HARO under fire for unverified sources


Help A Reporter Out (or HARO) is a tool used by journalists to find sources, and by communications teams to pitch experts. The reporter writes a brief summary of what they need, and these are sent to a mailing list three times a day. Comms teams then respond with comment or subject matter experts. It’s a free service by Cision used by most PR firms and mainstream outlets, including the New York Times.

As a marketplace for media opps and matching sources it’s a good idea. However last week, The Beast carried a long expose of comedian, Dan Nainan, who has been quoted serially as a millennial entrepreneur in publications like the AP, CNN and NPR. Trouble is – he’s 55. A fact which would have been relatively easy to check, given the inclination.

The problem with HARO

How did he get all that attention? HARO. Which is why it’s the subject of a blistering attack in The Observer. The general gist is that since HARO makes it easy to find sources, it’s open to abuse by attention-seekers who falsify their credentials to credulous reporters. HARO is enabling lazy journalism and giving self-aggrandizing liars a mainline to publicity.

Instead, shouldn’t journalists put in some virtual shoe leather and find their own sources? They are pretty easy to find on Google or LinkedIn, in media archives and via contacts after all. Many reporters have carefully built Twitter communities for just this access to second-degree contacts. Given this proximity, it seems a little harsh to single out a service like HARO. As with any marketplace, there are bad actors, and HARO needs to walk a line between convenience and security. It’s a simple tool so caveat emptor.

HARO isn’t the only such service, Gorkana in the UK, also now owned by Cision, offers something similar. It doesn’t really matter what the mechanism is – whether it’s an email list, Twitter, a Facebook group or old school editorial calendars. There’s demand for SMEs from publications and incentivized supply from organizations. Pitching features is a core part of communications.

The challenge is that the accelerated speed of the news cycle means that reporters, even at august titles, self-evidently don’t always have the time to verify their sources. That is a problem – especially with the prevalence of fake news. All business relies on trust – and the Nainans of the world abuse that. Some would say expose the weakness of the system. There’s no getting around the need to fact-check important stories.

Comms teams can help

So what does this mean for most comms programs? It’s unlikely media outlets will swear off HARO – there’d be little point since there are other channels. But comms teams can work to validate and fact-check their own pitches before they present them. They can also help their spokespeople be found organically by building out their online profiles. This means updating them with recent credentials (awards, speaking slots, coverage) and ensuring the topics they can discuss are prevalent (keyword optimization in their bios, updating alt tags on headshots with expertise). Make it easy for your spokesperson to be found and for them to be checked as legit by a time-pressed reporter.

Comms teams should also find other channels to help reporters looking for sources. HARO is a lowest common denominator since it’s so prevalent. But what are the Facebook and LinkedIn groups where the signal to noise ratio is higher?

But ultimately, if you want to know the best way to help a reporter out? Don’t spam them with irrelevant pitches in the first place. Then they’ll have more time to fact-check their sources.