How To Respond To HARO/ProfNet Queries Without Pissing Writers Off

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Think your peach defuzzer is the greatest product in the known universe, or rep a doctor who’s on the road to curing a formerly incurable disease? Then you’re probably signed up as an expert source on services like Help a Reporter (HARO)and ProfNet.

I use these services as just one of many tools in my arsenal to find expert and “real life” sources, but often I end up frustrated — and without usable sources. To be fair, sometimes my requests are kind of crazy — like I’m looking for a Hispanic woman in her 40s who lives in the Midwest and drives a Suburban. But many times, it’s the people who respond to queries that make a writer want to drive flaming daggers into her eyes.

Don’t get me wrong — I love and appreciate these services. They’re free to journalists, and I often find good sources through them, like the beautiful bridal entrepreneur-slash-cage fighter I ended up profiling for Fortune Small Business and later for Inc. But the successes are tempered by avalanches of off-point e-mails from PR reps and expert sources.

If you use these services as a PR rep or a source, here are some tips for boosting your chances of a reply when you respond to a writer’s query. (Yes, writers, these requests confusingly are called queries.) I’ll use some examples from recent queries I sent in.

1. Read the Freakin’ Query!

Lat week I sent out the following query:

Are We Detoxing Too Much?
I’m looking for experts such as MDs who can discuss whether the detoxing trend is going too far, in terms of detoxing our homes, our bodies, and our food. Magazines and books are telling us to purge everything from house dust to bleach to non-organic foods, and more and more people are going on fasts and detox diets. How do you know if you’re going too far? And how much do we REALLY need to detox? I do not need to hear from vendors about detoxing products.

You get it, right? I’m looking for information on the negative side of detoxing — how much is too much and how to know if you’ve gone too far. And yet, almost 100% of the responses I received were from medical professionals who offered to talk about why we need to go on detox diets and how to do it. It’s like they scanned the query, saw the word “detox,” and blasted off an e-mail about the wonders of detoxing. If you can’t (or won’t) read, how can we trust you as an expert?

So please…READ the query!

2. Sell Yourself

Every once in a while I get a response that says something like, “I can help you with your article. Call me.” Yeah, I’ll get right on that. Please, tell me who you are and what makes you an expert in the topic I queried.

3. Remember That Our Job Is Not to Sell Your Product

Of course, people who respond to writer queries have something to sell, whether it’s a product, a viewpoint, or something else. But you need to use some smarts to determine when it’s right to make a blatant product pitch. For example, here’s a query I sent out yesterday:

For a national health magazine, I’m looking for beauty news that’s NOT product-specific and that is backed by studies. For example, I don’t care that Jane’s Sun Kissed Skin Lotion was proven to prevent wrinkles, but I do care that a recent study published in the Journal of Dermatology concluded that the antioxidants in pistachios were proven to whiten teeth. Please, no product pitches.

I’m guessing you noticed that I did not want product-specific pitches. I mean, I made it pretty clear, right? So why do I get replies from people telling me, for example, that the FatBlaster Brand Laser Machine has been proven to reduce the look of cellulite? I guess the reps think, “Well, it can’t hurt to send it along anyway.” But guess what? Itcan hurt, because I’ll be sending very negative vibes your way, and I will remember you when you contact me again.

4. Don’t Add Us to Lists Unless We Ask You To

I can’t even count how many PR reps add my address to their press lists after harvesting it from a HARO or ProfNet query. I know this because I have a special e-mail address that I use only for queries on these services, so when I start getting press releases at that address, I know how I ended up on the list. Many people see I’m a writer — what type? who cares? — and decide that maybe I’d like to write about their clients who run a cracker factory in Boise. But even if a PR rep groks my specialties, I don’t want to be added to press lists unless I ask for it. Just because I wrote about safe web surfing in 2001 doesn’t mean that I want to receive press releases on that topic for the rest of my days. I get enough e-mail as it is.

Now HARO has a special feature that hides your e-mail address on your queries so this is less of an issue, but as soon as you respond to a PR rep they have your e-mail address and can add it to their press lists, so the problem hasn’t been completely eradicated.

5. Make Sure Your Client Is Available

It sucks when a PR rep responds to a HARO or ProfNet request with what sounds like the perfect source, but when you try to set up the interview the source goes AWOL. Check with your source to make sure he’s interested in doing the interview before you respond to a query.

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Tips for Improving Your Pitch to Local TV Stations

Many in the public relations profession feel confident and comfortable with pitching and understanding print and online publications. After all, it seems pretty straightforward, right? However, TV stations bring some more confusing elements to pitching your story.

Why? Because visuals matter, time matters and, even moreso in importance than many print publications, location matters. These pieces of news that are vital to a TV news package take some extra work on the part of PR practitioners.

Here are some tips I picked up from last night that I think can help everyone when trying to pitch your local TV station.

Pull out the visual elements

No doubt, television news is a visual medium. Visually appealing and compelling stories generally are best and can take precedence. The first thing you should consider before sending ANY TV pitch should be the visual elements.

What catches the eye? What makes someone want to see this rather than just hear about it? In your pitch, it doesn’t hurt to tell the producer or reporter exactly what it is that’s visually appealing. This will let them know what to expect and help add credibility to the real news value of your story.

Think in terms of the teaser

News stations operate in seconds. They don’t have pages to dedicate to a story, but maybe only a mere 30 seconds. Every time they put together a package, it needs to tell the story concisely and in a fashion that is visually appealing and memorable. So when crafting your pitch, think in terms of the teaser.

The teaser is those few seconds right before the station breaks to commercial where they preview a story. That short teaser needs to attract the attention of the viewers to keep them watching the station and sticking around past the commercial break. Teasers, by nature, are interesting, intriguing and compelling.

So what part of your pitch is interesting, intriguing and compelling? Start thinking about the news value in your pitch and think about the teaser. Pitch your story like a teaser. Because even though you may be pitching a reporter, that reporter needs to take the story to a meeting and pitch it to their producer who then needs to give the go ahead. If you can quickly and concisely convey the value of your story in a compelling way, your chances of seeing your pitch turn into a TV news package may increase.

Go local

This tip should come as no surprise to anyone. A local news station demands local news. At least here in Chicago, most of the local news broadcasts are surrounded by a national news program. NBC morning news is followed up by the Today Show, ABC local morning news is followed up by Good Morning America, and so on.

What this should tell you is that the producers are already relying on the national news broadcasts to bring you most of the compelling national and international news. They don’t need to worry about what’s going on in Iraq unless it impacts someone in their coverage area specifically.

Remember this all important fact when putting your pitch together. What is the true local angle here? Jim O’Reilly told a great story last night at the PRSA event that really stuck with me and rings so true for local news. Jim talked about a promotion Oreos and Volkswagen were doing to have people guess how many Oreos could fit into a VW Bug. The winning guesser, would win a brand new Bug. After doing some digging, Jim found that the person who won the car was a woman who had a low income and had to take three buses on a very long commute to work every morning. Winning this car changed her life for the better. Jim, then working in a newsroom, ran with the story of the woman. Oreos and Volkswagen got their mentions, but the immense local angle is what made the story.

Every story has a great human element, and if we as PR professionals can spend a little time digging that out, we can help our chances of getting the story on TV.

Take your client out of the picture

This practice rings true not only for TV, but for all pitching we do. Every client or company certainly wants to tell their story and be front and center. However, as Paris Schultz pointed out, news stations have a job to do, just as PR professionals have a job to do. And while these two rely on each other and interact frequently, their agendas are totally different.

You may really want your CEO in front of the camera with a great sound bite, but a news producer does not care at all. He or she just wants to tell the news story, whether your CEO gets a clip or not.

So when crafting your pitch, take your client or company out of the picture. Think – what is the real news behind this story? There are tons of great angles to every story, but you need to find them because news crews aren’t going to do it for you. Blatant product pushing pitches aren’t going to resonate well unless you find the real news story and it happens to involve your product.

Be wary of deadlines

TV stations have deadlines all day. But you can guarantee that right before any newscast, folks are busy and running around trying to get things together. Make sure that before you pitch a station, you consider the time of day. Some great pitches may go unnoticed because they were sent 15 minutes before the 5 p.m. newscast.

Though the timing varies, every TV station will have a news meeting at some point in the day to discuss what’s going on, prioritize the stories, assign people to coverage and determine what they want to fill the newscast with. These meetings, often in the morning, are crucial for your pitch at.

When sending your pitch over, don’t be afraid to send it very early the morning and call with some quick reminders (or even just send an e-mail). Both panelists from last night’s event agreed that a little follow up can go a long way. Make sure your story remains top of mind and comes up for discussion in that meeting.

All in all, when pitching a local TV station, don’t panic. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. However, there are certainly some important elements to take into consideration when putting your pitch together that might help you turn an idea into a result.