Trading software for the PR exchange: How to get pitches out of the dark ages

Whenever I ask anyone for innovative ways to reach reporters, PR professionals point me to Peter Shankman's Help a Report Out (HARO) list. It comes out three times a day and gets sent to over 50,000 people. Reporters can post requests for everything from housewives who've discovered tantric sex to people who've turned down CEO positions (not *those* kinds of positions).

This is the bleeding edge of media relations, folks--a mailing list.

And thank God for this list--lest we all depend on these hand edited media databases selling for thousands of dollars. These sites make me feel like I'm searching Proquest back at my college library in 1999--cumbersome to search though and lacking the metadata I need to find what I'm looking for. 

At least HARO gives me a sense of what a journalist as actually looking for *today*.

Do you know why there are half a dozen of these things out there?  Most of the data is public!  Media winds up on the web, so all the data is already out there.  So far, I haven't seen anything that provides really specific insight into the current topics of interest of a reporter, nor any real analysis into how much traffic, buzz, and influence a journalist really has.  The blogger information is quite rough, too.

And @microPR?   I track it on Twitter... and it seems to be mostly people suggesting other people follow it for #followfriday or talking about its usefulness.  Fail.  

PR is a marketplace--an exchange of relevant, interesting information for attention and audience. So why doesn't it have the tools of a marketplace?  PR tools shouldn't look like databases... they should look like financial trading platforms, with asks and bids on a ticker--filtered for what I'm looking for or need.  This is trading: I give a reporter information (and an angle to work with) about my company and he gives me his audience's attention--at least to the extent he influences it. Real marketplaces have transparency, quantifiability, uniform elements of exchange, and the information systems that enable both sides to make informed decisions.

Imagine if you bought and sold stocks the same way PR works today.  You'd maybe list your name (or have someone else list you with questionable accuracy) in a database.   Instead of really detailed information related to your risk tolerance, prior stocks purchased, key financial criteria like cashflow, all people could see was a general description that you were interested in "Tech Stocks".  Nevermind that you're specifically interested in bigger name plays like MSFT, GOOG, and AMZN, you now get tons of requests for you to buy tiny little biotech companies with no profits that you've never heard of.  You get these requests in your inbox...and they just keep coming.  You don't have time to answer them and there's really no good way to inform the investor relations world about your interests.

PR,specifically pitching, is just like Wall St.--in the 1780's: Manual, opaque, and lacking the tools to create real actionable information flow and analysis. 

Getting PR is all about recreating the work that lots of other people have done to find good contact lists, which will always be incomplete and never really that accurate, crafting good pitch letters, which is totally not scalable, after hours schmoozing, and brokering exclusives in a world where information just wants to be free. This is why the startup geeks can't hack it and need to hire firms to do the social dirtywork.  They're too frustrated by the archaic process, lack of feedback and randomness of success to count on it as a good way to spend their time--especially when most media drives a seriously underwhelming amount of traffic.

Here's an idea for a better system--one that treats PR like the information marketplace that it really is:

First, index all of the reporters.  A good web crawler should be able to recreate the best online media databases in a very short amount of time. Match them up with feeds for their stories, twitter accounts, del.icio.us tags, etc., and analyze the topics and keywords they talk about in real time.  Also analyze the words that other people use when tagging, tweeting, and reblogging their stories.  I don't just want a list of career columnists who give resume tips. I want to know who is reviewing career websites and who isn't--and specifically ones focused on data and analytics or who have an interest in startups and innovation.  Computers can figure that out a lot faster than people can.

Media outlets need the same thing.  They need more information to sort through the pitches in their inbox.  Who are these people?  Are they backed by the right people?  If I were a reporter, I'd want to know that Path 101 is funded by folks like Fred Wilson, Brad Burnham, Scott Heiferman, Jeff Jarvis, etc., and has recently appeared in CNN/Money, VentureBeat, and Mashable.  Moreover, the fact that I was #61 on the SA 100, or that Hilary is a regular FooCamper might be of interest, too.   I'm not bragging...  I'm saying that if I was a journalist and thought of the PR process as an exchange, I would certainly equate some value the networks of the companies I choose to write about, all other things being equal.  I know I certainly go out of my way to try to connect up reporters who've helped me out with other people I know, like angels and VCs involved with us, their portfolio companies, etc.  If nothing else, reporters undoubtedly need some kind of filter, short of a background check, to figure out who's even legitimate.  I know I needed this when I was on the venture capital side getting inbound biz plan pitches.  Just because someone has the money to hire a PR firm doesn't necessarily make them the kind of people I might want to get involved with--but the interwebs can tell me a lot about "counterparty risk"--who I'm getting into this trade with?

Create a filterable, searchable open market for requests and pitches, with APIs, like Twitter, so I can have it on the web, desktop, e-mail, etc.  Mailing lists and Twitter accounts are archaic... and force people to sift through a whole bunch of irrelevant stuff.  When a reporter asks for new resources for career guidance, not only does that person get our Path 101 info, but so does anyone else writing something similar. Give reporters the analytics around how much coverage a company is getting, how recent, etc--make the whole process transparent.

With historical analytics, I should be able to go back in time and say "Show me all of the reporters that wrote about NotchUp and sort by rating and by most recent date of relevant stories."

At the same time, reporters should be able to create saved searches for "career resource", "career guidance", etc. so that they can see a running ticker of what's being pitched.  Why should they have to wait to be pitched?  When investors want companies that have Low P/E's, they can screen for that.  Why can't reporters screen the universe of pitches?

Allow for ratings on both sides. Some reporters write really thoughtful pieces, even when negative, and others are obviously mailing it in.  Let PR folks and companies rate the reporters. Undoubtedly, some startups are a total PITA.  If you get spammed by the same startup everyday, as a reporter you should be able to ding them.  It should be easy for a reporter to find out who is generally useful to talk about a particular topic regardless if they have something to pitch. Rating expertise on both sides would be great.

The other thing about ratings on pitches would be to allow specific feedback.  If I pitch a reporter, they should be able to easily click something to move on to the next one, but at the same time give me some feedback.   A stock set of responses to choose from would be great: 

"Interesting, but I have enough for this request already."

"My mandate has changed."

"Too early."

"Not relevant."

On top of that, they could suggest future contact with another click:

"Let's talk in the future."

"Please don't contact me anymore."

"Let's talk right now.  Call me."

Otherwise, your pitches will probably go into a black hole.  Who has time to respond to every single pitch they get by e-mail?

Also, let's come up with some objective ratings on traffic and influence. Did the story drive any traffic? How much? Was it reblogged, tweeted by others?   Did the users convert?  This is really what companies care about.  It's great that a site gets a ton of traffic, but if the users from that site never convert, what's the point?

What would this do to PR firms?  The general availability of great financial research tools to the public hasn't made the mutual fund and investment manager industry go away, has it?  No.  So there's no reason to think that PR firms need to go away.  Great tools should be able to cater to PR firms and individuals at companies who want to do their own PR alike, the same as in investing.  We're far from great tools at the moment and what's out there costs entirely too much for the amount of work it still leaves you with.