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A corporate feature in a mainstream publication is the PR equivalent of a home run.

No question, PR is constantly swinging for the fences. Unfortunately, the success rate for PR is more Duane Kuiper (below) than Babe Ruth.

Obviously, a number of variables come into play in determining whether a journalist and the bosses green light a corporate feature. Still, it’s fair to say that the No. 1 reason journalists ignore pitches for corporate stories is a mismatch of content. What PR is “selling” doesn’t align with how journalists from mainstream media construct a corporate feature.

Taking this premise a step further, I reverse-engineered the 1,500+ word New York Times corporate feature on Slack (not a client) by Katie Benner.

You can check out the breakdown of the content type below.

1500+ Word Corporate Feature on Slack

It turns out that the Slack CEO knows how to turn a phrase — “Taking Slack away could become ‘like taking off your astronaut helmet in space’” — but this dimension plays a secondary role, adding color as opposed to substance.

It’s revealing to scrutinize the three largest content buckets.

The first involves the challenges ahead of Slack which inevitably overlap into failure (or the potential of failure). PR doesn’t think this way, typically painting a pristine picture with the sun shining and the birds chirping. Yet, it’s the friction — and possibility of something going horribly awry – that underpins storytelling from the journalist’s perspective. That’s why Slack’s competitors such as Microsoft and Facebook have a role in the story.

One company in isolation can’t create the needed friction for the storytelling. There’s an argument to be made that PR should proactively set the stage for the competitive drama. The journalist is going down this path anyway. Why not get the brownie point and strengthen the pitch?

Of course, PR is going to put forth a proposition that depicts the company in a winning position. Makes perfect sense. But communicating this with a bunch of generalities does not advance the cause. Instead, journalists depend on anecdotes — like the one on Slack’s Vancouver office — to breathe realness into the story and craft a more entertaining narrative:

“In Slack’s office in Vancouver, British Columbia, designers think about things like color choice, layout and Slack’s sign-in greeting, and how they might affect a customer’s peace of mind.”

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The third content type that forms the foundation for the feature is what I’ve come to call “sausage making” — in this case how Slack came to be and what’s now happening behind the curtain. In a time when so much information is available to everyone with a click or two, these back stories can often be more interesting than the main story.

“In 2011, he introduced another game, Glitch, in which people cooperated to build a shared world. (Misbehaving players got a timeout.) At its height, the game was costing the company $500,000 a month and bringing in $30,000, so Mr. Butterfield shuttered it in late 2012. A few employees stayed on to build out the messaging platform that Glitch engineers had used to talk among themselves. That project became Slack.”

And yes, I would characterize losing $470,000 per month as a form of failure.

While third-party validation doesn’t constitute a major slice of the story, offering up customers was likely a requirement from the New York Times. I’m guessing that when Slack connected the NYT journalist with Capital One, the fact that Capital One also uses collaboration tools from competitors was not part of the messaging. From the journalist’s perspective, it’s a type of failure; albeit, with a small “f.”

One final point—

There’s always a quantifiable dimension to these corporate features. Along this line, you see numbers sprinkled across the Slack story:

  • Valued at $4 billion
  • Costing the company $500,000 a month and bringing in $30,000
  • Field 6,000 customer calls and 2,800 Twitter messages that come in each week
  • 5 million daily users
  • 5 million pay $6.50 to $12.50 per month
  • Will generate $200 million in revenue, but it is not profitable

It’s not easy to land a corporate feature in a top-tier publication. PR supply far outstrips journalism demand.

But the concepts extracted from this NYT feature would improve any corporate feature pitch. Teasing out the challenges, anecdotes, quantification and showing your willingness to take the journalist behind the curtain for an unfiltered look are the core building blocks that shape all corporate features.

Good luck swinging for the fences.

Side note: For more on shaping pitches for corporate features that will resonate with journalists, check out “How Does a B2B Customer Story Crack the Wall Street Journal.”
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  • Daily PR Brief - Tue 05/02/17 - ITK Blog

    […] Skills Matter in Business, Life and Healthcare (SHIFT Communications – May 2, 2017) PR Insights from Reverse Engineering a New York Times Corporate Feature (Ishmael’s Corner &#82… 4 in 10 Companies Are Looking for New PR Agencies—and Word of Mouth is Their Primary Resource […]

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