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Ever wonder where journalists and other writers find the experts they quote in their stories? In the past, reporters counted on their own networking, and on a service called ProfNet. ProfNet lets journalists search their database of experts and contact them individually to see if they’d be interested in being interviewed.

Until recently, ProfNet has been about the only game in town, as far as finding real experts is concerned. Which might be why their website is a little less than user-friendly – no competition. But things have been shaken up rather thoroughly in the last couple months, with the arrival on the scene of a new service aiming to connect journalists and experts.

Help A Reporter Out (HARO) is the brainchild of Peter Shankman, founder and CEO of marketing/PR firm The Geek Factory, Inc. The idea is simple, but incredibly powerful. Journalists post requests using a simple form, detailing their story and the kind of expert they’re looking for. Experts – on whatever – subscribe to the HARO mailing list. A few times a day, the requests over the last several hours are compiled and sent out to everyone on the mailing list. Subscribers skim the list and see if there are any stories they feel they can contribute to, and they email the reporter directly.

It’s that simple. It’s almost stupid! But it works – in a few months it’s membership has grown to over 12,000 people and Shankman is sending out 50 or more HARO requests a day.

Why bother to help a reporter out?

Why should you take the time and energy to read HARO’s twice- or thrice-daily email, looking for HARO requests that apply to you?

There are several answers, all of them good. The first, of course, is that you know something that might help a reporter to be more informative or more accurate, and therefore in some small way you can contribute to the world’s store of knowledge. That’s what knowledge is for, after all – sharing.

But, you say, I get paid for sharing my knowledge. Hey, good on ya! Maybe the warm fuzzies aren’t enough.

Fair enough. While journalistic ethics generally precedes paying sources, people who volunteer to help reporters with their story get another kind of payment: exposure. And no minor exposure, either – being quoted in a major newspaper or national magazine can bring a flood of traffic to your site, new clients, job offers, you name it. And smaller outlets can be just as good,or even better – being quoted as an expert by a niche publication means that the people who will see your name referred to as the go-to guy or gal on your topic are exactly the people you most want to see you as an expert.

PR folks know this, which is why when I sent out a HARO request recently, about 1/3 of the responses I got were publicists and marketing folk offering to connect me with their clients. It’s an excellent opportunity to establish yourself as an expert in your field.

There’s one more reason to respond to HARO requests: it can be fun. You get to share your thoughts with someone who, while maybe not an expert, at least has an interest in the field you work in (usually, or the story would have been assigned to someone else). Speaking with a skilled interviewer is a great way to clarify your own thinking, too.

What if I need some help, too?

HARO is, at least for now, an open system. I’ve seen requests from bloggers, in-house writers, people taking surveys, and of course actual jourrnalists on assignment. There is no verification system in place to make sure your request is “legitimate”, and while that might become a problem down the line, for now it’s working pretty well. (I shouldn’t say no verification system – people aren’t going to respond to requests that seem phony or amateurish, so in that sense, the system is self-regulating).

What that means is that, if you need to interview an expert, and can offer a reasonable amount of exposure, there’s no real reason not to try a HARO request.

And it works. My first HARO request was for an expert n what I thought was a pretty obscure topic. Within a few hours, I had 14 responses! What’s more, almost all of them were good – real, bona fide experts in the rather tiny niche I was writing about.

If you want to improve your chances of getting a decent response, there are a few things you should do:

  • Be real: I can imagine all sorts of ways that people are going to try to game the HARO system. Here’s the thing, though – you’re interacting with real people – smart ones, at that. They are experts, after all. If your request comes off as scammy, you won’t get a response – but even if your request does get a response, people will realize soon enough that you’re full of… it when you start responding of when you get them on the phone.
  • Explain your topic thoroughly: HARO gives plenty of room to describe who you’re looking for; be as specific as you can. Don’t think you’re being clever by being vague, or that you’ll improve your chances of finding someone if your request is so loosely worded that just about anyone might feel that they’re the right person for you. The people who sign up for HARO’s list are looking for particular requests that they feel a connection with. Ideally, you want a handful of people to read your request and feel like you’re talking about them specifically.
  • Be respectful: You don’t get to expect a response, you get to appreciate one. If someone takes the time to respond to your request, even if you can’t use them for your project, try at least to respond and tell them “no thanks”. You never know when you might need their assistance in the future, so don’t burn any bridges by being a jerk.

I, for one, will be watching closely to see how Help A Reporter Out develops. It’s such a simple idea, but it works – and in the long run, may be a huge step forward for journalism. And for self-promotion – what a great way to get yourself noticed by people in your niche!

I’d love to hear other people’s stories about HARO. If you have any, please share them with us in the comments.

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