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Peter Shankman talks tall poppy syndrome, Zombie Loyalists and ‘personal recommendations’ as the new PR

Technology & Data

Peter Shankman talks tall poppy syndrome, Zombie Loyalists and ‘personal recommendations’ as the new PR


Peter Shankman, the entrepreneur most famous for founding the Help A Reporter Out (HARO) website connecting journalists to sources, as well as marketing strategist, author, and public speaker, is in Australia to spread his ideas to marketers and entrepreneurs. He’s all about how to create “Zombie Loyalists” (the title of his latest book) – loyal customers who serve as enthusiastic advocates for your brand – by providing “better than crap” customer service and generally being “nice”. Sound simple? It kind of is, as he explains in this interview.

We caught up with him ahead of his visit to Startup Grind in Melbourne this Wednesday evening, where he will be sharing his advice with local entrepreneurs.

Marketing: The US consulate has brought you out here on a bit of a mission to spread your knowledge. What do you think Australians need to know about entrepreneurial culture and how does it differ between Australia and the US?

Peter Shankman: I’ve learned a lot just in the few days I’ve been here; there is a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial spirit going on here, and there’s a tremendous amount of ideas and intelligence and it’s great to see. I’ve been told by more than one person here that there is definitely a level of – what do they call it, tall poppy syndrome – and it’s funny because I grew up in New York City where if you weren’t the tallest you’d be cut down. So my mentality has always been to help other people rise as everything rises up together. I did some research for a book I wrote a couple years ago called Nice Companies Finish First where the premise is that companies that are nice and treat people nicely actually wind up doing much better financially. I don’t have the temerity to say I know what Australia should do, I do see some brilliant ideas and I think that there would be absolutely nothing wrong with the people who’ve come up with those ideas being a little louder about them.

M: Tell me about the concept of ‘nice companies finish first’ – the nicer you are, the more money you make. How does that work?

PS: Yeah, the basic premise is, pardon my French but in any customer service interaction we expect to be treated like shit. Think about the last time your fast food order was screwed up, your last flight you had, things like that – we don’t expect it to be good.

I go and teach companies that I don’t need them to be amazing, I just need them to be a couple of levels above crap. Companies are going to screw up, that’s always expected, but if the company when they screw up simply says, “you know what, we screwed up, we’re going to fix this, here’s how”, 99.9% of the time a complaining customer just wants to know that they’re listened to, just wants to know that they exist, just wants to know that they’re a real person, that the company thinks they’re not just a number.

M: How did that become an issue for you that you thought, “I’ve really got to do something about this”?

PS: I had a company called Help a Reporter Out (HARO) which I launched and sold, and when it was acquired it was acquired for a very decent amount of money that I did not expect.

I spent a lot of time doing research to find out why it was valued at this number that it was and essentially it was because the company that bought it had spoken to a lot of  my clients, and they felt very taken care of by me. My customers, my audience, would’ve taken a bullet for me and for the company, and that values the company at a higher price.

M: It’s just a matter of providing really great customer service, or is there more to it than that?

PS: It’s not even great customer service, it’s listening. it’s being a human being. It’s seeing that the person comes in all the time and recognising that and saying, “you get a free drink today or whatever just because I recognise you”.

It’s a smile, “welcome on board, let me know what I can do to make your flight better” and not in a robotic kind of way.

M: Is that harder for really large companies to do?

PS: You know what, it’s not. But it has to start from the top. If the CEO doesn’t believe it, nothing will ever come out of it.

M: What are some examples of companies who have proven the ROI of being nice?

M: Ritz-Carlton is a great example. Every employee can spend up to $2500 on their own at any given time without any problems to fix any customer’s complaint.

When I was in the Ritz-Carlton Dubai a couple of years ago, I came back one day and there was a note that said: ‘Mr Shankman, we noticed you were running low on toothpaste, so we went out and got you another tube. Hope this makes your day a little easier’.

I posted that note onto Facebook and found out that just that note was responsible for at least five reservations. If you think about the Ritz-Carlton, that’s not a cheap number.

Click images to enlarge. 


peter shankman crest


M: You’ve got a good social media following, so is it about that strategy of picking influencers?

PS: No, I don’t like the influencer strategy, because the influencer strategy guarantees that you’re going to be nice to a handful of people and no one else. When I jokingly tweeted to Morton’s steakhouse to meet me at the airport with a steak, because I was hungry when I landed, and it was a joke but they did – if they showed up at the airport for me yet when you went into a Morton’s steak restaurant your steak was cold, how pissed would you be even more so? Right, “they take care of Peter but my steak’s a piece of shit here”.

So it’s about the concept of taking care of everyone. If you want to give more to some influencers, great, I get that. But you have to start by taking care of everyone in a beneficial way. Everyone. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, the simple act of a smile is a great start.


peter shankman mortons


M: Your newest book, Zombie Loyalists: Using Great Service to Create Rabid Fans, continues on this theme trying to get to the point of providing such great customer service, being such a good company that your community becomes so passionate about you that they’re becoming advocates for your brand. Is that about right?

PS: Exactly. If we get treated well, the first thing we want to do is share that: “look at what they did for me, this place is awesome”. When I take friends to Morton’s, or I take friends to my favourite Mexican place, I know that we’re going to walk in and they’re going to go, “Peter, welcome back. Here’s your table right away” and my friends are going to be like, “Oohh” and let’s face it, at the end of the day we all want to feel like that.

M: What do you say to people who work for companies that are possibly not hugely well-liked by the general public? Like an insurance company or somebody who makes cleaning products or something like that. What do you say to them to convince them that it is possible to create Zombie Loyalists for their brand?

PS: I think the basics are just, what can you do to be a little bit better? Okay, so you make cleaning products, well you still have to sell to people, right? So what can you learn in your time with one customer that when you go back the next time that you can use to your advantage? Do they have a bunch of fishing trophies on his wall? What can you do? Can you bring him along a fishing magazine? It’s not a suck up if it’s real.

M: You previously wrote a lot about PR stunts, and some of those are a bit, the opposite of what you were saying before – potentially PR stunts are all about making the company look good but not necessarily having the substance behind it. How does this link back?

PS: Right, well that’s the thing. I believe that in the next 50 years we’re going to see PR becoming less about ‘public relations’ and more about ‘personal recommendations’.

The very fabric of how we interact with people, the concept of friending and fanning, liking, following, it’s all going to go away. Instead of liking a company, if i go to a restaurant three times a week, Google knows that. They already know that. Apple knows that. Facebook knows that. So what’s going to end up happening is if I land in Australia and say, ‘I’m hungry, I want a steakhouse in Sydney’, it’ll say, ‘five of your friends have been to this one steakhouse and four of them really liked it, here are their instagram photos’.

Forget Yelp, Yelp is dead. They’re not going to have to leave reviews. The sentiment of their posts, ‘oh my god, best steak ever’, there you go. It’s going to be much, much more interesting.

It’s not so much about brands saying, ‘look at how awesome I am’, it’s about other people saying, ‘look at the experience I had, this company’s awesome’.

M: So do you think PR stunts are going to be less relevant?

PS: No, there will still be some really good ones that will have value. But every single company doing one today, I think that’s going to go away.

M: Have you got any other advice to entrepreneurs and marketers about how to come up with innovative ideas and execute them and actually be successful?

PS: I think the best thing you could possibly do is everyone you meet, talk to them, but don’t pitch to them. Everyone you meet, figure out a way that you could help them. You know, Barry Diller in the 70s and 80s when he ran Paramount, he would go into his office half an hour early every morning and call 10 different people in his Rolodex, just to say hi. Over the 10 years that he was at Paramount he took the company from almost close to bankruptcy to like the first billion dollar studio in Hollywood, just by reaching out and saying, ‘How can I help?’ When they needed something, people went back to Barry because he was top of mind.

Can you be top of mind like that? That’s the best thing you can do.

M: Just one final question, obviously the internet has revolutionised the way we communicate, and that’s a huge part of some of the stuff that we talk about. What is it about writing books that is still a relevant way to communicate your ideas?

PS: For me, I just enjoy doing it, it’s a way for me to ground myself. There is definite benefit in being able to sit and read or listen to a book and learn from it and highlight it and come back to it. I don’t think we’re going to lose that, ever.

M: Even in the next couple of generations of people who are growing up with digital?

PS: No, books will still matter. They might all be digital, and my two-year-old might not understand the concept of curling up with a book under the covers with a flashlight, but the beauty of being able to get lost in a book is so very much a real thing.

M: Thank you so much for your time.

PS: Thank you very much. Anything else I can do, feel free to reach out, anytime. I believe you’ve got to walk your walk and talk your talk, so I’m always saying, ‘hey, guys, here’s how to reach me, I’m [email protected]’ and I let everyone email me and I answer all my own email.



Michelle Herbison

Assistant editor, Marketing Magazine.

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