Q&A With HARO’s Peter Shankman: Pitch Trends, Not Just Your Brand’s Story

Peter Shankman

Peter Shankman has made it his personal mission to connect businesses with the media professionals who can provide them with coverage—and vice versa. Not that this is a charity mission per se, but Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which he founded in 2008 and sold to Vocus in 2010, seems to have been created with small businesses in mind. The online service can turn any company into a source for a deadline-driven journalist on any given day—for no charge whatsoever.

Shankman, who is also the author of Can We Do That?! Outrageous PR Stunts That Work and Why Your Company Needs Them (Wiley and Sons 2006), is VP and small business evangelist for Vocus, and offers some tips here for small businesses that are looking to maximize all their efforts to win coverage in the media, commit themselves to a social media strategy and negotiate with PR service providers.

PR News: Any trends you’re noticing about small businesses and what the future is looking like for them in regard to the economy?

Peter Shankman: I’m starting to see 2012 grow a little bit. Small businesses will be spending a little more money. We’re finding that the more money you spend, the better your results. In a bad economy, if you do start spending money on promotion and marketing you tend to do better than companies that cut back on it.

PR News: What’s the #1 PR tactic small businesses should adopt to grow their companies?

Shankman: I hate to sound self-serving, but Help a Reporter Out is a free service that has gotten thousands of small businesses tons of exposure. So I’d say if nothing else, read the Help a Reporter e-mails that come three times a day.

PR News: For small businesses that don’t know anything about HARO, how can they use it?

Shankman: Simply sign up. It’s a free service that sends them e-mails three times a day with queries from all sorts of media—usually about 50 to 60 queries per e-mail. It takes about 30 seconds to read, and if there’s something you can answer, you reply directly to the reporter, and you can wind up with a great story about you.

PR News: What are the most common questions you get asked by small business owners who are trying to reach wider audiences?

Shankman: How do we get more press? And, of course, a bigger one is: How do we use social media to generate more coverage? That’s what I’ve been focusing on for the past year and a half.

PR News: And what do you tell them?

Shankman: Providing stellar customer service is usually the best way in the world to do it. If you provide great customer service you wind up having an audience that will do your PR for you. That right there is the best PR in the world—PR from a trusted source.

PR News: Do you still get resistance from them sometimes? Do you still see skittishness about social media?

Shankman: When I do I simply ask them how many people in the room don’t have a camera in their phone. And no one raises their hand. And I say, “Great, then you have 35 people in this room right now who also have the ability to be a reporter, who all have the ability to share what’s going on. Do you want to give your audience something great to share or something horrible?”

PR News: What are the best ways small businesses can tie their investments in social media to business results?

Shankman: Everything you’re doing has to be about generating revenue. If you’re not generating revenue with social media, you’re wasting your time. I don’t care about friends, buzz—it’s about generating revenue.

PR News: What’s the #1 blind spot small businesses have about PR? What opportunities are they missing?

Shankman: Very few small businesses talk about the concept of trends. Reporters are much happier to find out about trends—they’re much happier to find out about something that affects a whole industry as opposed to just one company. If more small businesses would focus on trends they would get better coverage.

PR News: When considering which PR services to use or purchase, what questions should small business owners ask?

Shankman: One of the best questions a small business can ask is: What have you done for other companies similar to us and how have you generated more revenue for them? And if they even hesitate for a second, you’ve got a problem. I’ve met a lot of people who see the next greatest thing, and they think they need it, and they realize after awhile that it doesn’t fit their company at all. If you’re working with a small business you want to be able to see if it fits your company specifically.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI