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Peter Shankman — the skydiver and PR guy who gained fame by founding HARO (Help a Reporter Out) — spoke in Salt Lake City last week about social media marketing and building trust around a brand. The guy has great ideas that can help any business thrive. Thanks to OrangeSoda for bringing him to town. The highlights:

Content First — Viral Can’t be Forced

Some guarantee viral campaigns. Truth is, nobody can. When it comes to something going viral, you are not in control. Everyone else is.

“If it’s good content, people will read it,” Shankman said. “You cannot make anything go viral. You can make something good and by default it will go viral.”

Of course, information is everywhere trying to grab your attention. Articles, infographics, videos, advertisements, Tweets, status updates and e-mails hit you as soon as you wake up in the morning. How do you get your customers’ attention from millions of daily messages?

“Learn to write,” Shankman said. “Bad writing will destroy America.”

Shankman pays his employees to take writing classes. Bad writing makes you look like an idiot. To stand out, “you just have to be 1 percent smarter than everyone else,” he said.


There is no privacy anymore – especially online. You can’t hide. Everything is out in the open; every mistake, every decision, every action, every response, every success. To establish trust around your brand, your company needs to be completely transparent.

“Trust has never been more important,” Shankman said.

Transparency will disarm negative news or discussions. It lets you get in front of any potential crisis or problem before it gets out of control. To establish trust further, “small businesses must push the leaders and the individual personalities of the company.” People trust individuals more than a corporate image.


Whether it’s developing a product, creating content, or defining your message, it has to be relevant to your audience.

It’s about “giving exactly what the customer wants when they want it,” Shankman said. To find out what that is, “ask them how they like to get their information. You never control the direction of your company. Figure out where your customers want you to go.”

Often, businesses don’t ask their audience. It’s easy to do, and ensures more of your customers will get what they want when they want it. And it will help you become more relevant to your audience.


Be brief.

Shankman said (paraphrasing): The average attention span in the ’80s was about 3.5 minutes, or the length of a MTV video (if you are older than 30, you might remember when MTV actually played music videos). The average attention span today is 140 characters, which relates to about 2.6 seconds.

People are bombarded with messages every day and their time is pulled in various directions. They don’t have much time for length. Keep it short and sweet.

Top of Mind

Shankman says marketing and PR today is about connection and developing real relationships. He uses social media to become top of mind to his customers, so they will think of him first when they need his service. He credits a lot of his consulting work just by connecting with people through social media.

Every morning he opens up Facebook, looks at his followers’ birthdays, and wishes them happy birthday. It’s a small thing but it keeps them thinking of him.

“Eighty-percent of everything you do should be about your audience,” Shankman said. “The only thing you should focus on about yourself is breathing and eating.”

Treat Customers One Level Above Crap

Most people expect to be treated poorly by companies. That gives an advantage to any business.

“Treat customers one level above crap and they will do the PR for you,” Shankman said.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in the Social Media Basket

Twitter and Facebook may be gone tomorrow. Each social site is just a tool to connect and share a message. That tool could change tomorrow, or be completely gone tomorrow, along with all your followers and fans. Sure there are a lot of people on social media, but social media doesn’t cover near the audience that we think it might. Shankman compared those who are active in social media to those who are text messaging.

“9/11 and American Idol defined the importance of text messaging,” he said. “Ninety-seven percent of people text message, while 4 percent of the country is on Twitter, and only 1 percent of those people are active on Twitter.”

Focus on building relationships and the principles of communication and public relations. Don’t focus entirely on a specific tool.