HAPPRO (Help a PR Pro Out)

HARO founder Peter Shankman

I confess. I’ve never been a huge fan of HARO, the free crowd-sourced service for journalists seeking topic experts or human examples to validate their story’s premise. While following its founder never ceases to disappoint, the service itself, in my mind has fallen short in its net benefit to the PR profession.

Let me explain. The primary difference between HARO and ProfNet, the Dean Forbush-founded crowd-sourced service for journalists seeking experts (only), can be found in their business models.

ProfNet, owned by PR Newswire, makes its money through (pricey) paid subscriptions, while HARO is ad-supported. Every emailed HARO distribution opens with a cutely worded text ad promoting some eclectic product or service, often aimed at PR pros.

Anyone, just anyone, can freely register to receive HARO and respond to its reporters’ story queries. While ProfNet’s subscription model naturally attracts PR professionals with budgets for such things. BTW, ProfNet’s name comes from its first (exclusive) user set — in-house communications pros at academic institutions who’d mine their professorial ranks for the expertise sought.

By opening up its service to any Tom, Dick or Harry, HARO may broaden the size of the crowd (a good thing), but it also increases the likelihood of superfluous replies arriving in journalists’ e-mailboxes from laypersons and PR-wannabes. I’m not saying that PR people are immune to sending reporters such SPAM, but the likelihood certainly is greater with lay audiences.

This model, in my mind, hurts the PR profession, which presumably knows more about deciphering journalists’ true editorial intent, and can offer up a more relevant expert. Given HARO’s democratic approach, PR pros must also compete for reporters’ shrinking bandwidth with small business owners, mothers, and anyone else who fashions him or herself an expert.

That said, this week we learn that HARO’s new owner, Vocus, no stranger to PR spam, will introduce a subscription-based HARO as a complement to the free service. I like this idea. Though HARO founder Peter Shankman quickly sought to clarify the news with these comments here.

If Vocus were smart, it would make the paid service for journalists seeking real experts, and the free service for journalists seeking human examples. For example, here’s one from today for the free version:

Query:

“I am writing a piece on people who, in mid-career, are either
forced or choose to make a dramatic shift in career. I am
interested in how they overcame doubts and fears, and what it
took to succeed in a wholly different line of work.”

And here’s another from today, a candidate for the paid service:

“I’m reviewing the most recent audit of a tribal Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program that has had
numerous financial accountability problems with state and federal
money in the past, and appears to have some again. I’m looking
for an expert source with a government audit background willing
to give this audit report a look…”

Many reporters’ queries could apply to both sets of crowds. Whatever direction Vocus takes HARO, hopefully with Mr. Shankman’s blessing, the model of reporters crowdsourcing experts is clearly a sound one and should evolve as the number journalists explodes. Let’s keep an eye on it.

4 Comments

  1. Peter Himler
    August 2, 2010

    Bill,

    I do too. In addition to splitting the service into expert from lay (eg, small biz) audiences), HARO might consider offering subs via vertical channels based on nature of the query, eg, healthcare, sports, entertainment. While many big agencies, a territory I know all too well, operates across all those industries, many PR boutiques and SMBs are only concerned with certain topic areas and may pay a few dollars to receive journalist queries for those.

    Keep me posted, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    PH

  2. Bill Wagner
    July 30, 2010

    Hey Peter-CMO at Vocus here. Thanks for the thoughtful post. As the examples you provided highlighted, I do think there is a distinction between source and experts. I also think one of the reasons HARO was successful was because it attempted to shift the engagement away from the traditional process–initiated by a PR pro pitching a story–and allowed the journalist to initiate the conversation. We’ve been receiving a lot of suggestions from people on all sides of the HARO value proposition–journalists, sources and advertisers–on how we can make HARO even more valuable. The only surprise thus far is how much passion everyone seems to have about the HARO model, both pro and con. The input is definitely shaping our view on the evolution of HARO. While we’re not prepared to disclose specifics at the moment, we think the opportunities are exciting and I look forward to sharing them with you and The Flack in the future.

  3. Peter Himler
    July 29, 2010

    There’s little question as to the value small businesses offer journalists seeking first-hand examples to satisfy the premise of their pieces. And there is often an unclear distinction between being seen as a good “example” versus a good “expert.” My feeling that dealing with reporters is a learned art, and that opening up the floodgates, no matter how appropriate the responder might be, can have a deleterious effect (on all).

    Thank for your comment. It is much appreciated.

    PH

  4. Frank Strong
    July 29, 2010

    The key difference here is that upwards of 70% of HARO’s membership are small businesses – real world entrepreneurs that don’t always know how to reach journalists and vice versa. They’ve got real stories, compelling insights and are often cited as the backbone of America. HARO affords the opportunity for reporters and entrepreneurs to meet where they might otherwise not. That’s pretty cool in my book, and over HARO’s history, it seems many journalists seem to agree: http://bit.ly/bMHPGR