Public relations initiatives fall into two main categories: proactive and reactive. Most efforts, particularly when first beginning to work with an “unknown” startup company or brand, fall into the proactive category. This means we’re putting together communications timelines, goals, and tactics that map to a client’s unique organizational objectives.
The reactive side of PR typically occurs when a reporter begins to get to know one of our clients via our proactive outreach, and then calls on us for assistance with something they’re working on. It can also, unfortunately, involve the implementation of a crisis communications plan. Another way to engage in reactive PR is through HARO, or Help a Reporter Out.
HARO is a FREE tool that sends out emails three times per day filled with opportunities to, as the name states, help a reporter out. They also have monthly subscription options, but unless you’re a PR professional or an in-house resource dedicated to outbound communications efforts, you’re likely going to do just fine with the free version. It includes the same features previously offered and we did just great with them for years.
Put yourself in a reporter’s shoes for a moment. You’ve been assigned a topic to cover and you either have no sources, the topic is obscure or very narrowly-focused, or the one source you were counting on didn’t provide you with much content or inspiration. On top of that, you’re on deadline and have to come up with something – and fast. This is often when reporters use HARO and they need information post haste.
Businesses and nonprofits can use HARO to respond to opportunities for which they feel they can provide value. When you do so, keep these four things in mind:
- Be relevant and on-topic. If a reporter asks for a dog walker to interview, don’t try to pitch your pet product company. That’s considered SPAM and a waste of time.
- Be reliable. If you claim to be able to provide either expert content or an expert source for a topic, be sure you can live up to your offer. They’re counting on you.
- Be on time. If you get a response, immediately ask for the reporter’s deadline. And meet or exceed it.
- Be courteous. Make a point to send the reporter a thank you note for including you or your organization in their article.
As a communications professional, HARO can also be a great way to build goodwill and forge relationships with reporters. We get stuck just like reporters do, so we know how it feels. Therefore, if we see a query and know someone who can help – client or not – we’ll send a note offering assistance or a resource.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how we did just that. For client confidentiality purposes, this example is one in which I offered up my own company as a source in 2012. What follows is my simple and direct offer of assistance, my interview transcript, and the resulting story.
THE HARO QUERY
“Young person with experience working for startups.” The reporter was specifically looking for high tech entrepreneurs ages 30 and younger with a background in working for startup companies. I would assume sources that fit that description must be a dime-a-dozen, so although Bloom Communications isn’t a tech company, I figured my assumption had to be wrong and he was really stuck.
Since Bloom is not a tech company and I didn’t want to break my own “be relevant and on topic” rule, I approached with caution and a genuine offer of help.
While the communications firm I started in January is not high-tech, it serves tech clients. I have worked for tech startups, and have only worked for startups throughout my career – for a reason. I am 30 years old and running my own show. If you’re on deadline and need additional content, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Of note, I will be traveling to NYC early tomorrow morning, but available for email or quick phone interview in the afternoon.
FYI this is not a pitch by any means, just an offer to help if you are stuck and need to round out your story. Here’s my LinkedIn profile so you can check out my background: http://www.linkedin.com/in/briannamckinney.
I happened to be in NYC (where the reporter offices) when he replied to my offer of help so we tried to meet up in person, but our schedules didn’t mesh. So, we handled the interview via email. The context of the interview was regarding my thoughts about working with startups before starting my own company.
Interviewer: Brian Eha, Entrepreneur Magazine
Entrepreneur Mag: Was the experience mostly positive or negative? What were the upsides and downsides?
Bloom: The experience for me was exactly what I wanted, so overall very positive. I have never been the type of person who can perform one specific job function and not want to do anything else within a company. When working with start-ups, everything you do matters and everything has a direct and visible impact on the company. You also have much more access to the executive team, as start-ups by nature have lean staffing. These benefits allowed me to learn and test new skills in various areas of the companies with which I worked.
Downsides: salary increases can be hard to come by and it can take a long time to be rewarded those increases, due to budgetary constraints. You are also likely to be asked to take on additional responsibilities without additional pay, which is great experience, but can be frustrating. Additionally, your job description is likely to change daily or weekly depending on the shifts within the company. This is something I love, but you have to be able to adapt quickly. Things change quickly in the start-up environment, which for me is exciting, but for others may not be.
Entrepreneur Mag: When and how did you launch your own company? Did your experience at other people’s startups help you? If so, how?
Bloom: I launched my company, Bloom Communications, in January 2012. I always knew I was going to start my own company; it was just a matter of timing. When I launched Bloom Communications, though, I was not prepared – which I learned was ok. I am a planner and a perfectionist and I realized that, almost like having a child, there is never a right time. I went out on a limb, and decided just to go for it, and it’s been the best professional decision I’ve ever made. I remembered an intimate meeting I was fortunate enough to be invited to at Austin Ventures to hear Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, speak. Although geared towards product/tech startups, the message still rang true for me. You can spend months planning to launch something that you think people want, perfecting it, and then realize too late that it’s not what your customers wanted. Time is wasted. Rather than planning and perfecting my startup plan before going out on my own, I listened to my customers and launched immediately, and have been tweaking along the way based on feedback received.
In my first start-up environment, I was able to learn a ton about what it takes to run a company. I worked directly with the CEO and was able to get an understanding of his role, as well as what challenges he was facing and how he overcame them. I also learned how to successfully recruit and retain staff, as well as run an office environment. Additionally, I learned what it took to market a company, which led me to my next startup. That experience was invaluable to me as an entrepreneur. I can’t imagine trying to start a company without that background, and the confidence the knowledge and experience gave me.
Entrepreneur Mag: Have you learned things at any startup that you couldn’t have picked up at a larger, more established company?
Bloom: Though I have never been employed by one directly, I have consulted for several extremely large corporations. You hear a lot of “that’s not my job description”, “that’s not my role” and a lot of finger pointing. It’s hard to get people to make decisions because no one wants to take responsibility, therefore things get done very slowly. Because of this, if I had worked at large companies before starting my own, I am doubtful that I would have been exposed to as many roles or prepared to make decisions quickly and adapt to change on a dime.
Entrepreneur Mag: Would you recommend that young would-be entrepreneurs work at someone else’s startup first, if possible, before launching their own?
Bloom: I would absolutely recommend that anyone considering starting their own company work at someone else’s startup first. If it’s not possible to work in a paid capacity, see if you can at least shadow a startup CEO. Other options are to find opportunities to become an entrepreneur-in-residence to learn from others. In Austin, for example, Austin Ventures has such a program and I’m sure other cities and venture capital groups offer them as well.
You never know how much or how little content is necessary, so it’s always best to be thorough and provide as much information as possible. Depending on the reporter’s needs, you could be his or her only source, or one of many sources offering a different point of view. In this instance, my response was used to offer an additional perspective.
Has your organization had success with HARO? Leave a comment below and tell us about it!