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Media Relations Strategy: If You’re Not Using HARO, You Just Don’t Give a Damn

Gary FrischBy Gary Frisch, Founder and President, Swordfish Communications

Much has been written about how to get the most out of HARO (Help a Reporter Out), that thrice-daily email blast that strives to connect journalists with expert sources for stories they’re working on. It’s no great secret that HARO can be a valuable tool for public relations professionals, business owners and others, literally delivering reporters interested in your thoughts to your inbox, like lambs to the slaughter.

If you’re not reading HARO, which might be the most reactive form of public relations, you’re simply unconcerned with trying to get your business name out there. That would be a shame, and even disingenuous if you’re investing money in advertising and other forms of marketing.

In the past six months alone, my clients or I have grabbed the attention of writers for ForbesInc., the Associated Press, AOL’s Daily FinanceNightclub & Bar MagazineThe Washington Post, NBCNews.com and The Huffington Post, as a result of HARO. I have formed good relationships with some writers and content producers, and reignited other relationships.

But easy pickings, it’s not. Journalists posting their needs on HARO might be assaulted with dozens—or even hundreds—of sources, so they may not respond to your pitch, let alone use your information in their stories. Google “HARO tips” and you’ll find multiple articles on how to how to turn the spotlight on yourself or your client, but here are some things that work for me. It all boils down to making the reporter’s job as easy as humanly possible.

Move at the speed of light

Just about every HARO request includes a deadline, after which your email simply won’t get delivered to the reporter. A deadline is one thing, but to be successful you need to disregard what’s written there and pretend the deadline is always two hours from now. Reporters are more likely to favor responses they receive early. Those who respond close to the deadline are much more likely to get shut out.

Read the HARO email as soon as possible after it arrives, then jump on anything that’s appropriate. If that means deferring other projects, so be it. I saw the AP request in the evening feed, just as I was about to knock off for the day, but instantly spooled back up and reached out to my client with what I thought was a great opportunity perfectly suited to his expertise. Over the next 45 minutes, I interviewed my client, shaped his responses, proofread my email, and sent it to the writer. Dinner with the family could wait. Ninety minutes later, I heard back with the good news that she was going to include my client.

Understand the writer’s immediate need

Drill down into the request and determine whether the writer is seeking immediate responses to questions, or looking for sources to interview at another time. Most of the time, it will be obvious. If the former, provide the specific answers in the body of your initial response. If it’s the latter, acknowledge the request, state why you or your client would be ideal to respond, and offer some times and methods for an interview.

If the writer is indeed simply looking for sources to interview by phone or direct email, there’s no excuse to wait to send a response offering up yourself or your client.

The absolute worst thing you can do is respond with a “hey, I’m available to answer your questions” when the writer is clearly looking for immediate answers in your reply. Your email will be deleted quickly.

Read, then reread

Journalists on HARO usually have very specific questions, so read them carefully, and, one by one, answer them. Pay close attention to the requirements, and make sure the reporter is seeking an expert and not just a consumer (or vice versa). Avoid going off on tangents and stick to the relevant. For the writer on deadline, nothing is more exasperating than sifting through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat. Before hitting send, double-check to ensure you’ve addressed every question or concern. If you haven’t, briefly acknowledge why (“I can’t speak to the issue of how other countries handle this, but in the United States…”).  Typically, the reporter will use multiple sources, so a different question might be answered by another respondent.

Pay attention to the subject line

I say “pay attention to” because it warrants some attention, not because it has to be a work of literary art. I’ve read other articles that say your subject line needs to grab attention like a story pitch. If you’d like to do that, fine. In my experience, simply writing “HARO” or “Your HARO request” then repeating the title of the request or a shortened version of it works fine too. My typical subject line says “HARO – Publishing on Linkedin.”

Get in, get out

There’s little room in a HARO response for what a former editor of mine called “throat clearing.” Avoid lengthy preambles and get right to the meat of the issue after “Hello,” or maybe “I noticed your HARO request and thought my client would be the perfect source for your story.” Nowadays, I don’t even bother listing credentials until after providing the requested information. First, your responses should instantly establish credibility, and second, the reporter’s not going to care about your creds unless he or she likes what you have to say in the first place.

After delivering the needed information, I’ll include a sentence or two with credentials, being sure to answer the implied question “Why should I use this particular person?” Then I’ll include the client’s (and my own) direct contact info for any additional or follow-up questions.

Embrace the sound bite

When writing your response, think of the television sound bite. What type of quote do you usually see on the news, or read in an article? Tailor your responses to be interesting, not just informational. Use words and phrases that imply passion, like “I had to respond to your HARO because I love grilled cheese sandwiches!” or “I am the world’s most hopeless romantic.”  Don’t equivocate with “I believe that…” or “sometimes one might…” Instead, say things like “Here’s what I would do…,” “You have to ensure that…”  Own your responses.

Remember, they need you as much as you need them

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of possible inclusion in a major outlet news story. But bear in mind reporters post on HARO for a reason: they don’t have sources immediately at hand for a story they’re being paid to write, and need help from the public at large. You are filling that need. Maybe they will choose to use you, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll pass over you this time but interview you next time. Que sera, sera. You have other pitches to make, other HAROs to respond to. I often conclude my emails by wishing them luck with the article whether they can use my input or not. Sometimes, if it’s the truth, I tell them I’m looking forward to reading it.

If you use HARO regularly, you’ll develop your own techniques, and discover what works and doesn’t. Make sure your responses are relevant, fast, and help the reporter do his or her job. But most importantly, respond.

Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J.

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