital, media relations, writing press releases, handling budgets, developing strategy, and so forth.  PR pros need a wide range of tools and skills; developing them early and continuing to improve them throughout a career helps us be more effective at our jobs and provides a distinct advantage in the job market.

She also recommends taking writing classes (especially business writing) and paying attention to detail.  Megan noted that “if your best-foot-forward includes typos, that’s not good enough.”

In addition to developing solid writing skills, we should also “get comfortable with numbers” by taking classes in accounting, financials, and statistics.  “You have to have an understanding and appreciation for math,” Megan advises.

When speaking with new college grads, Megan tells them to “Be ready to work, roll up your sleeves, and get in the trenches.”  You grow and learn by having a lot thrown at you.

Some of the things that can be frustrating about working in public relations include a lack of education among potential clients, who don’t know what PR is now and how it has changed in a digital environment).  In addition to educating clients about the full range of benefits that PR can bring to the table, Megan also works with clients to broaden their understanding of what PR encompasses and how it can be a valuable voice of reason.

The importance of reputation management:

“Our job as communications professionals is to gently remind business leaders that you can say whatever you want, but if you don’t have the proof to back it up, you shouldn’t be saying it.”  As communication specialists, we help ensure they have thought through what they want to say and how they should act.

“Good PR people want their company or client to speak the truth; that’s an important part of the job.”

Megan noted that some clients can be short-sighted when thinking about the effect of their communication.  “The energy you put out there, the words you put out there, and the actions you put out there carry weight and have business implications.”

Advice to business leaders:

  • You can’t just talk the talk, you also have to walk the walk.
  • Think about what is behind a clever or fun campaign; what will you need to do from an operations perspective to reinforce the campaign’s message?
  • Media relations and social engagement must work together.
  • What do your leadership teams look like?  Do they reflect the consumers you’re trying to reach?

Understanding your customers:

“If you don’t interact with the people you’re trying to sell to, how can you have an effective strategy?”  Engaging your customers (and other publics!) and listening to them is a really effective way to understand their values, needs, wants, opinions, and attitudes.

Genius PR move:

Alyssa Milano’s (@Alyssa_Milano) support for the #MeToo movement on social media helped  drive real, meaningful discussion.

… and a not-so-genius PR move:

United Airlines’ handling of the removal of a passenger from a plane and the communications follow-up.  Bad operational decision made worse by ineffective communication afterward.  How could this have been handled better?

An example of a company making a mistake, but handling the aftermath well was Alaska Airlines’ (@AlaskaAir) prompt, on-target handling of Randi Zuckerberg’s (@randizuckerberg) complaint about sexual harassment by a fellow passenger.  The airline took immediate accountability, was open and public about it, and resolved the issue in a classy way.

Lesson: 

Just because you make a mistake, doesn’t mean you’re doomed; you have to own the problem, proactively acknowledge and solve it, and communicate with clarity and compassion.  Showing you genuinely care in this way keeps a mistake from turning into a crisis.

Megan noted how most “PR crises” actually start as operational issues that are mishandled.

What does the future hold for PR and marketing?

From Megan’s perspective, PR and social media are so intertwined that they will require integrated communication strategies.  Communications must be integrated and consistent for an organization to truly have a positive reputation.

Megan’s must-have tools:

  • Cell phone (it’s an appendage!)
  • Laptop
  • Mophie battery packs to keep mobile devices charged, so you can keep working and also stay connected
  • Cision, to create media lists, identify journalists who might be interested in covering your story, and keep track of your history of engagements with journalists (using Cision as a Customer Relationship Management tool)
  • Access to social media platforms

Speaking of using social media for research:

Megan uses social media tools like Twitter, which provides a great resource for understanding what stories reporters are working on, what competitors are doing, and for following the news

In addition to using Twitter for research, she uses groups on Facebook and Instagram to stay engaged with other communication professionals and journalists.

Helping clients avoid the shiny object syndrome:

With new social media platforms appearing almost daily, it seems as if everyone wants to be on Snapchat, or whatever the new hotness happens to be.  But just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it will fit.  Unless you’re trying to reach teens and those in their early 20s, Snapchat probably is not right for you or your company.  As Megan put it, “Snapchat is not the tool to sell anti-aging products.”  Truly.

Facebook might not be cool anymore, but it might be a great tool, depending on who you’re trying to reach and to what effect.

Megan noted that, “Having great media relationships isn’t enough to be a great PR person, you also need to understand the consumer your client is trying to reach.”  That understanding will help identify the appropriate media and engagement activities you should pursue.

EvolveMKD projects:

One of Megan’s clients, Lia Diagnostics, won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2017 in Berlin with the first major update of the pregnancy test since it was created in the 70’s.

EvolveMKD also is working with Merz USA, another client, on a partnership with Christie Brinkley.

Finally, look for Megan’s new book, which will come out in Spring 2018!


Before closing out this episode, I want to give a shout out to Sam, who recently rode to work with me and shared her inspirational story. I wish you luck and I’ll be looking for you on House of Cards!

I’d also like to dedicate this episode to Lou Williams, who was a guest on episode 4, “What’s Wrong With PR?”  Sadly, Lou passed away recently.

Dr. Tina McCorkindale, President & CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, said,

“Over the holidays, we lost a great leader and friend to the field … Lou Williams was an integral part of the Institute for Public Relations.  He served as an IPR Trustee starting in 2002, thanks to being recruited by his friend Ward White, who passed away in 2016.  In 2007, he became an Honorary Trustee and continued to be engaged until his death. Lou made tremendous contributions to the IPR Measurement Commission and served as an IPR Research Fellow.  When I first started my role at IPR, Lou told me his call to action would be how to better interest, educate, and engage practitioners around research.  He started doing this more than 30 years ago with a two-day conference he created in the 1980s, along with writing his best-selling book Communication Research, Measurement and Evaluation:  A Practical Guide for Communicators.

Speaking personally, I can honestly say that we are all much better for having known and worked with Lou, and we will miss him greatly.  I first met Lou as we enjoyed a lobster feast at Katie Paine’s farm in New Hampshire years ago. He was a kind and generous soul with a brilliant intellect.  Lou, this episode is for you!


Thank you, my wonderful listener, for spending this time with me and for being an important part of this community!  Please let me know what you think by leaving a rating and review on iTunes, by dropping me a line, or by sending a voicemail with that handy little orange button on the right (yes, that one).


How to contact Megan:

Instagram:  @megankcraig

Twitter:  @mkdrisco

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/EvolveMKD/

Website:  evolvemkd.com

EvolveMKD main number:  (646) 517-4220

Media inquiries:  media@evolvemkd.com

Jobs at EvolveMKD:  careers@evolvemkd.com

New Business Inquiries:  info@evolvemkd.com


About Megan:

Megan Driscoll is a sought-after strategic media and communications professional with nearly 16 years of experience in healthcare, aesthetics and dermatology, and prestige beauty.  Key to her success is Megan’s ability to always find a way.  She finds potential in every opportunity for her clients through determination, relationships, agility, and sound strategy coupled with a creative spirit.

Megan has cultivated relationships with physicians, consumers, key opinion leaders, and taste-makers to gain her clients national  recognition.  At the end of the day, Megan wants to surround herself with smart, passionate people who value integrity — people who are serious about their work, but don’t take themselves too seriously.  This philosophy is at the heart of founding EvolveMKD, where Megan provides day-to-day client counsel, strategic direction, and a savvy eye for what makes news and who can make the news happen.

About EvolveMKD:

Evolve’s chief capabilities range from traditional public relations (PR) campaigns to social media content creation, platform management and metrics reporting to physician and influencer relations.

EvolveMKD is a tight-knit collection of storytellers, brand builders and caretakers, data crunchers, media hounds, digital strategists, and collaborators.  They operate as an extension of your team, getting to know your brand, your work, and your customers.  They will work directly with you to develop an effective campaign to meet your brand’s needs and strengthen the connection between you and your customers.

003: Prof Dustin Supa on The Dude Deficit in Public Relations

Prof Dustin Supa - Don’t assume people know what you do in Public Relations

To benefit from every episode, please subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, TuneIn, Player FM, or Acast.

Prof. Dustin Supa’s key points:

  • 80%-90% of Public Relations undergraduate students are women.
  • Most of the male undergraduate PR students had a prior exposure to PR.
  • Teachers are uncomfortable teaching PR, because they don’t know what it is.
  • Public Relations is a field with a PR problem.
  • Public Relations is not diverse enough, either demographically or in diversity of thought.

Transcript:

Mark:               Hey, welcome back to Better PR Now. This is Episode three. I recently caught up with Prof. Dustin Supa of Boston’s University College of Communication. He was presenting the findings from a pilot research project that explored ‘The Dude Deficit’ in undergraduate public relations classrooms; why are so few young men choosing to major in public relations, as opposed to related fields like marketing and journalism? Dustin’s research points to an explanation and suggests some ways to address this issue.

                            I’m here at the International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami Florida, and I’m joined by Dr. Dustin Supa, from Boston University. We’re going to dive into a study that he presented here with his research partner Liza Moskowitz, who was a 2015 undergraduate alumni at Boston University’s Public Relations Program.

                            The title of the study was An Examination of Undergraduate Males’ Reticence to Study Public Relations. Dustin welcome.

Dr. Dustin Supa:       Thank you very much.

Mark:               Okay, let’s jump on this study, because I think there’s a lot of really interesting things to unpack out of it. So, tell me about the study; how did you do it and what did you find?

Dustin:               Well, the study originally came from the concept that you keep reading all these non-empirical studies or anecdotal information, particularly in a lot of trade pubs about how we need more men in public relations. Why do we have so few men? And, you know, this kind of concept of the PR girl, right? Everybody has the picture in their mind when we use that. And that’s really become, at least at the entry level, the kind of dominant paradigm.

If you have a public relations entry level job open, you might have one male apply, but you might have 200 females apply.

Mark:               And your experience in the classroom?

Dustin:               And the experience in the classroom is that, if you have more than one male student in your classroom, depending on the size of class, you’re impressed because you just don’t see that very often.

So that’s why I wanted to kind look at it and say, “Okay, maybe we should take an empirical look at this; is there something there?”

We know that 60% of students going to college are women. But that doesn’t account for why 80% or 90% of students in public relations are female. So there’s the deficit, ‘the dude deficit,’ if you will.

Working with Liza, we did a lot of background research. And first of all, there’s not an issue with too many women in public relations; the issue is not enough men in public relations. So we’ve got to be clear on that, because women traditionally had not been in roles of leadership and I think that’ll change over time, given our numbers right now.

We wanted to see if there were any systemic reasons why we were not seeing men. So we looked at 262 undergraduate males representing 62 institutions, so it was a fairly broad spectrum.

Mark:               So this was not limited to Boston?

Dustin:               No, this was nationwide. There were Boston University students, and there were other Boston-area schools, but it was all across the country.

We wanted to see and we wanted to find male undergraduate public relations majors. Male undergraduate communication majors, not public relations, so maybe in advertising or journalism, or even to some degree marketing, and then undergraduate males who were not in communication, not in public relations, so we kind of had three groups set up.

And what we found was that the males who were undergraduate public relations majors really seemed to have a solid grasp of the field. They seemed to understand what public relations did. The understood the upward mobility, they understood the job openings pretty well. So, the males who are doing public relations seem to get in it and they seem to have a high opinion of the field. The issue was not that they’re being driven out of public relations, because the ones who were in public relations really seemed to like the field.

Mark:               So it’s not that they’re leaving; they’re just never coming in.

Dustin:               They’re just never coming in. We did find that the other communication majors, non-public relations, also seemed to have – not to the same degree, but also seemed to have a pretty strong understanding of the public relations industry, had a fairly high perception, not as high as those in the field. But it doesn’t really surprise us that a journalism major may not think as highly of public relations as a public relations major, so again not super surprising because they had some knowledge.

But really the non-communication, the non-public relations majors, the evaluation of the field was significantly lower of those in the field. They did not perceive public relations as something that they wanted to do. They did not perceive public relations as a field that had financial stability.

They basically looked at public relations through the lens of shows like Scandal or Sex and the City, or saw public relations as mostly as event planners, social media stuff and just media relations, so they see the tactics of public relations and they’re not interested in those tactics.

But one of the things that we found that was really interesting was that most of the students who were in public relations came to it because they had a prior exposure.

Mark:               Did you get any sense for what what that prior exposure might be?

Dustin:               Usually it was a family member or a family friend or somebody that they knew was in public relations. And that’s where most of the people said, “Yeah, that’s interesting.” The other thing was they had found it after they had been another major. I mean the average undergraduate changes majors seven times.

Eventually public relations may or may not have been one of them. One of the questions we had was, “Have you ever been a public relations major?” The non-communications majors, no, but some of the communications majors had been public relations at one point. So some of them were leaving, but I don’t think that’s really one of the issues, because they tend to move around a lot. And some of them had been other majors before they were in public relations.

So they’re finding out about public relations usually in the first communication class. Well, if a student comes in and doesn’t take communication classes or doesn’t take an intro-level communication class, they’re probably not being exposed to public relations. When we started digging into it like, “Why don’t you want to be in public relations?” and more than 70% of them never heard of it.

One of the things that we think potentially could be, not the solution, but a solution is to see what we can do about increasing exposure and getting factual information out there. Not just the cultural perception of public relations, but factual information about public relations, because a lot of our students were in marketing. And marketing aligns perfectly with what I want to do. Well, great, but there are enough elements of public relations that you shouldn’t be saying, I’m in marketing because it aligns perfectly with what I want to do, and then strongly disagreeing about public relations aligns with what I want to do.

There may still be a discrepancy there, but there should be that much of a discrepancy. Obviously, they’re different fields but they’re not so entirely different that they should be at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

One of the things that we looked at is, could we offer some exposure programs either at the high school level, most people were taking journalism in high school. And most people maybe even get some kind of principles of marketing or some business level type of course in high schools, but there are no public relations.

And in fact, one of the comments that I heard during the discussion was that teachers are uncomfortable teaching public relations, because they don’t know what it is. And we have a hard enough time finding our own field just to our friends and family, but how do we then try to educate others on public relations? It’s not just talking to the media. It’s not just planning events. It’s not these things, but we need to be able to say here’s what it is. And that’s one of the solution that we think might help start addressing.

I don’t think we’re ever going to have equality and we may or may not be on the tipping point. I don’t ever think we’re going to have a 50/50 split of males versus females, but 80/20, 90/10 that’s not healthy for the field either.

Mark:               So, if you put on your prescriptive hat and you look at the academy, and you look at the world of professionals who are out practicing, do you have recommendations for things that they can do, either on the academic side or on the professional side, to start to mitigate this? To make the profession more widely known and to make it more attractive to a truly diverse audience of folks who are potential students and future practitioners or professionals?

Dustin:               I think one of the things that all practitioners should do is understand that they are in a field that has a public relations problem. And what are they doing as individuals to help that situation? I think if we can recognise that, “Hey, I’m in public relations and public relations may not have the best perception. What can I do to change that?”

Could I go to my kid’s career day? Could I offer to speak to a class, or is my company involved with something that is a pro bono client or charity organization that deals with children? Is there something that I come in and say, “Hey, here’s what we are helping with, and here’s what we do.”

So it’s not even a matter of doing stuff that’s so outlandish. I don’t think that we should necessarily be trying to weasel our way into high schools to find people. But if there are opportunities where I have some younger people or high school students, I’ll take the 30 seconds to say here’s what I do.

Or if I’m out doing something and someone asks, “What do you do?” “I’m in public relations.” Well maybe you add a sentence. So, instead of saying “I’m in public relations,” maybe at the end of the sentence saying, “I’m in public relations and here’s what I do on a regular basis …” to help explain to people what it is that you do.

So, I’m in public relations and I help manage the relationship between this organization and this group of people. Or I am involved with promoting the work that is done by this non-profit organization, or something like that.

And I think that if we can just add that second sentence and not assume that people know what you do when you say, “I’m in public relations.” I think even that starts the ball rolling in a simple way; those are some simple steps.

Mark:               Brilliant. Is there anything else you would like to add about the study, or the next steps on the research side, or the next steps to address the issue?

Dustin:               Well, I think the important thing is to recognise with this particular study, is it’s totally a pilot. Right? We didn’t look at comparing men and women. We just wanted to start seeing some empirical data. So what we hope to do is to take this pilot study and then use that to get a grant to help us understand what are the bigger issues?

We have 262 responses; that’s great, but what happens when you get 5,000 responses? How do we really start winnowing down? Are there scales or are there things that we need to know that would make the difference? So, we’re at a starting point.

Mark:               What would your next questions be as you start to dive into this deeper?

Dustin:               I think what we want to do is look at the factors that went into them deciding there are other majors? What were those factors? I think if we can start seeing why people chose the major they’re in, then we can start saying, “Okay, what can we now do about that?” But, we are going to need bigger samples. And there are existing scales that do that.

We are just going to come at it from, “Okay, how do we address this lack of diversity?” And diversity is obviously an issue in public relations anyway. But diversity comes in many styles. Because we are primarily a female field, that doesn’t make us diverse; that actually makes us less diverse. We do have a severe lack of African Americans and Hispanics in public relations. If we were 100% African Americans, we would not be diverse then. So we’re looking at this from [the perspective of] “How do we make public relations truly a diverse field?”

Mark:               You have diversity when your profession or your group mirrors the same diversity in the larger society, and we’re not there.

Dustin:               We’re not there, and one of the bigger challenges though, I think, is not only mirroring the diversity in society at large, but also understanding that diversity is not necessarily a category you can see. True diversity means that eventually you have diversity of thought, and that’s really where we need to head towards.

Mark:               Great. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I love this topic.                       

—-

Thanks for joining us for this conversation about a topic that really is so important to our profession. I think Dustin really is onto something here, and I can’t wait to hear what he finds out in the larger study.

As public relation professionals, whether we’re on the academic side, the practitioner side, or have a foot in both worlds, we all have a stake in this issue. And we can take action to make a difference right now.

I’m going to take Dustin’s advice to help more young people understand what public relations really is about. The more people understand our profession the more it will be seen as a viable career choice for both men and women from every background.

The diversity of perspectives is really important to the future of our profession. Will you join me in this effort?

—-

You know, I would love to hear what you think about the podcast, and any questions you would like to have addressed. Give me a shout by clicking the orange ‘send voice mail tab’ on the right side of every page on the Better PR Now website.

If you are enjoying the podcast and finding it useful, I will be eternally grateful for an honest review on iTunes. Please also consider subscribing and sharing with friends who might benefit from the podcast.

Thanks for taking this journey with me as we improve public relations one conversation at a time. I’ll catch you on the next episode!