How to Respond to a SOS Query

HARO helps your brand get free PR
Credit: Kelly Sikkema

Source of Sources (SOS, formerly Help A Reporter Out) is a free service that connects writers and journalists with reliable sources. It’s a pretty easy process: A writer posts a query on a topic and lets readers know the qualifications. Topics come from all different sectors — business, health, travel, you name it. Potential sources then email the writer explaining how they’re a good fit for inclusion in the story. The writer might follow up with the source or they might just use the copy you provided in the email. Either way, if you send the right pitch, you stand a chance of receiving some free digital ink (online press).

Benefits of Using SOS

The SOS service can be beneficial in numerous ways, the most important being:

  1. You can boost your credibility in your field by being seen as an expert source.
  2. You might get a link back to your website.
  3. You might drive more traffic to your site, either through the backlink or by readers Googling you after reading the story.

If you’re in a niche market, you might not see a lot of queries that pertain to you. (In the past year, for example, I’ve only seen one that pertains to my environmental consulting client.) In such cases, it might not make sense to spend the time scanning the three daily emails of queries that are delivered to your inbox.

Pre-Prepared Info for SOS

But if you’re a Siteseeing client, we’ll scan those thrice-daily emails that for you — for free. We send you the query and, if you think it’s a match, you have the option of replying yourself or having us do it for you. Since many clients prefer the latter, I try to have the following prepared well ahead of time, as the deadlines for replying can be rather tight:

  • Boilerplate info about you or your company. This can be similar to what is often included at the bottom of press releases. Some clients prep two or three such paragraphs, one for each of their areas of expertise. For example, an automotive entrepreneur who recently wrote a book might have one with a focus on automotive experience and one describing the book. You might also have boilerplates with different tones — casual vs. formal, humorous vs. straightforward. Be sure to include contact info, especially a phone number and website.
  • Photos. These can be of you, the company, or your products — or all three. (Note that you should not send photos as attachments unless they are expressly asked for, as some journalists’ systems might automatically flag email with attachments as spam.)
  • Press landing page. Since you don’t want to overwhelm the SOS writer with too much information, you can instead provide a link to a press kit on your website that contains more info and/or downloadable photos. In fact, some clients prefer to create such a landing page because it can be useful for more places than just SOS. You can also just include the link and skip the boilerplate and photos mentioned above, although that always leaves the possibility the writer won’t click it.

What to Include in Your SOS Pitch

For my own business, I respond to one SOS query per week, on average, and I’ve had a roughly 80% success rate getting picked up. I credit that to pitching only those queries that are directly relevant and to the structure I use in my response email (which I modeled after the three-paragraph pitches I send to editors for writing assignments). I also make sure my subject line says: “SOS: [original query title].”

Here’s how those paragraphs break down:

  1. Answer the query. This may sound obvious, but having been a writer looking for sources for stories, I can tell you that a lot of responses don’t even include this. I’ve had people write “I’m perfect for your story. Contact me to find out more.” Since I usually get about 50 responses, those are the first to get tossed. I then look for those that answer all of my questions. So if an SOS query has four questions bulleted out, be sure to answer each, preferably in the order they are asked. And when at all possible, start your query off with a hook, preferably one that relates back to the subject being queried.
  2. Explain why you/your company/your product fits the criteria. The headline of a query might sound like it pertains to you but you might not meet the qualifications. For example, if a query headline reads, “Unique Tips for Saving for a House” and the criteria says you must be a financial expert, don’t reply if you are a homeowner or a real estate agent.
  3. Tell where the writer can find further info. You can say you’re available for follow-up, provide a link to your online press kit, or let the writer know if there’s someone else they should contact (such as your PR rep). You can also use your boilerplate paragraph here, if it fits the tone of the pitch.

Your response needs to find the right balance of promoting yourself without seeming like you’re promoting yourself. Really what your goal should be is to help the writer fulfill the needs for their story, so make sure that that — not self-promotion — is your goal.

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