Peter Shankman on His New Book: Why ‘Niceness’ Is the Best PR Strategy

You may know Peter Shankman for his work as a commentor, strategic advisor and author of books like Can We Do That?!, an overview of crazy PR stunts that actually worked.

Shankman’s new book Nice Companies Finish First (which hits stores today!) is a little different. Its thesis holds that the big secret behind some of the most successful brands around is a decision to simply be nice or unexpectedly generous to customers on a regular basis. We spoke with him last week to figure out why:

Where did you find the inspiration for your new book?

Well, when I sold my previous venture HARO (the publicity service Help a Reporter Out) to Vocus, I realized that they were really buying my audience. I’d spent four years cultivating and building that audience and I really felt like every member of HARO was a friend, so I wasn’t going to sell it just anybody. I chose Vocus because they were our largest advertiser and, since I wrote all the ads, I believed that they understood that level of respect I had for my audience, and the level of trust my audience put into me. I knew they wouldn’t violate that.

And this realization led you to the subject of “niceness”?

Yes. I started doing research into companies and how they behave in order to see whether companies who treat their customers and investors nicely make more money. I found it to be true — companies that are doing “the little things” a little better than everyone else almost always fare better.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a counter-intuitive conclusion.

Let’s face it: in most cases, customer service sucks. McDonald’s, for example, has no real incentive to get your order right. The norm is crap, so if your brand does something a little better than the norm then you’ll win.

Here was my tipping point for writing the book: we’ve always had the ability to complain, but thanks to social/digital media we’ve never had the power to share our complaints so quickly. People are talking about companies and these companies have the ability to shift what people are saying, thereby saving money on marketing by using the audience to work for them. We all know that kind of discussion is more believable anyway.

On the most basic level, it’s like a dude at a bar who says “I’m awesome”, but the girl has no reason to believe him until her friend says, “yeah, he’s awesome.”

How does your thesis apply specifically to PR?

This could apply to anyone in PR. I see PR people pitching all the time without really doing the homework. The journalist is your audience, and by doing your homework and being nicer to the journo, you’re making both of your jobs more pleasant and productive.

What are some examples of companies doing “nice” right?

Some obvious ones are Zappos and Ritz-Carlton — but quite a few companies now see the benefits in just being 1% nicer. You don’t have to do amazing things, because it’s all about consistency. If you make a point of going above and beyond every once in a while, you’ll wind up saving money.

This sounds like a company-wide strategic issue.

Yes, it has to come from the CEO down.

Look, I’ve seen people tweeting or posting comments that literally land a company new clients — and marketers can now track that phenomenon via data. Some studies, for example, showed that over half the time guests at a hotel will tell employees where they got the reference. CEOs have to encourage and push their employees to listen and also to report this kind of information. They need to empower their teams to do these great “little things” like tracking and even rewarding the person who made the reference.

It’s like the fully-comped Olive Garden receipt story — CEOs need to give managers the power to make little decisions like that because the cost is minimal. You don’t have to give away the farm to show a little generosity.

Any conclusions? 

On the PR side, this applies to media relations but also client relations. At my firm, we used to go to client offices with pizza to figure out what they were working on. From there we found ways to pitch interesting stories about these clients to journalists. It’s really about the ability to tell the client “trust us, we know what we’re doing” — and then just do it!

Also: from a damage control perspective, if you help establish a client’s reputation as a “nice” company, then it will be much easier to clean up their messes.

Thanks to Peter Shankman for the interview. Check out his book Nice Companies Finish First — on shelves and tablets today.


@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.