How to Get a Journalist's Attention with HARO Creator Peter ShankmanJun 15, 2022
Peter Shankman is many things, among them a five-time best selling author, entrepreneur and corporate in-person and virtual keynote speaker who focuses on customer service. But in this episode I got him speaking about something so many of you ask me about: HARO, or Help a Reporter Out...the website he started (and sold to Cision many years ago) that helps so many authors get featured in mainstream media.
In this conversation, which happened in rapid fire while he was in the throws of salmonella, Peter shared with me how he started HARO accidentally, the best way to get a journalist's attention and why someone stealing a Yoo Hoo truck ended up being the best PR Yoo Hoo could get, among many other topics.
Anna David: Hi, Peter, thank you so much for being here.
Peter Shankman: Glad to be here.
Anna David: So in addition to being an author, you many times over, I consider you someone who has helped authors get coverage more than anyone else out there because the first thing I do, as anyone who listens to this podcast knows, is I say go to HARO when you're writing your book, because you are writing a book on this topic, therefore, you are an expert on this topic. So I say thank you on behalf of all authors, Peter.
Peter Shankman: You're welcome. It's nice to see something I created almost 15 years ago now. It's still very popular. So that's makes me happy every time I hear it.
Anna David: More popular than ever, it seems like.
Peter Shankman: Yeah, people tend to keep using it. There's always a part of me that wants to buy it back. But they can't go back again.
Anna David: Well, and also there are these poor imitations that I have tried, and I'm just saying, they just they suck in comparison. I'm not naming names. So tell me about the inspiration to start HARO. How did that happen?
Peter Shankman: So I talked to everyone I have massive ADHD. And when you imagine ADHD, you talk to everyone and if I'm on a plane, and you're next to me, unless you fake your death, I'm gonna know everything about you by the time we land. And so over time, you know, just growing up and living in New York City and Boston and California, I created this massive Rolodex. If anyone listening to you is under 30, a Rolodex like Outlook that has cards, and you turn it. And I came with this massive Rolodex of 1000s and 1000s of people and journalists. I ran a PR firm at one point in my life and journalists knew me and they knew. Peter, you know, I'm doing a story on whatever, who do you know, who does? I tell them, ya call this guy or call that guy.
And over time, more and more journalists are calling me asking me hey, I'm doing this or whatever. And the straw that broke the camel's back was I'm calling for the Wall Street Journal, a friend of mine at the Times said that, you know, a lot of you I'm doing a story on African farming. And my friend said, you have a lot of friends that are subsaharan soil experts. And 12 hours later, I found a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend at USC who knew someone, right? So it's alright, this is getting a little ridiculous, maybe if I, what if I put all the queries together and send them out automatically. And you know, that led to what is now Help A Reporter Out.
Anna David: That is amazing. So my personal experience with harrow is the very first time I used it, I wrote a two line thing. And suddenly, next, I'm quoted in Fortune magazine, I ended up being quoted millions, you know, dozens of times by that writer, then I have written elaborate, amazing things like blogs that are super random, and I never hear back. So what is the secret? Is it just a numbers game?
Peter Shankman: I think it partially is a numbers game. But more and more across the field. I think it's about an early response game, you know, think about this when the Herald was at 545. In the morning, by six o'clock, there are at least 100 people that have sent in a response to every single query. And so if you're smart enough to know your answer, you need to do a couple of things, you need to make sure that your response is quick and to the point, and is easy. You need to make sure that you can write in such a way that the reporters are willing to use the answers to all the questions they have without wasting their time. Most importantly, that you haven't done it quickly. So I mean, the best recommendation I can give, create a mock write up of what you would send with some key parts left blank. And those key parts are usually with reporters going to ask. And so you know, my name is Peter, I recently found a company called blah, we do blah, based on your query about blank. I think I'd be the perfect person to answer the question of what is blank, because our company, blank, and you know, that gives you that much more to work with and you can really read the Harrow, fill it out and send it within three minutes. The speed game, a lot of the speed,
Anna David: It goes up at 5:45 East Coast time, right.
Peter Shankman: 5:45 am East Coast, 12:45 pm East Coast and then 5:45 pm East Coast. Yeah, I have a friend of mine on the West Coast who paid me a compliment when she goes, I know I've been awake too long on the West Coast when I get Peter's morning HARO before I go to bed.
Anna David: I know that's my recommendation to you in California. It's just staying up all night. You'll be the first.
Peter Shankman: Well there are people who set their mailing program on their phone to have the Harrow act as an alarm. And so they wake up at 5:45 when it comes out so they can review it and answer it. Yeah, there are some junkies out there.
Anna David: What I think is really genius about it is, you know, I started in journalism back when we would never have conceived of taking emailed answers as a quote and tie and it just changed. Did you understand that that was changing? Or was that just a lucky break?
Peter Shankman: I started my career. I mean, I was a journalism major in the early 90s. And then when I'm starting my career, my first job in a school was I helped found the Newsroom in America Online. And I watched digital news be born. And I watched the birth of digital news between the US and MSNBC. People don't realize that MSNBC actually served from Microsoft NBC, and it was a Microsoft NBC joint venture. And we launched a newsroom in the height of the dot com boom, well, not the height of the dot com boom, but back when the dot com boom was first gaining its legs in the mid 19, early mid 90s. And some of the time the.com boom came around. I mean, do you remember something called Point cast? When cast? Was this this screensaver that would turn on and bring you information? Right? bring you news to your screen while your screen is off, right?
While your screensaver was on. So you know, all I saw was where it was going. And I saw more importantly, that for every new bit of technology that was impacting journalists negatively, journalists are consistently having to do 10 times more with five times less or bite or scratch that reverse. And so for me, I'm like, Well, what can I do? I always had my job as a PR person back when I did PR isn't to make a client happy to make a reporter happy, they make the reporter happy, the clients I'm having by default. So what can I do to make that client happy? And for me, that was always offering them information, I didn't necessarily need to pitch them. And that was really the foundation of HARO. So the concept of being able to help a journalist do more with less, is really what sort of blew it up.
Anna David: And you also have a book about how to, one of your earlier books was really about how to, you know, kind of awesome PR sort of stunts, would you say?
Peter Shankman: Yeah, my first one was called, Can We Do That? It was all about outrageous PR stunts and how they can benefit your company.
Anna David: So how has it changed now? Do you have to be more outrageous today than when you wrote the book?
Peter Shankman: You know, it's funny. I'm talking about on CNN and MSNBC, and a lot of what they call me for back eight, nine years ago, they used to call me when when companies or people did stupid shit, when they took a PR stunt too far, when a celebrity said something stupid. With the invention of Twitter, and the dumbing down of America, and you know, our previous president, things like that, the bar for what stupid things actually are, has dropped, or has raised I guess, depending on how you look at it. And I don't get caught about that anymore, I get called about other things. But you know, a company making a stupid statement might gather two seconds of screen time when 10 years ago gather 10 minutes worth. So you have to ask yourself, you know, where is the bar? You know, it's the same thing with customer experience, the customer service bar is so damn low, that I don't need you to be awesome anymore.
I need you to suck slightly less than everyone else. And the same thing sort of applies from a PR standpoint, there are so many bad pitches going out every single day in the media, that I don't need you to be awesome. I need you to just get the facts right, get them to the right journalist and get their name right. I will, you know, my two favorite stories, one which happened a couple days ago. And quickly is my new favorite story, as I was in the Omni Hotel in Florida two days ago about to give a keynote. Yesterday actually, I was about to give a keynote. Ming you, I was doing this with salmonella, so I wasn't happy to begin with. And I couldn't get online and I called the front desk. I'm like, “Yeah, my like, well did you enter your last name, and your room number in the bottom. I'm like, “yeah.” “Are you sure you are spelling your last name right?” “Well, it's been my last name for almost 50 years. So I'm pretty sure I got that part down, thanks.”
You know, and then the other one my favorite is, you know, last Mother's Day, I got a pitch. I still get tons of pitches all the time from the media. And I got one last Mother's Day. Dear Peter, we know that working moms like you have it tough. So you know that if that's where the bar is, I don't need you to be awesome. I need your walk crossfire. That shifts hard. I don't need to do any of that. I just need you to [inaudible].
Anna David: I mean, you're preaching to the choir, this thing with hotels, like basically the companies that used COVID as an excuse to suck and never come back from sucking. Because they're just like, oh, no, we don't clean rooms anymore because of COVID. Sorry, sorry, what does that even mean?
Peter Shankman:: Yeah, I got the same thing. Yeah.
Anna David: So but in terms of a stunt that would work, you know, what kinds of things would you recommend? I mean, I'm looking at some of the things you talked about in that book. A small yarn shop that got people to eat their sweaters?
Peter Shankman: No, no, the small yarns shop, the best one for that. Well, yeah, that was made with a handsome Martha Stewart sweater, but the best one for the yarn shop was that we created. You know, the problem with the yarn store, they were just outside New York City, and when you’re just outside New York City, no one wants to visit you because you're outside of New York City, you might as well be in Wisconsin. And so what we did was we created a bus and we put two giant needles on the two giant needles and two giant balls of yarn made out of like, you know, plastic on the roof of the bus and drove around New York City picking people up taking them to the yarn store and bringing them Back called the Yarn Bus. And it was everywhere saying the show it was on Martha Stewart was all over the world. And they made a fortune. Because you know, they were the average spend, I think for every customer is like 200 bucks. And they're bringing like, you know, 300 customers a day, it was crazy.
Anna David: And so, so these PR stunts that you wrote about in the book, were they all once you engineered?
Peter Shankman: Yes.
Anna David: Okay, another one. You got CEOs to jump out of a plane in the name of brand visibility? Who is that for?
Peter Shankman: So that was actually for my PR firm. During the dotcom boom, everyone had a PR firm and it was trying to do better. And I'm like, Well, how can we get press that you know, what can we do to invite reporters and potential clients to do? Oh, a softball game, boring, picnic, boring, dance party, boring. Let's go skydiving, someone said. I don’t remember who. One of them. I mean, so 150 of us jumped on a plane. We called it a web dive 2000. We got a front page, tons and tons of press. My lawyer had a heart attack. When I told him what we're doing. It was incredible. And the best part about it was that the 150 people, 149 of them you know, jumped and had a great time. And I left it at that. Now I've wound up getting my skydiving license and I have over 500 jumps now. I've jumped over the Pyramids of Giza and all over the world. So yeah, it's pretty crazy.
Anna David: That was your first time though?
Peter Shankman: Yeah.
Anna David: And okay, another one: a stolen Yoo Hoo truck became a financial and media relations. Can you tell me about that one?
Peter Shankman: Yeah, we had a client. I was repping Yoo Hoo at the time. And we had a garbage truck that traveled around the country to go to the Warped Tour concerts in summer 2002. And they were followed by a truck with all the supplies, all the Yoo Hoo and everything like that. And that truck was stolen. And so we put in an APB offering a free lifetime supply of Yoo Hoo if someone found the truck, it was found in like 45 minutes.
Anna David: Oh, my God. So your brain, which as you've discussed many times, works really fast, just automatically thinks of these things. What do you think of something like that, that's going to be a stunt?
Peter Shankman: A lot of times, it's just understanding that, hey, this could be worth you know, I asked myself what I want to read about this, right? And that's really doing you should ask yourself, Is this something, if I didn't know, this company, if I wasn't attached to this brand, would I want to read this, but I want to take a look at what's going on with this interest me? And if the answer is yes, you know, why not give it a shot and see what happens?
Anna David: I mean, I think that that is the major problem. And I used to come at it this way. Like we think of our books as news. Our books are not news to anyone, no one cares about your book.
Peter Shankman: There is very little stuff that we do that could be considered news, very little. A lot of it is going to be the question of what is interesting enough to be worth the time of the journalist, because so few things are. So the question is, what can you find that becomes interesting to the journalist? What can you take a story that would otherwise be boring as shit? Repainting your conference room is not a story. Right? So what can you find that you can then take to the journalist? It's okay, this has some interest because it's not just about me.
Anna David: Right. So how have you used this for your books? Did you do stunts? So how did you promote your books?
Peter Shankman: Well, I mean, faster than normal. My most recent book, which is about ADHD, is the premise that ADHD is a gift, not a curse. And every media outlet I talked to, you know, thought of what they've been told, which is that ADHD is obviously a curse, it's a terrible thing to have. It's the worst thing in the world. But I cannot have a lot to say, actually, no, there's some benefit here. If you understand how to use your brain, and a better way, you can actually do pretty well. And you know, saying that, Oh, wow. Okay, never thought of it that way. Give me some examples at four or five examples ready to go at any given time, that changes things. So it really, it's a way of, can you make people think, a little different.
Anna David: And so it's not like you wrote that book with the concept like, Oh, this is gonna be really needed for journalists, this is what you know for books.
Peter Shankman: I wrote the book based on how I can help people channel their iterative gene and how they can use it to their advantage, but I understood how to pitch it because of what I do for a living.
Anna David: So somebody who doesn't have your contacts and doesn't, you know, but has a very creative brain and can think of saying, what would you recommend? Let's say they're like, I want to be on the mainstream media, and they've got a book about, you know, let's try to think of some kind of boring, I have no idea. Nothing is boring, adopting a kid. And they're like, this is my memoir. It's a really heartwarming story. How did they get media attention?
Peter Shankman: Well it's the human interest angle, right? You talk about, you know, I wasn't able to have children. And this was my journey towards eventually finding the child of my life, finding that child who changed my life is my journey of saving a child from abuse in Russia, whatever it is. You know, it's not just about her duplicate, where's the better part of that story? Where's the part that would make you go oh, wow, I want to read that. Where's that? You know, we have a very short attention span of 2.77 second attention span this country. So what can you do to make the reporter or the person or the reader stop and say, Okay, I'll give you more time?
Anna David: Yeah, yeah. And do you, I had a previous guest who said, "Oh, you've got to call journalists" because others never call a journalist.
Peter Shankman: No, you never do not. If someone called me right now and I wasn't expecting the call, I'd have them killed. No. There is nothing good about making a phone call. I mean, I can't believe I used to answer those things without knowing who was calling. I grew up in the 80s. The phone rang. Hello? No, no, do not email, text anything with the report. First of all, find out who the reporter likes to get their information. The best way to do that is to ask them how they like to get their information, they'll tell you and you use that way.
Anna David: So how do you ask them how you look on Twitter? What do you say?
Peter Shankman: Hey, curious, I got your email from the station or from wherever I'll have an idea for a story. What's the best way to pitch? They will respond and they will say "Oh, thanks for asking. Do it this way."
Anna David: Okay, so it's better to do that than just to go in for the pitch.
Peter Shankman: Oh, god. Yeah, make that first connection. Or follow them online. Hey, I saw this piece you wrote on XYZ. I loved it. I'd love to pitch you something similar. What's the best way to do that? Read their bios, a lot of time they'll write out what their bios are.
Anna David: Right. Right. And so you do occasionally, like you have a webinar coming up by the time this takes place, it's passed, on how to pitch journalists newspaper, TV, online, all of that. How often do you do these webinars? Can people just go to them?
Peter Shankman: Yeah, and actually, you know what you can actually even though it's, it'll be past when you run this, people can still buy the audio recording. So I'm happy to give you the link. So Shank.com/press.
Anna David: Yeah, I mean, even though the hotel doesn't know that Peter knows how to spell his last name. He does. He just proved it. So I'm just, I'm just looking at some of the things you're covering in that. What guarantees you'll never get a response from a journalist.
Peter Shankman: Pitching them the wrong way, pitching them off topic or complaining that they wrote a piece and you weren't in it, they're obviously mistaken.
Anna David: But you could write and say, I've actually done this effectively before, you can write and say I absolutely loved your piece. I'm going to not so humbly say, Hey, I also have a podcast about this topic or whatever.
Peter Shankman: Yeah, next time, if you ever do this again, once again, feel free to file this. If you ever do this again next time. Yeah.
Anna David: How To piggyback back off a great media hit. What's the secret?
Peter Shankman: Yeah, the secret is to grab that great media hit, figure out why it went, why it was a success and alternate it, and pitch it in different ways. There are different brands out there, if you got a great TV hit, how can you turn that into press, how do you turn it into written word, you know, blog format, maybe some want to follow that up with a podcast, whatever it is.
Anna David: I remember I had a publicist on this podcast who said to me, you could never get on a mainstream show first time out, you got to work your way up through local TV.
Peter Shankman: You have really stupid guests.
Anna David: I mean, that's weird, because my first TV thing was CNN. And so is that just someone who doesn't get how to play the game?
Peter Shankman: Yeah, first of all, anyone who says anything like, you'll never. I had a great teacher in school who told me that on a true or false test, if there's not a multiple choice test if the answer if one of the choices are at are usually never or always those usually wrong. Great piece of advice. So yeah, there are tons of ways to do better than that.
Anna David: Yeah, you can absolutely get on CNN or Today Show your first time out, if you want the right thing. I'm related to that, something I used to say, to like, you know, when your thought is always or never, it's not a true thought. A no, it's gonna be like, whatever it is. So that can be applied in many, many places. What are the best email subject lines to get responses?
Peter Shankman: It varies, but you know, for me, and I'm not giving away everything for the webinar, but I would say that I've had a lot of success with just being straight up a pitch on XYZ. You get, you should follow the NY Times pitch bot, it's pretty funny. They come up with some of the worst pitches possible to be sent in here at times. But you know, anything that you can do that's out there, you know, just figure it out. Again, don't waste a journalist's time.
Anna David: Yeah. I'll tell you in pitching you because I was just looking at the email. And this is how I pitch people I really want on the podcasts, I'll go podcast requests 950,000 Plus downloads, not a bad thing. You said yes, quickly.
Peter Shankman: I think at the end of the day, for me I don't mind doing things like this because it's good karma and [inaudible]. Yeah, I’m happy to help where I can, I think more people in the world should help.
Anna David: Great. Well, thank you so much for doing this while you don't feel well. If you could leave authors with one piece of advice, your final advice for them when they want to get media attention for their book or for themselves, what would you recommend?
Peter Shankman: One piece of advice. Don't focus so much on crafting a story about you, focus on what crafting a story that other people would find interesting that includes yourself.
Anna David: Great. I love it. Well, Peter, thank you so much, the best place for people to find you.
Peter Shankman: Yeah, my entire world is Petershankman.com. My social name everywhere is @PeterShankman, including Peloton. And yeah, reach out. I'm Peter Shankman. When it comes to my email, I'm always happy to chat.
Anna David: Okay, I'm going to find you on Peloton later today. Thank you so much. Thanks guys for listening.
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