Genius PR: Lessons From Walter O'Brien And 'Scorpion' (He's Real!)
How would you handle PR if you were one of the five smartest people on the planet? Perhaps you could emulate Walter O'Brien, with an IQ of 197. (For perspective, Albert Einstein's IQ was 160). I met O'Brien last weekend at the Secret Knock event in San Diego-the project of author and KeynoteSpeaker.tv creator Greg Reid-where O'Brien both keynoted and stayed afterward to greet each of the 250 attendees who waited hours in line to ask additional questions. In an interview before his presentation, O'Brien spoke with me about his long and prosperous relationship with public relations, beginning with the launch of his business, Scorpion Computer Services (and its "think tank for hire" ConciergeUp.com) 28 years ago at the age of 13.
As you can imagine, Walter O'Brien-the real-life "Scorpion" character behind the CBS show-doesn't have a typical past. The son of an Irish farming family, he got into trouble at school "for asking too many questions." Suspecting he was autistic, teachers recommended he be tested. The result: No autism, but an IQ level beyond genius that left him too bored to play by the rules in traditional school. On his own, O'Brien studied everything he could find, especially in technology. At 13, while other kids were playing sports and video games, he hacked into NASA 's servers-then administered by the NSA-and stole the blueprints for the Space Shuttle as a lark.
Now the U.S. government came to call. (For completeness, Wikipedia and several news publications have noted the government did not confirm Walter's hack-but we can also note that the NSA has never confirmed a hack in its 64-year history.) So Walter's business, Scorpion Computer Services, was born "as a way to stay out of jail," he quips, but also as a means of turning his nascent talent into a kind of Geek Squad service that could use his analytical skills to solve practical problems. The U.S. government became his client, using his mad technology skills to identify and resolve security holes. As one of his hired projects he broke into the Bank of England at age 16. (He wryly notes that in contrast, he had broken into NASA for free.)
It took some work on all sides to get him out of Ireland, but O'Brien is now a U.S. asset who is protected by an EB-11 visa, reserved for persons of extraordinary ability. The Scorpion Computer Services team works to protect the military and the agencies on NORAD mountain to protect U.S. assets on projects that retrofit government systems, where needed, working backwards to re-insert security where any prior loopholes exist. As a testament to the company's work, late last year O'Brien was individually recognized by the Fort Wayne Base Council and the Northeast Indiana Defense Industry Association for saving military lives and awarded a Combat Infantry Badge and part of a Battle Dress Uniform from Operation Desert Storm.
To staff his business, (now evolving to the brand ConciergeUp.com), O'Brien has hired other geniuses and child prodigies to solve problems for clients, big and small. The organization-which has now passed $1.3B and contracts with more than 2,000 hackers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and operations and marketing gurus, according to published reports-operates on the same model as a large law firm.
The company fulfills "complex wishes" by inviting clients, the public, or any interested party to write in with a need and to prefund the resolution with a retainer of $5,000 or greater, depending on the scope of the project. The organization proposes a plan of action and if the client approves, proceeds to solve the problem at a billable rate of $150 an hour for most work. Some problems require just $100-300 in cases where they can simply instruct the client to follow a path they wouldn't have known to achieve the goal on their own. A young adopted woman hoping to trace her birth parents, for example, was told she could simply register and submit a DNA sample to Promethease.com to identify the top 100 conditions she was most likely and least likely to die from when her DNA was matched against the genetic databases (which would also identify the components of her ethnic history). Then she could register with 23andme.com, where her case resulted in several thousand matches to people in the database of two million that she is genetically related to, allowing her to potentially piece together the rest of her familial connections on her own. Within 29 days, the challenge was solved.
Like a law firm, the company refunds any unused retainer. For a significant project, however, the tab might run to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. There are enterprise software build outs. A Fortune 500 company whose CTO quit and took the passwords to all of the company's systems with him.
The request to ConciergeUp.com:
"Hack into our systems and change the passwords to lock out the old CTO. Find and hire his replacement and solve this as if it never happened."
"Our tagline is simple," O'Brien says. "Any Funded Need. But people have a bit of a hard time getting their heads around the full possibilities of any."
For example, one of the most creative problems the company was called upon to solve came from a billionaire who said his son was engaged to a gold digger from the Ukraine, but was in denial about the situation and was refusing to hear his father's advice. As an example offered by O'Brien, the following account notably changes some of the facts to protect the parties involved from being discovered.
The project: "Get them broken up before the wedding, get her back to the Ukraine, and leave the son with no sign that you've intervened." O'Brien's analysis proved the father's suspicions were true. In this multi-month project a team of actors, psychologists and attorneys were engaged to get close to both the son and the fiancé. The team determined the places each of them frequented, including clubs and yoga studios. On at least one occasion, actors filled every seat in a coffee shop, leaving open only one seat next to the prospective bride to make room for a new friend-a Scorpion actor who would get to know her intentions. Soon enough, the fiancé opened up to her new friend that she had a wealthy American on the hook she was about to elope with, file for her green card then quickly divorce him and walk away with a magnificent sum that she could use to bring her real boyfriend over from the Ukraine.
The fiancé's plan was moving quickly and smoothly-or so she believed. On the other side, the son ended up going through with the marriage coordinated by his own new friend, a former Scorpion billionaire client. The marriage turned out to be fake and the priest was an actor (as explained by a Scorpion team member who later took her aside for a closed-door meeting). He then produced two documents for her signature - a waiver of claim to the young man's fortune and her voluntary return to the Ukraine, in exchange for which he would forego the criminal charges.
She was gone, and son and father rebuilt their relationship. It sounds like the perfect company, yes? Not entirely. Along the way, O'Brien has made some fascinating discoveries about the people he hires. As he's hired his friends-other child prodigies-he's realized fairly quickly that while highly intelligent people are brilliant at solving problems, they are fairly universally inept at the human relations involved. (Think Sheldon Cooper, on "The Big Bang." The Sheldon character is an extreme case as he has Asperger's Syndrome, but regardless, the analogy holds.)
"I would stand back and observe my friends trying to kill each other while insulting my clients," he says. "I'd hired people with high IQ, but they were lacking in EQ (Emotional Quotient). You can actually test for EQ. So I hired people with high EQ to train the geniuses and to 'babysit' the relationships between geniuses and customers. We call them 'super nannies'."
The solution was. (ahem) genius.
The company has grown to more than 2,000 geniuses and nannies and has recently expanded to include problems where technology is not necessarily core, but instead the solution requires creativity or innovation. Now the ConciergeUp.com team covers situations such as "My daughter has anorexia" or "My mother has cancer and I need access to all non FDA approved solutions that might help." Geniuses can generally solve problems in 9 out of 10 situations, he says, and if the problem isn't solved or can be resolved in just a part of the hours, the remainder of the retainer is returned.
PR can help a company scale. "We have too many problems and not enough geniuses. We needed PR to help us develop some more." In classic style, O'Brien brought together a conclave of geniuses to help him solve his own problem - to find a way to enact a PR program powerful enough that it would allow him to scale.
"You can write a book, but millennials won't read it," the experts said. They noted that traditional PR would not be able to move the needle with enough momentum or speed. However, they concluded, "If you can replace CSI as the most popular show on TV, the geniuses will find you."
In other words, O'Brien had been dealt his own "impossible ask." So he combined the producers of Transformers, Spiderman and Star Trek and created the television show that is now the #1-rated drama on CBS: Scorpion. The lead character, of course, is an enactment of the real-life Walter O'Brien. With only minor changes to protect confidentiality agreements, he maintains that the core of virtually all of the stories the series covers are real. The pilot achieved 26 million views and Scorpion has aired as a hit in 100 countries around the world for the last two years, airing immediately after The Big Bang (fittingly) and was picked up for season three shortly before we conducted our interview, with 24 new episodes of the show now on tap.
"More people have walked on the moon than have achieved a PR outcome like this," he says, incredulous at the result. "The show pays me. I don't pay for it." O'Brien's team has created a show that gets into the heads of both kids and parents. Parents and their children watch the program together. The kids explain the tech to their parents and the parents explain the EQ to their kids.
Walter O'Brien's 3 rules. For other entrepreneurs, the chance that you can launch a television show that mirrors your company, of course, is not high. But the principles O'Brien has established and recommends to others who would like to follow his lead are universal. He advocates the following in all that he does in PR:
- There is a home for everyone who never fit in
- Every problem has a solution
- Being smart is cool
So the principles in this philosophy would suggest that no matter your niche-socks, sport bras, bone broth, technology devices-there are people interested in learning more about your products and who would like to consider partnering or working with you. Identify the unique talents and interests and speak to those needs.
Likewise, every problem has a solution. There are ways to find elusive data points (like lost relatives, cures for cancer, new fitness tools, new devices). The best products are the ones that haven't even been thought about yet. If you haven't found the ideal start for your company, keep looking.
And being smart is cool. Spending time with O'Brien makes me wonder what he could have done for NASA if he'd been part of the fictional scenario in last year's movie "The Martian" when the Matt Damon character, Watley, was suddenly stranded on Mars . "I'm going to have to science the s**t out of this," Watley had said.
The kids who spent their childhoods at the edge of the playground can take heart in the fact that we're finally living in a time where marching to a different drummer or being extremely intellectual is in fashion, at last.
As an organization adds value, customers and partners will come. For example, after a keynote presentation earlier this month at the annual conference for MENSA (the organization for people with IQ's of 140 and above), people rushed the stage after O'Brien's presentation. "It shows how PR occurs when you least intend it if you put your focus on adding value and affecting positive change."
Others can accomplish this, too. How can other companies take advantage of this? Webcasts. Podcasts. Consider YouTube videos to demonstrate ideas that that haven't been thought of before. For example, the woman who prances (literally) through public locations as a form of exercise, thanks to the power of the Internet and the growing acceptance of people and ideas that are different, has been awarded with as many fans as detractors.
There are needs to meet we have never considered before, consumers we didn't realize existed, and places for every talent and personality type to join in and play. How could you best appeal to their imaginations? Through stories? Dramatizations?
Says O'Brien, "before our show, our website would get 70 hits a day. Now it's spiked to more than 105,000. We used to get a new customer every three weeks and now we've received nearly 2,000 funded requests in 10 days. O'Brien continues to learn much about human motivation and psychology as he builds his organization as well. "If you look at any normal organization, the CEO is the person with the highest EQ. The person with the highest IQ is often in the backroom running the financials or the operations. That's topsy turvy."
The Revenge of the Nerds. Entrepreneurs who are intellectuals need to put a high focus on learning EQ, he advises. For example, when geniuses present within his organization, the "super nannies" attend and advise them. "You gave a 20 minute monologue before you let your customer speak," they might say. Or "you told an off color joke and we can see from the customer's face she's offended."
Teaching EQ skills to left-brained individuals is somewhat akin to teaching them French, O'Brien says. It's a foreign language. "How do you tell an extroverted engineer?" he quips. "He's staring at your shoes instead of his own." And his words of advice to everyone, at every level, are to improve your EQ. "If you can improve EQ even a little bit, everything goes much better."
As his company has passed the $1B mark in revenue and Scorpion begins its third season, has O'Brien had any bad days in PR? He notes that of 26 million fans there are at least a few outspoken detractors. He's dealt with a troll or two who insist the show is a thinly veiled commercial ("yeah, right, when my company existed for 20 years before the show appeared") or that the story lines are fake (some details are altered to protect confidentiality, but due to NDA agreements O'Brien is prevented from providing public evidence to prove the stories are true). "I have to shake it off," he says. "I invite people to read the hundreds of positive articles instead of getting affected by the occasional outburst from a troll."
How about his parents? Are they proud of what O'Brien is doing? Are they aware? His family-parents, two brothers and two sisters, continue to live in Kilkenny, Ireland. His dad is still keeping the farm alive "in case this Internet thing doesn't work out." As the show has only recently become available in Ireland, his mother now watches and "the show helps her understand what I do."
Does he have a wife or children? "No," he replies and I assume it is due to extreme lack of time. Later, during his keynote I learn otherwise. "My personality is extremely unbalanced," he acknowledges in candor. "My left brain has gradually 'eaten' the right brain capabilities away." With an intellect so high, O'Brien has created learning and combinations of people to offset his deficiencies, as he tells it, to bring about remarkable outcomes.
For his social life, he hangs with a set of similar friends, all acknowledged as intellectual nerds. They have dinner parties that adhere to three rules: 1) all that is said is confidential, 2) only one person can talk at a time, and 3) political correctness is not allowed. As we closed the conversation I remarked that my three sons and I have been measured at fairly identical IQ's (approximately 136) and have somewhat identified with the feelings of "nerds," but that I'm suddenly feeling outclassed. O'Brien lifted an eyebrow and gave me a smile. "Don't forget-anything above 120 is trouble," he said. I've been schooled.