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The PR guy who's trying to make PR obsolete

Reporters are fond of writing about “industries ripe for disruption” and “streamlined supply chains.” But you know what industry hasn’t been disrupted in a while? You know where the middleman still reigns supreme? Reporting.

So says Ryan Evans, a PR guy who wants to make PR obsolete. Evans operates his own PR agency, BiteSize, out of an office on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. And out of BiteSize comes SourceSleuth, Evans’s idea to reverse the flow of information between public relations and journalists. “The public relations process is backward,” he says.

Currently, the process looks something like this: PR reps send pitches about clients out to reporters, who almost always ignore them. Then, when a reporter needs a source, she ends up ignoring the PR rep, whose client list is limited, in favor of searching on Google or scrolling through her Twitter feed.

“It only works a small fraction of the time, and that doesn’t make any sense,” says Evans. “What if it were the opposite way?”

SourceSleuth, which Evans launched about a year ago, pairs experts eager to get their name out there with journalists who need a reputable source before the clock strikes deadline. For example, a reporter needing a business professor who studies millennial trends in Portugal can email Evans’s team at SourceSleuth. Within 24 hours, they’ll have tracked down an academic who’s conversant in the urban youth culture of Lisbon.

SourceSleuth is nice for reporters, but it simply shifts the burden of heavy Googling to Evans’s squad. And that’s time-consuming, no matter how large your network is. Which leads to the question, what’s in it for Evans and BiteSize?

Evans has pinned his business model on the hope that he’ll have the first shot at finding media opportunities for clients. If none of his clients fits the reporter’s request, SourceSleuth’s researchers will then look outside the family. As the number of queries increases — Evans estimates requests have been growing 25 percent a month — SourceSleuth has more opportunities to find space for its clients in write-ups.

“It’s not a PR agency as people typically think of it,” Evans says. “A lot of clients are essentially paying us to keep an eye out for media opportunities, so the idea is that if we can grow the numbers of media opportunities, we can grow our client list in the PR business.”

In order to keep the enterprise afloat, SourceSleuth’s six employees need to work quickly to help reporters – time spent searching for sources must be less than the value added for clients mentioned in the media. Currently, the number of SourceSleuth enquiries that are applicable to BiteSize’s client list is fairly low. Evans declined to disclose a specific percentage, but he says the overwhelming majority of experts he turns up are unaffiliated with his PR service.

“Yes, we do want to expand the percentage but more than that we want to increase the volume of inquires from journalists and increase the number of BiteSize PR clients,” he says.

That model makes some uncomfortable. Michael Deas, a lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and a former editor at the Chicago Tribune, says he would be cautious about utilizing a sourcing service that maintains financial ties to the experts it presents to journalists. “If there is an economic component, that does make it somewhat problematic, anytime there’s money involved,” he says.

In additional to ethical concerns, SourceSleuth must compete with longstanding services like Help a Reporters Out [HARO] and ProfNet, which blast reporter requests out to email lists thousands deep. Evans aims to differentiate his business by offering one or two relevant sources so that reporters don’t have to sift through dozens of emails from self-proclaimed experts.

Evans’ colleagues in the PR world acknowledge that his model poses a compelling solution to many challenges affecting their industry. Changes that buffet journalism, such as increased demands for content and fewer free hours, also have a far-ranging impact on public relations.

“When I started in this business, people took reporters out for lunch for three hours — they didn’t necessarily have three martinis — but then you made your pitch,” says Marian Kurz, owner of PR firm Kurz & Co. “But nobody has that sort of time anymore. I don’t think there’s anyone in our business who couldn’t benefit from [new tools], because how in the world are you going to absorb all this stuff?”

Eric Herman, ASGK Public Strategies’ managing director, thinks the best reporters don’t rely on releases anyway. He says he uses PR Newswire occasionally to release announcements, but there’s no substitute for having “an interesting story and knowing reporters, sometimes knowing them personally but at a minimum knowing their work.”

“Reporters are the ones that have a lot on their plate, and that continues to be the case and I think is increasingly the case,” Herman says. “That just shows you why very often you need more than just a press release that is going into someone’s email box. You need to have individual conversations between human beings.”