Pick a Pro: Rivals Play Media Match Game

Kate Manfull, a publicist in St. Louis, recently hit pay dirt for her client, Kathryn Sansone. An author, consultant and mother of 10, Sansone, who runs the Web site shapeup mom.com, was featured in an Associated Press story about applying business-management principles to the running of households that appeared in dozens of newspapers. But the publicist didn’t land the story by sending a press release to the reporter, Mercedes M. Cardona.

Rather, Manfull contacted Cardona after seeing a description of her article, then in progress, on a new service, Help A Reporter Out (HARO), where reporters detail assignments to line up sources. Unlike ProfNet, the15-year-old service owned by PR Newswire, which e-mails journalists’ queries to prospective sources, and charges firms annual subscription fees as high as $3,500, HARO is free.

Manfull subscribes to ProfNet, but says she will not renew her $950 yearly subscription (the independent contractor rate) when it comes due soon.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Manfull says. “HARO is giving me what I need without having to pay.”

Writing in the comment section of thestandard.com in July, Peter Shankman, founder of both HARO and the PR firm The Geek Factory, asked how PR Newswire would continue to justify its “exorbitant fees. I can produce the same quality and quantity, armed with nothing more than a Tassimo [coffee] machine, a Mac, two big-boned cats and one Twitter account.”

Shankman claims he has heard from more than 50 publicists who, like Manfull, say they have cancelled ProfNet subscriptions or plan to do so. But Dave Armon, president of PR Newswire, says his company has seen no dip in subscriptions. So far this year, he notes, the service’s renewal rate is 93 percent, the same as in 2007.

ProfNet still is “best of breed,” says Armon. “It’s hard to argue with free, but there’s just a different level of customization and credentials that comes with a paid service as opposed to one that has potential conflicts of interest — such as being run by a PR firm.”

While the rival services duke it out, the ultimate winners could well be marketers whose publicists use both services, doubling their chances of landing clients in the media.

John Moore, an Atlanta-based senior media strategist with Edelman who follows both services, says the corresponding publicity complements advertising by establishing a company as an “authority” as well as heightening name recognition and “building goodwill.”

Add into the mix journalists increasingly seeking sources through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and it would seem publicists can now cast a wider net than ever.

“The hardest thing in media relations is we’re not omniscient,” says Flatiron Communications founder Peter Himler, who is president of the Publicity Club of New York and pens a blog, The Flack. “We don’t know what every journalist is working on at any given moment.”

Say hello to HARO

On the bright morning of Aug. 6, his 36th birthday, Shankman, a consummate schmoozer, social-media maven and skydiver who, instead of business cards, hands out poker chips with his contact info, is sitting on the couch in his Manhattan apartment overlooking the Hudson River. Barefoot, wearing jeans and an untucked dress shirt, Shankman fields questions while assembling that afternoon’s HARO queries list on his laptop, when there is a knock at the door.

Shankman answers the door and returns, beaming, with a chocolate truffle cake, one of several gifts sent that day by people he has never met: appreciative publicists who have used HARO to get clients mentioned in newspaper articles, and small business owners who subscribe to the service themselves and have landed in articles. (Journalists tend to send Shankman appreciative e-mails, not gifts.)

“You have no idea how much this means to me,” says Shankman. “I look at these thousands of subscribers like family. I know it sounds cheesy and trite, but I really do.”

The author of Can We Do That?! Outrageous PR Stunts That Work — and Why Your Company Needs Them, Shankman started HARO as a Facebook group late last year, but after it grew rapidly — he promoted it through his blog and Twitter — he launched helpareporter.com. Anyone can sign up to receive the e-mail listings, sent three times a day and culled from forms journalists fill out listing their current assignments. (Journalists then wait for the responses to roll in.)

In March, Shankman began sending e-mails with journalists’ queries to a list of fewer than 1,000 subscribers. By June the list grew to 10,000 and on Oct. 1 topped 33,000, according to Shankman.

The service has earned him some laudatory posts on publicists’ and journalists’ blogs. Some observers, in fact, are baffled at his beneficence.

“By all outward appearances, he’s giving away a valuable service for free, out of the goodness of his heart,” Hamilton Nolan wrote recently on Gawker, the media and gossip site. “Which is why I’ve always been so god- damn skeptical of the whole thing. What’s your angle, Shankman? What’s your angle?”

Shankman actually has more angles than a geometry textbook. While he charges nonprofits and small advertisers less, Shankman says on average he charges $1,250 for a text-only ad atop both his weekday morning and evening e-mails, and $650 for afternoon sponsorships, which usually are employment ads. That’s $3,150 a day, or more than $800,000 a year, for what he estimates takes him an hour and a half daily.

Shankman’s public speaking engagements have climbed to at least one a week thanks to HARO, and while he acknowledges that his fees have risen and that he earns “a decent part of my living” from addressing groups, he declined to disclose his speaking fee.

And Shankman still, of course, has a stable of clients who stand to benefit from him being HARO’s gatekeeper. He says he never withholds a journalist’s query from the list, but he does sometimes give his own clients a first look at the queries and occasionally responds to a reporter’s query himself before he sends it out.

“If it can benefit my clients, I’d be lying if I didn’t say they got it a few hours before the HARO list,” Shankman says.

Which is why Shankman “is not a trusted neutral party,” says Armon of PR Newswire and ProfNet. “If you’re running a PR agency and then claiming to run an experts’ service to benefit the PR world at large, somebody’s got to come first. And [that’s the] day job that pays your bills.”

The ProfNet story

According to Armon, an advantage of ProfNet from the journalists’ perspective is that their queries go only to potential sources (usually through their publicists), but that with HARO other journalists are free to sign up and keep tabs on competitors’ assignments. In addition, ProfNet has a user database of experts available, for free, to journalists who have signed on for the service.

Like HARO, ProfNet began as a free service that used new technology to link reporters and experts. In 1992, it grew out of a discussion publicists at universities and colleges throughout the country were having “about what to do with this newfangled thing called ‘e-mail,'” says ProfNet founder Dan Forbush, who then worked in Stony Brook University’s PR office.

At the time, many university publicists distributed bound directories listing professors’ expertise to newsrooms, where the directories proceeded to both collect dust and become outdated as professors jumped ship or retired. It occurred to Forbush that journalists could seek academic experts — from his university and others — with a few keystrokes instead. The trial balloon, a UPI reporter’s query seeking sources on the hazards of winter flying, reached 900 university publicists over the Internet and yielded six aviation experts.

Late that year Forbush lost his job at Stony Brook and decided to run ProfNet out of his home, asking university publicists to pay $200 yearly for the service. He was unsure how they would respond.

“Checks were coming into my post office box in such numbers that I had to bring shopping bags — within a month I had $200,000,” says Forbush, who in 1996 sold it to PR Newswire. That company, a subsidiary of London-based United Business Media, also runs a press-release distribution service, media databases, and Internet and print media monitoring services. (Forbush stayed on with PR Newswire as an employee to run ProfNet for 11 years, leaving last year for a position in Skidmore College’s public affairs office.)

PR Newswire broadened the service, and invited PR firms, manufacturers and not-for-profits to subscribe. ProfNet also began to build that database of experts among paying subscribers, who list areas of expertise. Today the database numbers 12,000 experts, according to ProfNet.

ProfNet queries are e-mailed to about 30,000 people, but the company declined to say how many of those recipients are paid subscribers. (Large firms purchase just one subscription, but can sign up literally hundreds of employees.) As for journalists logging in to ProfNet either to search for an expert or post a query, the company reports that an average of more than 22,000 journalists do so at least once a month.

Shankman claims that people who pay for ProfNet are paying mostly for redundancy, and estimates that 80 percent of the queries on ProfNet are posted by the same reporters on HARO. But a side-by-side comparison of both services suggests that is way off.

Adweek compared HARO and ProfNet offerings in the last week of August, and found that the upstart offered nearly as many queries from reporters — 369 to ProfNet’s 420. But as for duplicate queries, only 30 of ProfNet’s queries appeared on HARO, just 7 percent.

The taste test

“There have been very few times when I’ve seen the very same topic on both HARO and ProfNet,” says Moore, the Edelman media strategist.

Moore says that most in his office scan both regularly, and that each has its advantages. Publicists with business-to-business clients have more luck at ProfNet, he says, which “seems like it has a lot more of the trade publications, whereas HARO seems to have more consumer-facing newspapers and magazines.”

Many journalists see the two services as complementary.

Maryn McKenna, a Minneapolis-based reporter and author who writes about health policy, has queried ProfNet since its early days and now queries HARO, too.

“I use them both — I just use them for different things,” McKenna says.

Sometimes she’ll post different queries to both services about the same story, for example seeking non-experts — or, as she puts it, “real people” — on HARO who might have a health condition, while seeking medical experts about the same condition on ProfNet.

Both Shankman and Armon allow that since ProfNet has been around so much longer, there are more traditional experts on it, and that since HARO is free to all comers, it might draw a wider range of subscribers with fewer graduate degrees, but a wider range of experiences. In other words, you’ll find more average Joe’s on HARO than on ProfNet.

Some journalists who use the services report getting fewer off-topic responses from publicists on HARO than on ProfNet, perhaps because of Shankman’s informal — yet oft-repeated — ground rule.

“By joining this list, just promise me and yourself that you’ll ask yourself before you send a response: Is this response really on target?” Shankman writes on HARO’s sign-up page. “Is this response really going to help the journalist, or is this just a BS way for me to get my client in front of the reporter?”

After discovering publicists harvested journalists’ e-mail addresses from HARO mailings for an unsolicited e-mail list for a dubious press release (offering celebrity life coach Patrick Wanis to comment on rumors that Matthew Broderick cheated on wife Sarah Jessica Parker), Shankman named the publicists in a HARO e-mail and announced he was booting them off the list. The public shaming was widely lauded by PR bloggers. (Neither of the publicists, Nancy Mure or Chris Burres, responded to voice-mail messages seeking comment.)

Lazy or genius?

Not everyone is on board with the two services. Sheldon Rampton of PR Watch, a watchdog group, warns that opening the floodgates to publicists can sully news gathering.

“We’re living in an environment where reporters are less and less willing to do independent research, so that’s created an opportunity for PR people to step in and do the research for them,” Rampton says. Readers and viewers are ill-served, he says, when presumably objective sources in articles actually are “people who have a vested interest” and are in fact paying publicists to get them more media exposure than their competitors.

“My personal take on ProfNet is it’s not all bad, but there’s more bad than good in it,” says Rampton, who is less familiar with HARO. “It’s one of various ways that the news product is getting cheapened.”

But using technology to gather sources is a tactic sure to gain momentum. Julio Ojeda-Zapata, a tech columnist at The Pioneer Press in St. Paul — who has a sheet of paper near his computer reading: “Three Rules of Julio: 1. Beware hubris 2. Hesitation kills 3. All hail ProfNet” — says these days he’s as likely to get sources through posts to his Twitter accounts as he is through ProfNet.

Ojeda-Zapata, who is also a new fan of HARO — saying it’s superior to other “ProfNet wannabes that have come and gone over the years” — has about 1,000 subscribers receiving the short messages from his feed, and often gets sources for stories through a solicitation on Twitter. Recently, for example, he sent out a message on Twitter that he was working on a column about people who stay connected to work electronically even though they’re on vacation