Have you ever seen a small business owner or entrepreneur quoted in the press and wondered how they managed to get that sort of coverage? Chances are, the businesses you see mentioned in the media got their start through HARO.
HARO, which stands for Help a Reporter Out, is a website and daily digest that connects journalists with potential sources. Journalists submit queries, which are sent out by email three times every weekday. The people signed up to receive HARO emails – typically entrepreneurs and publicists – can then reply, or "pitch" themselves or their clients, as sources for stories.
This is obviously a useful service for journalists, but it's also a great way for growing businesses with a limited marketing budget to get much-needed publicity.
"HARO was one of the first things I did to help get my small business some attention after my website launched," says Kristi Porter, the solopreneur behind Signify Solutions. "I had about six successful mentions within less than three months." Those mentions appear in the form of "as seen in" credits on the Signify Solutions website, which Porter says has increased her credibility, along with sending traffic to her site.
But just because you reply to a HARO query doesn't mean you'll end up in the press. Dozens of potential sources reply to every digest, which means it takes something special to stand out.
So how can you successfully pitch your business through HARO?
Only respond to relevant queries
With digests going out three times a day, there are plenty of opportunities for you to pitch yourself as a source. But responding to any and all queries, regardless of whether you have something relevant to offer, is only going to waste your time and frustrate the journalist on the other end.
Many queries will ask for sources with specific professional or geographic qualifications, such as a mortgage broker who lives on the West Coast or tech startups owned by women. The first key to a successful HARO response is to make sure you match the query and have something relevant to say.
That may sound obvious, but according to Susan Johnston Taylor, you might be surprised how many responses skip that important step. Johnston Taylor, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and The Atlantic, has been using HARO to find sources since it was a Facebook group without a website. These days, with so many businesses trying to generate media coverage through HARO, she says it's not uncommon to receive multiple emails that start, "I know you're looking for mortgage brokers, but…"
Those are the responses she ignores.
"If you're not relevant to this query, wait for the next one," she said. "Don't try to shoehorn yourself in."
Bob Herman, co-founder and president of IT Tropolis, says he is quoted in about five articles per year from HARO pitches but is very selective about replying to queries – even if they match his field.
"Pick your battles," he advised. "Choose the stories where you have real expertise and … insightful information."
Limit your length
Sending a novel-length HARO response is one of biggest don'ts for business owners, said Johnston Taylor, who admits that length is the first thing she notices about the pitches she receives.
"Publicists often copy and paste a five paragraph bio, which is a little overkill," she said.
Instead, keep your response to one or two sentences, or a short paragraph at most. Your response should include just enough to show why you are a good source.
If you have more to say, instead of including it in your first email, mention that you are available to speak by phone in the next few days and include your contact information. If the journalist is interested in learning more, or has additional questions, they will follow up.
Show some personality
Keeping your response snappy doesn't mean you have to be bland. Journalists are always looking for an interesting, unique angle in their stories, so don't be afraid to show a little personality in your response.
Huib Maat, one-half of the husband-and-wife team behind the luxury perfumery Pairfum, says that his best successes through HARO have come when he has something unique or unusual to say.
"Normally, when you read the requests on HARO, you can nearly predict 95 percent of the answers the journalists will be getting. We try to find… the five percent that the journalist or blogger is not expecting," he said.
Johnston Taylor agrees, advising that if you have a unique backstory, you should add a sentence or two about that. When she's going through dozens of email responses, that kind of personalization helps sources stand out, adding to their authenticity and credibility.
Make responding a habit
Most small business owners who successfully receive media coverage through HARO make responding a regular part of their routine. Checking the digests every day allows you to find a handful of relevant queries to answer over the course of a month.
"In general, I submit one to two [responses] a week," says Laurie Brednich, founder and CEO of HR Company Store. That may seem like a lot of effort, but her thoroughness has paid off. The company's newsroom page features over a dozen media mentions, including spots in The Huffington Post and Essence magazine — all but one of them, Brednich reports, the direct result of HARO responses.
Be considerate of the journalist
As journalists wade through dozens of potential sources, it's often the most considerate ones that stand out.
That starts with sending a polite response, but it also includes making it easy for a journalist to follow up. If you offer times that you're available to speak by phone, for example, don't forget to say what time zone you are in. If you want to include a headshot, send a link to a file – attachments aren't actually delivered with your response. If you mention your business, include its website so the journalist can verify that you are a genuine source.
It's fine to ask that you be notified when the story runs, but don't demand that a journalist link to your business in their article. Most of the time that decision is in the hands of editors, not writers themselves.
Being considerate also means respecting the editorial process. Most journalists will want to follow up with additional questions or a phone interview, and many publications will call you to check facts and quotes as the article is being edited. Remember, journalists aren't there to provide you press coverage. Their job is to write a good story, and your job is to be a good source.
Writing your HARO response
So what should a good HARO response look like?
It should always answer any specific questions the query asks and include enough information to show that you are a good source. If appropriate, you can include a one or two sentence bio or some background information about your business.
Other than that, Johnston Taylor recommends that you keep it short while showing that you actually read the original query. Her example of a perfectly acceptable response takes only two sentences: "I'm a mortgage broker based in California. I recently helped a client with [the situation described in the query], and I'm available to talk at [these times] if you are interested."
"You don't have to write me a whole novel," Johnston Taylor adds. "A lot of times, I'm not looking for specific answers to questions right off the bat. I just use them as a filter."
If you are an appropriate source, the journalist will be in touch to find out more. And in the meantime, there will be more queries arriving in your inbox tomorrow.