Many of the media databases, source listings and monitoring services that are widespread in the public relations industry cost thousands of dollars annually, which can be prohibitive for many independent PR practitioners and small businesses. Yet as new online tools continue to gain popularity in the communication fields, opportunities to refine pitching skills and increase reach have become readily available. Here are five such tools PR professionals can use for free:

HARO Connects Journalists with Sources, Increases Press Opportunities for PR Professionals

In 2008, PR Veteran Peter Shankman revolutionized news gathering practices with Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which helps journalists locate relevant sources. Reporters, editors and reputable bloggers submit online queries to the HARO staff, and the requests are compiled and e-mailed to potential sources three times every weekday.

Anyone can opt-in to receive these e-mails from the HARO, provided he or she agrees not to SPAM or e-mail off-topic pitches to journalists. For experienced PR pros, this should be common knowledge.

Within its first year, HARO penetrated media markets of all sizes around the United States, and it has opened up a new world of press opportunities for PR professionals to leverage for their clients and respective companies. Yet in order to secure interviews, it’s usually necessary to respond to queries quickly. By April 2009, more than 75,000 sources had signed up for the service, according to a Scott Gerber’s profile of Shankman in Entrepreneur, which can make the competition stiff for competing sources.

Gobbledygook Grader Analyzes Content for Press Releases

Effective press release writing is as much an art as it is a science. Hubspot’s Gobbledygook Grader has an online form in which users can submit their press releases (or any other piece of marketing collateral) to have it checked for gobbledygook, jargon, clichés and over-used words. A grade and full report is e-mailed to the submitter.

PR writers who make an effort to understand the reasons behind the revisions and apply the lessons learned will likely communicate more effectively and concisely over time, increasing their audiences’ comprehension of desired subjects.

PitchEngine Helps PR Practitioners Leverage Social Media and Multimedia

PitchEngine is an online tool that allows users to create social media releases, or SMRs. Often used in tandem with the traditional press release, SMRs feature links, social bookmarks, photos, graphics, videos, RSS feeds and a bulleted, quick-facts approach. An SMR can aid search engine optimization and help spread messages through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

PitchEngine users can create an SMR for free and the content will remain visible on the Web for 30 days. Companies can pay a reasonable fee to keep releases posted online indefinitely and to create SMR newsrooms. All SMRs are distributed to Google News and through RSS feeds.

PR Pros Can Build Journalist Relationships Through Twitter

Hundreds of journalists and news organizations are active on Twitter, a micro-blogging service that allows users to communicate with each other and post news in 140 characters or less. Many are seeking tips and story ideas via tweets, so attentive followers can acquire press coverage and build relationships with timely responses.

Several PR pros and social media experts pooled their connections to develop the Media on Twitter Database. This is the most comprehensive listing for Twittering journalists at the local, national and international levels. Journalists are categorized by state, media outlet and beat.

Google Alerts Track Online News

Google Alerts monitor the frequency of specified terms on the Web. Submit a search term, such as a company name or executive, and Google will send you an e-mail each time the term appears online. It’s an effective way to monitor company news, industry trends or competitors’ behavior. The alert can be restricted to search terms that appear on news sites, blogs or videos. Terms with multiple words should be entered into the system with quote marks.

While many resources for PR professionals are costly, free resources are also available that help practitioners expand their networks and refine their pitching and writing skills. As these online tools foster new introductions, more newsworthy stories and fresh ideas will reach the public.