Vocus buys HARO

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Unique service turns tables
on traditional media pitch

Every desk editor has dealt with the story pitch an unsolicited call from a public relations or marketing person, asking for a write-up or story about their business or organization.

Most editors endure the story pitch, not just because its the polite thing to, but because, sometimes, there really is a story there. But it can safely be said that most editors roll their eyes, on getting such a call.

In November of 2007, Peter Shankman launched Help a Reporter Out, or HARO, as a service to media people. With HARO, Shankman turned the tables in the story pitch relationship. Reporters and editors asked for help with story sources, and communicators responded with suggestions.

It was a perfect example of crowd-sourcing in social media crowd being the operative term. Shankman started HARO as a Facebook group, but that quickly reached its 1200-member limit so he moved to a dedicated web site. His following continued to grow, and there are now more than 100,000 subscribers to HARO, and more than 29,000 media people feeding questions into the system.

The business end of HARO is the emailed bulletin, sent three times daily, containing queries from media outlets. Users of the service run the gamut, from individual bloggers to some of the biggest media outlets in the United States, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, ABC News, USA Today, CNN, Today Show, Oprah, The Colbert Report, and others.

In one recent bulletin, a daily paper was looking for business experts to advise how companies should deal with public criticism, a magazine asked for people with disabilities who have launched successful home businesses, and the Associated Press was looking for people who had changed vacation plans due to the Gulf oil spill. There are no typical requests the queries are as diverse and unpredictable as the days headlines. And thousands of public relations people scan the bulletins closely, looking for opportunities to offer their clients as subject matter experts.

Its became so successful, in fact, that one of the big players came calling. HARO was sold last week to Vocus, for an undisclosed sum. Peter Shankman has probably achieved financial independence, and may never need to work again.

But he will work. Shankman told me this last Friday, in a telephone interview.

Its business as usual, he said. Its still going to be me running it and nothing is going to change in that regard. And Im not planning on charging for the service.

However, there are upsides to the Vocus takeover, he added, including that companys international reach.

Now I will have a huge infrastructure to work with, and a really good group of people, Shankman said. Im really excited about that part. HARO is big in the United States. But there are journalists in every other country why cant we cater to them as well? It would be great to have them on HARO

Shankman said he was thrilled, though not completely surprised, by the success of HARO.

My goal (in 2007) was to help out some friends of mine who were reporters. And I figured, if it worked, thatd be great. And we got really lucky in that it did and people really understood the concept of it and really picked up on it immediately. And from there it really grew holistically, by word of mouth. It was wonderful.

And are there lessons that other social media developers can glean from Shankmans success?

Create something worth creating; something that people need. I definitely filled a need with this. And the nice thing about it was, we always listened to every single member. Every time someone said, Have you thought about doing this? the first thing we said was, Sure, we can definitely look at that. As we got good ideas from our members we implemented those, and our members were thrilled with that.

Is Shankman surprised by the number of mainstream journalists who are still suspicious, and even dismissive, of social media?

Im excited to see that companies are starting to get it better. Companies and journalists and people in general are starting to realize that its not just a fad. Its something thats going to help, thats going to be important. And thats kinda cool.

The HARO ebulletin is a worthwhile read, both for media people, who may use the service, and subject matter experts seeking to get a higher public profile. Ive been subscribing since mid-2008, and am always fascinated by the diverse, topical and sometimes trivial subjects being pursued by media. For more information and to sign up, visit the HARO web site.

And thats a pitch you can take to the bank.

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