There Are Only 2 Rules: Be Interesting and Don’t Be Stupid

startup PR be interesting silicon flatirons

Mr. Blobfish is interesting, but kinda stupid.

 When you pitch your product to a blogger the day after her boyfriend died, you’ve straight up fucked up. Especially when you profess your undying admiration for said blogger’s blog, as it’s clear you haven’t read the latest entry.

You know. The blog where she talks about the fact that her boyfriend died yesterday.

On November 1, 2010, this happened to me. I opened my email in a sedative-veiled haze and dealt with life in the only way I new how — through words. I purged, spell-checked, clicked “publish” and went to sleep. When I woke two hours later, my inbox was filled with blog comments and one email from someone I didn’t recognize. Turned out that it was from an inside PR rep at a major outdoor industry brand with exactly the jist above, wondering if I’d like to demo and blog about their newest hiking boot.

Had my wits and full capacity for snark been about me, I would have hypothesized another use for the boot and offered to demonstrate, given the person’s completely shit timing.

Instead, I just replied, “If you were really a fan of my blog, you should probably have read today’s entry before hitting ‘send.’ ”

Today, it’s the best example I can give to sum-up the information from a panel I was on last night up at the University of Colorado – Boulder School of Law on Guerrilla PR Tactics for Startups (sponsored by Silicon Flatirons). Joined by my colleagues Merredith Branscombe of LEAP! Public Relations and Doyle Albee of Metzger Associates, our moderator Jason Mendelson of The Foundry Group took us through 1-1/2 hours of “WTF should a startup do when…” and “HTF should a startup do….” — and the net-net of the evening?

Be interesting and don’t be stupid.

And yes, it’s possible to be interesting and stupid (see the pitch I got above). You can even be stupid and interesting (the bad singers on every season of America Idol). But there’s only one combination that’s a lasting business strategy.

As there were so many people who came up and talked to us after last night’s panel, I thought a follow-up blog would be a good idea. First, I can throw down my Erika’s Bullet Points to Help Any Business from Looking Like an Asshole as you look to build buzz for what you’re doing and what you love. Secondly, we can delve into what it means to be interesting and how to not be stupid in the pursuit of getting people to talk about who you are and what you’re doing in a non-slutty-girl-at-the-prom kinda way.

Erika’s Bullet Points

I was asked both prior to and during the panel to offer a checklist of actionable tasks that any startup (and business) should run through in order to get off the ground and hit it running. I’m lucky enough to work with Merredith on a regular basis and the below is the exact process we take our clients through as we’re prepping a business for a launch of any sorts. Since I never got through the list during the panel and was asked about my list 83 times after we’d finished, here it is in awesome Htagged glory:


Be able to clearly state who you are, what you do, why you’re different, and why anyone should care.

The What and The Who.

Definitely not something from a Dr. Seuss book. What do you need to accomplish and whose attention do you need to get? Merredith reinforced that the answers to these questions will change along with your company’s lifecycle. If your What is users and your Who is moms with kids under the age of ten, that tells you where to look and start working. Once you get those, your What might become investors and the Who might become angels and seed stage firms with trends of funding $500,000 or less individual investments.

Also worth noting, your What and Who assumptions might be completely wrong. As in wholly jacked-up. Get ready to shift if need be.

Where do they live?

When you’ve got your What and determined your Who, get after ’em. In order to build a PR or social media program with any hope of efficacy and longevity, you have to understand not just your audience, but where they live. What’s important to them. How you solve their problem. And you have to become one of them.

Go live with them.

Yeah, I’m advocating moving in with someone before you really know them (much to the horror of parents everywhere, but this is why therapists stay in business). Once you figure out where your desired audience lives, you need to hang out and spend time with them. Understand how they talk, where they go, and who/what is important to them. Living with them at this stage is mostly listening — which will delight most of the men and terrify the women. Rule 1 of moving in is shut your mouth and open your ears. Your customers will tell you everything you want to know.

Join the conversation.

After you’ve shut your mouth and opened your ears, you’re in a better position to contribute something meaningful. This part is 80% about everyone else and (if you’re lucky) 20% about you. This is how we build relationships. You don’t walk up to some hot dude/gal on the street and say, “Let’s bone.” That’s drunk shenanigans for the bar. Joining the conversation is about relationship building, and it’s much more awkward, humble, and well — just downright human — than anything else your brand will ever do. And remember: People do business with people, not logos or pantone/hex colors.

Keep talking, but listen more.

Through conversations, we build relationships. Online, offline. It’s what makes us interesting. It keeps us humble. You have to have humility in order to make it through launching (and subsequently building) anything. We stay humble by being willing to listen and then demonstrating our value. And remember — Doyle and Merredith will back this up in spades as PR pros: Value is best demonstrated by anyone but you. Get those user case studies. Testimonials. Have your early adopters agree to be media references. The media only gets to keep their job by telling stories worth reading or watching and they do that by finding people who tell great stories. Talk. Develop relationships. Listen. Build. Share. (Wash/rinse/repeat)

So…I’m supposed to be interesting?

If you’ve chosen an entrepreneurial path, it sure as hell wasn’t for the medical insurance, vacation bennies, and generous 401k plan. The best resource we have as entrepreneurs is…The Me. You are interesting. And that’s because you are human. Things don’t tell stories – people do. And while stories like The Red Violin (epic if you have not seen it) are about a thing, it is the people behind the thing that make the thing interesting.

Here are my rules for being interesting:

  • Be respectful. Whether you’re pitching a reporter or approaching a new user, no one feels they have enough time in the day. Figure out deadlines, do your research (and make sure it’s current), understand how people prefer to communicate, and always (and without fail) say thank you.
  • It’s not about you. From the day you decide to launch a company to the one where you have AWESOME FUCKING NEWS to share (which may or may not actually be about fucking), it’s not about you. It’s about your customers, the reporter, a publication’s or website’s readership, a venture capital firm’s portfolio. That is everyone but you. Interesting stories invite people on the outside to come inside your story and feel not only as if they’re a part of it, but as if they’re creating it at times. There’s an entire chapter in The Power of Unpopular dedicated to creating brand stories, if you’re interested. (Note: eBook editions release on all platforms between 3/20-3/27)
  • Elevate others, elevate yourself. Interesting people and brands don’t crush others in order to lift themselves up. They lift up everyone around them. Do what you do, do it well, make it easy for people to share how well you do it, and remind those people that they are the reason you get to do what you love everyday. THAT is interesting. While all PR might be considered by some to be good PR, I’d rather see my clients in the New York Times because of a kickass story about their brand instead of how they’re getting their asses kicked for being dicks. Doubt me? Two words: Ocean. Marketing.

So how do we keep from being stupid?

Fessing up: I stole “don’t be stupid” from Doyle. But stupid people and brands aren’t interesting. Well, they’re interesting to people who enjoy watching the “train wrecks” features on each season of American Idol. But I’m guessing you don’t want your company featured there. People and brands are stupid when they do the opposite of the Be Interesting bulletpoints above.

So don’t do that shit. Be interesting instead. It’s a lot easier. (not “alot” — which is something completely different)

Marketing and PR resources for every business at every stage

We finished last night’s panel with a share session on easy-to-access resources for startups, but they’re applicable for every type of company. Here they are — and if you have ones of your own, I hope you’ll share with the other kids in the sandbox.

HubSpot’s Marketing Resources (OMFGeverythinghereisfree)

MarketingProfs (free and paid content, but low-cost and you can at-your-own-pace any of the courses — as we all know that running a startup means You Time comes between 1:23 and 4:14AM) They also have a cool Take 10 series which is 10-minute bootcamps on various marketing and PR topics.

Copyblogger (simply the best blog to help businesses of any size use content to build their brand equity)

And there ya go…

Be interesting and don’t be stupid. Resources. Bulletpoints. Jason Mendelson made a great point in an email we shared (the panelists) this morning as a redux — much of what’s important to the media is what’s important to investors. A point for the startups reading to keep in mind. And even if you’re not looking for funding, you’re looking to build a brand and command a presence. Since the health benefits suck and time off is…laughable…why not get your boots on the ground by skipping stupid and choosing interesting instead?

Feel free to leave comments and questions for anyone on the panel — and we also believe we’re not the only ones with something to contribute to the conversation. Comments below are threaded to allow anyone with something to contribute to respond in-line, and it doesn’t matter if you joined us last night or not.

Cynthia Schames
Cynthia Schames

There is so much power in these words.  Thank you, Erika. "Be interesting and don't be stupid" is so elegantly Grimlockian.  And true.  And not that easy, because humans are at least occasionally boring, stupid and...well, human.  But the mantra itself is economical enough to keep on auto-repeat in my brain, and I hope doing so will be a part of what saves me from the fate of many mere mortals. On a personal note, the raw pain in your post about Jason was terrible to witness but also managed to convey a palpable sense of love, beauty and dignity.  You're amazing.  

Paula Lee Bright
Paula Lee Bright

Kid. I remember those horrifying days when you were everywoman and nobody at the same time,  suffering and not even sure you'd get through it. The memory of your loss still hangs with me. As I know it does times 1,000,000 for you, and always will. But about the post. Agree, agree, agree. I still have work to do to get it right, but the philosophy itself is working for me.  I've learned a weird thing about myself. Kind of disturbing, actually. There's no way I'm going to get it right or do it well until my brain says, "Oh, hey. About that post you need to publish." And then out it comes, easy as pie.  In minutes. No amount of sticking to a schedule or pushing myself to get it done has any value. I think that means that, unlike you, I could never write for a living. Schedules, deadlines, all that. I ain't made for it. (Though I'm ALWAYS on track, prepared, and raring to go with each child's time with me. Always.) Brains are marvelous things, it turns out. It takes what I know, digests it, thinks, and then down the road a bit, it pops out  fully formed, kinda like a bitch with a ton o' pups. Poof! 1 out. Poof! 2 out. That's how it goes for me. But my little homemade business teaching kids who can't read is going like gangbusters. I even have to send form letters because there is not time anymore to respond to everyone individually. But I do send them some hope for a more affordable way to get lessons. From a site which I am building late at night, like now. Because it just ain't RIGHT that kids whose parents don't have money can't get help.  So sorry for the long story, but you helped me along the way. And I want to acknowledge that. You gave good advice when I needed it. I am realizing now that I strayed FAR from your point. But it felt good.  So thank you, Erika. And that's one truly sincere compliment from me. 

✿ڿڰۣ(̆̃̃ღ Amy
✿ڿڰۣ(̆̃̃ღ Amy

Thank you so much for posting the bullet points.  I adore tangents (I frequently go off on them myself), but I also adore bullet points. It was an excellent evening, you all were awesome.

Christopher Masak
Christopher Masak

I think the love child you and Scott Stratten (unmarketing dot com) would have could take over the world....and I'd gladly pay child support just to see it happen. Great article!

SL Clark
SL Clark

Thank you for another inspiring post Erika. "What we do and "How" we do it seems easy. As you briefly passed through in messaging, WHY should anyone give a flying rip feels like the real deal. Profits are the result of the why, not the how or what. See Simon Sinek's work for clarification. The two of you have helped me more than I can ever repay in treasure or the more important, time. Cheers, -Steve


Elevating an industry is better than knocking someone down so you can rise as an individual IMO. But you basically said that in this GREAT article Erika! :)  


I really do like your blog and you get away with saying a lot that I wish I could say, but as a publicist who takes in a TON of media, it's not always possible to follow every blogger, every single day. It's difficult enough to keep up with the dailies. With the level of outreach we need to do, we're bound to have these oops moments. Seems like us folks in PR are held to a much higher standard than everyone else. And I'm so sorry for your loss. While it was a couple of years ago, that kind of pain always sticks around...and I speak from personal experience.


Hey at least you get comments on your blog lol, my audience is there but don't advocate lol, good blog :)

Jeff Mouttet
Jeff Mouttet

I stole an entire paragraph to post to Facebook.  That OK with you?  "Elevate others, elevate yourself. Interesting people and brands don’t crush others in order to lift themselves up. They lift up everyone around them. Do what you do, do it well, make it easy for people to share how well you do it, and remind those people that they are the reason you get to do what you love everyday. THAT is interesting. While all PR might be considered by some to be good PR, I’d rather see my clients in the New York Times because of a kickass story about their brand instead of how they’re getting their asses kicked for being dicks..." Love, love, love it!


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