Become award-winning as quickly as possible. When we were making the case that our new firm was worth a client’s business it was the awards that helped make the case.
As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Curtis Sparrer.
Very few PR people get asked about aliens.
But Curtis Sparrer does. He gets emails from people who insist: “the truth is out there.”
That’s because he promoted the SETI Institute, which actually searches for ETs. He even convinced a certain Hollywood director to donate 1million dollars to them.
Curtis has always brought a bit of sci-fi flare to his PR career. PRWeek covered his work with Star Trek’s George Takei. He pulled off PayPal’s “most successful launch ever” with astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Bospar, the agency he co-founded, has been virtual since its inception in 2015.
Career highlights include convincing Google to change its Doodle into the building blocks of Tetris for the game’s 25th anniversary, taking Ebates to a billion-dollar exit by Rakuten, and being named one of the top 50 people in tech PR twice by Business Insider. He is on the board of the San Francisco Press Club and PRSA Silicon Valley.
Curtis has written about the PR best practices for Entrepreneur, Forbes, PRWeek, and O’Dwyer’s and been a guest speaker for Meltwater, the Bulldog Reporterand San Francisco’s Ohlone College. He provided his agency’s eBook to be part of the PR curriculum at the University of Rwanda.
But Curtis isn’t just focused on PR.
When Tyler Clementi, a closeted gay college student, took his life when his privacy was invaded, Curtis shared his similar story in the Dallas Morning News. He is a lifetime member of the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association and a member of StartOut, an LGBTQ entrepreneurial organization.
Curtis started his professional career in the news as the weekend overnight editor at KEYE-42 while attending the University of Texas at Austin. He graduated with a BA in Liberal Arts and a BS in Radio/TV/Film. He worked at WTOL-TV and KHOU-TV and finished his career in television as the executive producer of San Francisco’s KRON-TV, where he won a regional Emmy for outstanding daily news.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2008 I faced a crisis.
If I was to continue my TV career I would have to leave San Francisco — something I didn’t want to do.
If I was to stay in San Francisco, I would have to do something outside of television.
After a lot of reflection, I decided to pursue PR. The interviews were demoralizing. The nadir: the young twenty-something head of broadcast for one big firm dismissed my resume in front of my face, saying I didn’t have enough experience. “It’s only a local Emmy,” she said about what I regarded as my most impressive professional accomplishment, before turning to something more important. In a move of desperation, I answered a Craigslist ad for PR interns. That’s when I met Chris Boehlke, the CEO of Connecting Point Communications.
After interviewing me for a full day, Chris called me. “Did you see the news,” she asked. Just that day (May 15, 2008), the Supreme Court struck down California’s existing statutes limiting marriage to opposite-gender couples in a 4–3 ruling. Naturally, this was important to me since I’m gay.
“Yeah,” I dumbly responded. “It’s big.”
“Yes, it is. That’s why I called. I want to get married.”
“What,” I said, again feeling pretty clueless.
“F*#k this internship — I want to get married. I mean not a conventional marriage, but according to today’s news conventional thinking is just too conventional. Think of the places we can go.”
And we have gone places.
Soon Tom Carpenter (more on him in a moment) signed up with Connecting Point and we would represent Tetris, convincing Google to change its doodle to the building blocks of the game. We persuaded Jay Leno to incorporate our client PC Tools of Symantec into his opening monologue. Stephen Colbert also covered our client Qumu. For Chris, this was according to plan: she thought it made sense to have a TV producer lead a PR firm to keep it top of the game in getting media coverage — everything from how to know and pitch the news of the day to understanding all the back end syndications that get coverage for stories many times over.
Tom Carpenter meanwhile was a fantastic addition to the team. Tom came from one of the most important law firms in the Bay Area, Skaaden Arps. This gave Tom an insider’s viewpoint into the M&A deals that fuel Silicon Valley.
In 2009, Grayling acquired Connecting Point Communications.
In 2014 Business Insider named me to their list of The 50 Best Public Relations People In The Tech Industry In 2014.
That was an important turning point: there is an unintended consequence to a great public relations placement. It reveals what people truly think of you.
That knowledge can make you do surprising things.
I first learned about my ranking from my clients. After several rounds of congratulations, my team members were next, followed by plenty of ribbing from my journalist friends: “The bar was that low, huh?” or “You were only number 27. That means there are 26 people better than you — probably better looking, too.”
But after the initial euphoria wore off, I noticed a particular silence in my international PR agency. No one from senior management acknowledged me. I decided I needed to leave.
From a cultural point of view, leaving made sense. At Connecting Point Communications I had direct access to its founder (Chris) and could enjoy her mentorship, control over which clients I would work for, and assurance that my voice would count. I was judged by the work I did in a small, almost classroom environment that nurtured great ideas and talent.
The question was: where to go?
After interviewing with several agencies, I realized most of them were depressingly the same. They offered a high-minded talk about how they were different and presented a fantastic foyer meant to inspire thoughts of greatness. But behind the foyer, they revealed an open office that resembled most third-world call centers. The bathrooms were nearly third-world, too.
I was chewing on these thoughts during my last interview, which I interrupted, declaring, “You know what — after hearing this, I think I should simply start my own agency.”
It was actually Chris Boehlke’s idea. We talked about it over drinks with our third principle, Tom Carpenter. We had confidence in our PR acumen, and we knew a lot of prospects from years of making friends among our Silicon Valley clients and the “recommenders” they trust.
When we talked about where to locate the office, the conversation quickly turned to negative elements like commute times, open spaces and cubes, limited availability of good people in the Bay Area, and spiraling costs of real estate in the sought-after parts of town.
We assumed we’d be very liberal about how much we’d let people work remotely — it was 2015, after all — and the trend was accelerating rapidly. It was especially attractive to one of the most under-utilized assets in the PR profession: mothers with small children.
That’s when we decided to be bold and start with a virtual model. We felt it was even more powerful than liberal work-remote policies because everyone is actually together constantly in a digital virtual environment. They are never “remote.”
So, we opened a virtual agency with no physical offices, just people connected by phones and the internet. Staff members wouldn’t have to endure open offices, and we wouldn’t be hamstrung with an untenable long-term lease. Even more importantly, we would be able to select the best people, no matter their location or family situation. Being virtual would not be tantamount to being cheap: we would invest more in travel than we would spend in rent. By adopting this model, we would have the footprint of a large agency with the focus of a boutique.
Now, five+ years later, we are still pinching ourselves about how well things have worked out. PRWeek named us their outstanding boutique agency two years in a row and nominated us again for the best small agency this year. The Bulldog Reporter awarded us 17 times. Our staff retention is probably the highest in the industry, which has secured us the best place to work award.
The people I work with are some of the smartest and hardest-working in the industry, and, somehow, they manage to put up with me.
That’s all due to the unintended consequence of a great public relations placement. It reveals what people truly think of you. That knowledge can make you do surprising things.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Have you described San Francisco as “San Fran?”
It drives locals nuts.
I realized this issue could be powerful PR, generating awareness for the non-profit SF Museum & Historical Society while helping put an end to a huge pet peeve.
So I convinced Propeller Research to donate its resources to helping determine who said “San Fran” or “Frisco” when shortening the name of the city by the bay.
My team and I discovered the majority (65%) of San Franciscans use “San Francisco” when referring to the city and if forced to choose only one name to call it, only 1% would choose “San Fran” and only 4% would choose “Frisco.”
I then secured a TV interview on the local San Francisco ABC affiliate about the research, as well as placements in print and online. The SF Museum & Historical Society meanwhile got a renewed boost of traffic and donations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
While on the phone with a new client I wanted to stir up excitement. We were talking about media penetration and I said: “Here’s to maximum penetration!” The client just laughed — and never let me forget about it.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We are continuing our international expansion, working with companies in Asia, Europe, and Africa. All these companies have told us that they have been burned by “business as usual PR” and really love our unique approach, which provides them a team that’s not simply siloed in one city, but rather representative of the entire United States.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Try and get a person for each job. For example, one of the most important hires we made was an attorney to handle our contracts. That took a weight off us.
- Become award-winning as quickly as possible. When we were making the case that our new firm was worth a client’s business it was the awards that helped make the case.
- Create a list of references that will go to bat for you. Having a reference ready to explain why you should be hired will be transformative in you getting the clients you need.
- Deploy a website as soon as possible. Many people get into website paralysis, thinking their website has to be perfect. That’s not the case. You can iterate on your design constantly, but holding off on a website will hurt your chances of getting hired.
- Iterate. Nothing is perfect, but if you don’t constantly change your assets people will assume you’re resting on your laurels or you’re not growing.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
I always confess to people I network with that I’m bad at networking — that seems to break the ice. I also like to wear a conversation-starter. When I went to a trade show, I wore sequin houndstooth loafers. Everyone stopped me to talk about them. Now that we’re all on Zoom, I try to do the same thing with shirts. Finally, I always ask to connect with the person afterward on email, LinkedIn, and Twitter. That way they are not a mere acquaintance, but someone who is connected to me.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
As the principal of a PR firm, I practice what I preach. Whenever I secure a PR placement about our company or myself, I share it with potential leads to demonstrate how we work and why they should consider using Bospar for their PR needs.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I love listening to the podcasts of BetterPRNow, Entrepreneurship, PRovoke, and PRWeek. It helps me hear how people like me faced similar problems and solved them.
But that’s a rather predictable answer.
Frequently when I’m faced with a problem I channel Star Trek or Doctor Who. While I love SciFi, I also love how it shows how people use critical thinking to solve complex problems. Figure out how to fight the Borg and you’ll figure out how to make a client happy.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could accomplish just one thing, it would be for people to respond quickly to their emails. I can’t tell you how much I’ve spent writing: Just wanted to follow up on my previous email…
That — and also to persuade people never to say “San Fran.”
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.