He's a Connector
A hyperactive personality helps Peter Shankman thrive in today’s hyperlinked world| By Bari Walsh
Peter Shankman (CGS’92, COM’94)
It took a while for the world to catch up with Peter Shankman.
Before Twitter, Facebook, and twenty-four-hour news cycles — before attention-deficit disorder — Shankman (CGS’92, COM’94) was a self-described “hyper” kid with boundless energy and a critically short attention span. He was creative but unfocused, and he had trouble fitting in.
Today, those same qualities make him a master social networker, the lynchpin of an online community that connects reporters looking for sources with experts waiting to be tapped. His website, Help a Reporter Out, launched last March, now has 50,000 sources signed up — “everyone from public relations firms to mom-and-pop grocery stores to mommy bloggers to Wall Street guys who happen to be experts at bass fishing,” Shankman says. “My logic is, everyone is an expert on something. You might not spend money to promote it, but if it’s free” — as HARO is — “why the hell wouldn’t you?”
Reporters from large media outlets (the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post) and small ones (Inventors Digest, Meetings & Conventions), as well as authors of books and blogs, rely on the site when they’re on deadline and need comment. They’ve come to trust that Shankman’s network will lead them to good sources, no matter how esoteric the query.
“I didn’t start it for any other reason than that it was beneficial to the reporters I was friends with,” says Shankman, who ran his own PR agency in Manhattan for ten years. “Every year I’d send out what I called a good karma e-mail to about 75,000 reporters, saying, ‘I’m not pitching you, I just know a lot of people, and if you’re ever on deadline and need something, give me a shout and I’ll see what I can do.’” He started getting queries from reporters he knew, then from reporters he didn’t know. After receiving one particularly random query — as he recalls, it went something like, “Hey Peter, I’m doing a story about Nigerian farming” — he decided to set up a Facebook group so he could funnel queries to his network.
The operation grew beyond Facebook’s size restrictions, so he launched his own site, and membership grew quickly. Shankman still owns his PR firm, called the Geek Factory, but he now focuses exclusively on HARO, which is supported by a simple advertising program that makes it profitable. He rounds up reporters’ queries and sends them out to his members in up to three e-mails a day. “If I’m late,” he says, “there are 200 Twitter posts going, ‘Where’s the HARO? What’s going on?’
“I’m a connector,” he says, by way of explaining how good karma became a good business. “But there’s no secret here. I’ve simply come up with something that people need.”
Shankman maintains a blog at http://shankman.com and Twitters under the moniker “skydiver,” named for one of his offline passions. Both sites reveal an outsize personality and an all-over-the-map lifestyle. He’s parlayed his command of social media into an active public-speaking career, training PR types on how to use these new tools, which he believes are upending traditional public relations practices.
He’s still hyper, in other words, but now it’s his job. Shankman takes some glee in his own personal revenge-of-the-nerds narrative. “The same stuff that got me beaten up in junior high school is what’s making me money today,” he says with a laugh.