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Bad Products: Help A Reporter Out

Publicists are expensive. I do everything I can to keep my costs non-existent, so I don’t have one. But I still want press. One option I once read about that seemed promising is a mailing list called Help A Reporter Out.

Unfortunately, HARO, as it is called, is an awful product. It makes the fatal mistake that many fast-scaling services make: screwing the most important customer.

Three Customers

HARO has three customers: journalists, who need leads, sponsors, who pay for placement, and subscribers, who consume sponsored content and respond to journalist queries.

Subscribers are the most important customer as they are required for both sponsors and journalists to even bother with the product. Without subscribers, there’s no one for sponsors to influence. Without subscribers, the journalists get no responses.

A typical HARO email goes something like this:

  1. Lengthy sponsored message
  2. Cutesy personal update from the mailing list administrator, Peter Shankman
  3. An absurdly long list of journalist queries

The practical result of this is that a subscriber will have to scroll an entire page before they even get to what they care about. Even better, HARO is sent out as often as three times a day.

Now, I disclaimed that as typical. What’s more interesting to my point are atypical HARO messages. These don’t happen often, but happened often enough to piss me off. HARO has particular rules about how subscribers should interact with journalists. It’s pretty obvious stuff, if you’re not five years old, but boils down to please don’t spam the reporters. Sometimes a HARO subscriber would go off the reservation, do something naughty, piss off a reporter and end up in Shankman’s bad graces.

It’s a closed system – a mailing list, after all. The solution seems pretty simple. When applicable, speak to the individual’s boss, if their wrongdoing was in the service of a larger organization. Then, kick the person off the list.

That’s it. Problem solved.

In Shankman’s defense, it seems he does do this. Then he takes it a step further, by venting his frustration into the next HARO email and scolding the entire subscriber base at large. Here’s a sample:

READ THIS: This morning, while being given a behind the scenes tour
at Busch Gardens, I had to spend a portion of the tour on my mobile
phone, calming a reporter from a major publication. Seems someone
at a major agency took it upon themselves to form an opinion on
what kind of story the reporter was writing, simply from the query
alone.  Long story short, this was a situation that should not have happened.

This isn’t brain surgery here, guys: If you can answer a query, do
it. If you know someone who can answer a query, send it to them. Do
not post them on the web, in blogs, or on message boards, and do
not email the reporter saying “You should do it this way.” Had I
not gotten an EXTREMELY sincere apology from a top-level person at
the agency, I’d be outing the person who caused the mess in the
first place, as well as outing the agency. Instead, he’s just banned
from HARO.

Five rules of HARO here: READ THEM.

I can only speak for myself, but as a former subscriber, it’s worth listing all the things in this message I don’t give even a tiny fraction of a fuck about:

  • Shankman’s very special behind the scenes tour
  • The frustration of said tour’s interruption
  • The existence of an over-sensitive, irate reporter who doesn’t know how to use the delete button on her keyboard
  • A rehash of common sense HARO rules I already know
  • Shankman’s super-duper ballbusting phone call to top-level Tommy
  • The ban of another subscriber
  • The power of passive aggressive ALL-CAPS text

The Precious Commodity

HARO exists thanks to a simple reality: time is a precious, ever-dwindling commodity. If reporters weren’t in a hurry, they’d spend weeks on just one story, finding the perfect source for their piece. They don’t have that luxury. HARO to the rescue. Similarly, subscribers don’t have time to build a publicity campaign, research publications or spend weeks pitching themselves. They often don’t even have time to learn how. Again, HARO to the rescue.

The issue is that HARO does not give any reverence to the time of its subscribers. Quite the opposite: not only do we have paragraphs of crap no one cares about at the top of each message, there’s this occasional business of Shankman feeling empowered to command the entire list to spend time reading a rant about the misbehaviors of a single participant.

This doesn’t even begin to take into account the amount of time it takes to scour the actual list of queries. Taken in aggregate, it’s shocking. Let’s not forget, it’s a thrice-daily proposition.

The reason it happens is that while subscribers are the most crucial part of Shankman’s business, they’re also the most plentiful – the most easy to replace. Sponsors are magic unicorns, treasured and protected. Journalists are golden geese, continually laying the eggs that make each HARO message. Subscribers? There are tens of thousands of those.

So HARO gets away with it. For now.

Complacency Breeds Contempt

I just checked my calendar. It’s 2009. A mailing list? Hell, let’s move the whole thing over to Usenet. Infinitely more retro chic and you don’t need to bottleneck the queries through a single guy.

The problem with HARO not caring about its subscribers’ time is that it completely erodes loyalty, trading every ounce of goodwill for an ounce of contempt with each message. When something better comes along, they’ll have no problem switching. Ask Blockbuster how that works.

Fine, so you’re saying if I’m going to be a douche and trash this guy’s hard work, I should have a better idea, right? Glad you asked.

Let’s Do It Better

Build a website.

That’s it. A problem actually solvable with a website. Could have been huge during the dot-com bubble, but I bet it’s enough to at least keep Shankman fed. Here’s what you do:

  1. Persistent accounts that store basic bios and feedback ratings. Elevate the stars, demote those who don’t play by the rules, make it clear who’s making the best contributions
  2. Categorized, post-moderated, RSS-enabled members-only query threads that let reporters post their queries whenever they want or need. Only postable by verified reporter accounts to keep the bozos at bay
  3. Tagged queries: instead of having to parse a tedious headline that’s different for each query, provide the option for easy-to-scan tags
  4. User-configured search agents to send email alerts any time a query seems of interest
  5. Daily sponsorship opportunities, to keep Shankman in Busch Gardens tickets

That’s it. I bet you could accomplish most of it with Ning, without having to spend a dime. If you wanted to take it to the next level, you could impose a monetary bozo filter for new accounts.

Will it happen? Eventually, I’m sure it has to. Linking journalists with sources is an important job. Just because HARO’s implementation is completely hamfisted doesn’t mean someone else’s won’t eventually hit the mark. Will Shankman do it?

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair, via Daring Fireball

So who knows. In the meantime, I’m off to half-heartedly find some other way to get journalists to talk about me.

  • This Shankman/Journalist/Sponsor to Subscriber relation is very similar to the relationship between literary agents and writers.

    It is all power dynamics, subscribers are plentiful like you mentioned (as are wannabe writers) and are very expendable even though the whole shebang depends upon their effort.


    May 6, 2010

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