Interview: Help a Reporter Founder Peter Shankman Tells Writers How to Get the Most out of HARO
I get a lot of questions from writers on how to use Help a Reporter Out, a.k.a. HARO — the free service that helps journalists find sources for their assignments. So I interviewed HARO founder Peter Shankman to answer all your need-to-knows. Enjoy!
How many people subscribe to HARO e-mails?
Somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 sources, including pass-alongs — and hundreds of thousands of journalists have used the service at one point or another.
Have you ever done a breakdown of what kind of experts or other people are subscribed to HARO?
No, but we’ve found that it’s almost 75 percent small businesses now.
A lot of writers are e-mailing me because they’re confused about the requirement that your website needs to have an Alexa ranking of under one million for you to be able to send a request for sources. They think that their personal writer site needs to have this ranking. Can you explain that a little bit?
The way it works is, if you’re writing for a traditional or understood media outlet, like cosmopolitan.com or Washington Post online, our goal is not to exclude anyone. Unfortunately, what happens occasionally is that people join HARO and say, “I have to do a story for my blog that has two readers.” Journalists writing for Forbes, or any outlet that has a good quality base and quality readership, we have no problem. Use HARO and we love you. We just don’t want to waste sources’ time if it’s for Joan’s House of Blog, you know?
Another question I often get is whether a writer can use HARO if she’s working on a pitch but doesn’t have an assignment in hand and, if so, how to do that.
It’s a tough question. If you’ve used HARO before and we see that and we recognize your e-mail address as having written for traditional or recognizable outlets in the past, you are more than welcome to use HARO for a pitch.
There are no other requirements for posting a request on there except that your media outlet has to be lower than one million in Alexa, right?
Can you offer us some tips on how to write a HARO query that gets results?
The best thing you can do is be as specific as humanly possible. If you want sources in West Philadelphia, make damn sure you put “West Philadelphia.” If you only want sources who know about bridge building and have one arm, make that clear.
Any other tips?
The biggest thing I can recommend is make sure you put your deadline at least a week before your actual deadline. We base HARO on when your deadline is. So if your deadline is Thursday and you put Thursday down as your deadline, HARO is going to most likely run your inquiry Wednesday night.
What else can writers do to make sure they get the best sources?
Keep it short. Keep it simple. That usually works well.
Do you change the titles of the requests or do they go up just as the writer writes them?
No, it’s actually as you write them. We don’t change them at all.
Any tips on writing a title that gets attention?
“Need experts in blank.”
A blessing and a curse of HARO is that writers will put out a request and get 100 responses. What can writers do about that besides make sure they’re specific in their requests?
Start reading the answers. If you get everything you need in the first five replies, just click a filter that sends all the rest of them to a folder so you don’t have to look at them and be bombarded.
Are writers expected to respond to every reply they get?
They aren’t. Would be nice if they could — but come on — hundreds of responses? Not possible.
One thing I do is have a separate e-mail account for HARO requests — it has an autoresponder on it that says, basically, “Thank you for responding, I’ll get back to you if I need you.” That way, I can respond to 100 people.
I’ve noticed some writers going on HARO and asking the sources to actually write something for them, like, “Write your reply in a paragraph and make it witty.” is that allowed?
Yeah, I don’t find that cool. You do not do that. You will not be allowed on HARO again.
I’ve heard that a lot of writers are on there and they sign up for the e-mails because they’re basically looking to see who other writers are writing for and then pitching those places.
Quite frankly, it’s annoying. There are always going to be people who continuously abuse the system. When we find them, I kick them off HARO.
Okay. Because if somebody I know asks me for an editor’s name, I am happy to share — but the idea of 500 hungry writers converging on one of my editors is very nerve racking. That’s why I sometimes I don’t put in the name of the magazine I’m writing for. I just say something like “national trade magazine for the restaurant industry.”
I know you can hide your outlet on HARO. Do writers who do that tend to get fewer responses?
Not necessarily. You’ll still get plenty.
What are some unusual ways to use HARO that writers may not have thought about?
I’ve seen some great reporters who use HARO to find trends. “Hey, what do you see happening in the blank industry?” And if you get 100 responses and 30 of them are saying the same thing, you get yourself a trend.
Can you do that if you don’t have an assignment in hand?
Again, if you’re someone who has worked HARO before in the past and we know you and we trust you, sure.