Peter Shankman is an undeniable force. As a consultant and speaker on Social Media, his impressive list of clients includes Walt Disney World, Snapple Beverage Group, NASA and more. Shankman is probably best known for founding Help a Report Out (HARO), which has become the number one online resource for journalists looking for sources. The service boasts sources the world over on practically any topic with thousands of new members joining each week. In person, Shankman is an indomitable character. He’s friendly, fluid and speaks so quickly that listeners must focus their full attention on him to keep up – but he never rambles. Everything he says is to the point and full of information. The author of Can We Do That?! Outrageous PR Stunts That Work and Why Your Company Needs Them with another book on the way, Peter Shankman took a few minutes out of his schedule to discuss his history and his experiences in Social Media.
He began by offhandedly running through his list of impressive accomplishments, like giving a quick rundown about yesterday’s errands. “I was very fortunate. My first job out of school I was hired as one of the founding editors at the AOL newsroom. Left AOL in 97. Came back to New York. Started a PR firm in 98 called Geek Factory…designed for dot-coms that couldn’t wait two months to get in line at the big, giant firms.” When the crash started in 2001, Shankman sold the company to a larger firm and decided to take a year off, which only lasted about a week before he got bored and started consulting. He spent a lot of time traveling and had one horrible experience after the other with less than desirable passengers in the seats next to him. Then one flight he was sat next to Miss Texas. “I guess it was her turn to have a bad flight,” he laughs. It occurred to him that passengers control everything they do on the airplane except who they sit next to, which was the impetus behind the first social network for business travelers: AirTroductions.com. “The concept was you should be able to choose your seatmate before you get on a plane. Overnight the site became a dating site.”
After selling AirTroductions, Shankman went back to consulting and was interacting with various journalists that would approach him for sources since he had accumulated a vast network of knowledgeable contacts. “I started sending out these requests to all my friends and it took way too long to find these people,” he admits. “I couldn’t get any work done. So I built a Facebook group. [It] capped out overnight. I moved it to the Web and HARO was born.” According to Shankman, Help A Reporter Out features roughly 135000 members who are connected to 50000 journalists every day, three times a day.
Reporters can go to the site, submit a query for something as specific as “a family who almost lost their home due to financial crisis” or “a banker who knows about oil stocks” and if a source can provide the needed information they respond directly to the reporter. It’s a very simple, but effective process. “It’s landed people in everything from Oprah to Entertainment Weekly, Shark Tank, CNN, New York Times and basically every major national media outlet.”
When not completely absorbed with growing HARO, Shankman still finds the time to consult. “NASA actually just appointed me to the NASA civilian advisory council,” he says with pride. “Which is, for a space geek, a lifelong oh-my-god dream. I knew I was never smart enough to be an astronaut, but to actually be on the committee that helps define the policy for how they talk to the public is just exciting as hell.” One of Shankman’s cats is actually named NASA.
Social Media shouldn’t be taken lightly. According to Shankman “Social Media is a much quicker way to screw up to a much larger group of people.” It is, however, something that is unavoidable for any company. “Saying your company needs to get into social media is the same as saying your company needs to get into marketing. Social Media, in essence, is customer service. It’s nothing more than that.” Without naming names, he talked about his personal experiences with how some companies handle Social Media well, while others don’t. “I have a following of 60000 on Twitter,” he points out. Bad Press can spread like wildfire on the Internet – but so can good reviews. “I think we’re moving towards a trust-model society where in the past you chose what to do, where to go, how to vacation based on what you read in the paper – based on what people in positions of media power would tell you.” Now people check online to see what people they know and other ordinary people think.
Peter Shankman suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but it doesn’t appear to have slowed him down in the least. He even calls it ADOS (Attention Deficit Ooh, Shiny!). “I understand that I think differently. I understand my brain works in different ways than normal people. It’s one of the reasons why – in the past 14 years – I haven’t had a boss. A lot of people take medication to try to fit into the mainstream. I try to accept that I’m never going to fit into the mainstream and, as such, have been able to very successfully make my own way, doing it my way. You get the fact that not everyone’s like that and you piss some people off, but it works for me.”