Today, I'm going to explain to you in simple terms how to get a feature story placement for your clients. I use the word "clients" because I'm writing this for media relations specialists at PR agencies, but these same principles and tactics also apply if you work on the in-house PR team.
Before we jump into feature story pitching tactics and our tips on how to get a feature story placement, it's helpful to make sure we are in agreement on this question: What is a feature story?
Journalism's Take on What a Feature Story Is
In the world of journalism, a feature story is an article that is not a news story.
Feature stories are typically more original than news stories. For this reason, you rarely see the same feature story running in multiple media outlets.
Feature stories take more time to write than news stories and they are usually more creative, more descriptive, and more subjective. Whereas a news reporter will often quickly cover What, Who, When and Where and be done with a story, a feature reporter will cover those as well but will also delve into several long and nuanced variations of How and Why, writing a much more extensive story that touches on concepts, ideas, impact, and cause and effect.
While they may have a tie-in to the news, feature stories don't usually cover something that happened in the last, say, 24 hours. A news story, on the other hand, covers something that is brand spanking new, by definition.
In other words, a news story always covers events that happened recently. If a news story is written and it isn't published relatively quickly, there's no point in publishing it; no media outlet likes to report "old news" that everybody already knows. In contrast, if a completed feature story doesn't run today, or even this week, it's not the end of the world because feature stories have a much longer shelf life than news stories.
PR's Take on What a Feature Story Is
Now, we've got a baseline on what a feature story is and we understand the feature story versus news story dynamic from a Journalism 101 perspective. But we should clarify that these definitions are what is taught in journalism school, and in the world of PR we think about feature stories a little differently.
In PR, a feature story is a story that features our clients -- in a big way. The story doesn't just mention our client. It prominently features our client.
For us, a news story can be a feature story if it's predominantly about our client. Similarly, a journalist's feature article, as defined in the pure journalistic sense, doesn't constitute a feature article to us if our client only gets a very minor mention.
If our client's name is in the title of an article, that's a feature story. If there's a huge picture of our client's CEO in an article, that's a feature story. And, to be sure, the best feature story for those of us who work in PR is the coveted cover story.
OK, so now you know what a PR agency pro means when they say they've scored a feature story placement for their client.
Stick with me. We'll get to the feature story pitching tactics and tips in a second.
How to Get a Feature Story Placement -- What You Need to Know
Forget what we've discussed above about journalism's definition of a feature story, because from now on we're only talking about how to get clients a feature story in the PR sense -- a story that is focused completely or predominantly on them.
Not an article about some broad topic or news item where our client is briefly quoted as an expert once or twice. Not an article that cites a clever study or survey that we helped our client to conceptualize and execute. We're talking about a story that is 80% or more about the client -- a media placement that highlights something interesting about them, that explains what they do, goes into extensive detail about who they are and where they came from, and that makes a compelling case that they are worth knowing.
Alright, enough prelude. Here's what you need to know about pitching feature stories.
- Not Applicable to All Clients - You get the press you deserve. If the client is not doing something interesting, something new or something big, odds are you won't get a feature. If the client is a commodity, with dozens of others doing the exact same thing, your client doesn't deserve a feature and you won't get one.
- Don't Fake It 'Til You Make It - You can't fake feature worthiness. If you are struggling to make the story interesting and can't do it easily, an experienced journalist will see through the smoke and mirrors. Don't risk your credibility by trying to make something more newsworthy and noteworthy than it really is.
- Packaging Is Everything - Assuming your client deserves a feature, you will be up against many other worthy candidates. As such, you have to make the case to the journalist in a highly compelling fashion. If you don't package it up well, you won't get a feature. You have to bring them to the point where they can envision the story and they want to see their name on the byline.
- Your Reputation Matters - Your reputation, knowledge and track record working with the journalist matter. Do you have the credibility to say that something is truly interesting and be believed? You should always be working to build a trusting relationship with journalists. Even if you don't have a client that warrants a feature story now, you are planting reputation seeds now that will make it easier for you to get a feature story when you have a client that truly deserves feature coverage.
- Make Sure They Write Features - Many journalists don't write feature stories about companies, products or executives. There's no point in pitching a feature story to a journalist who doesn't write them.
- Deconstruct Success to Crack the Code - Publications have a formula for what constitutes a good feature story or cover story, and every media outlet is different. For example, Forbes cover stories often mention dollar figures in the billions or trillions. They feature young people who have had incredible success. They feature people who are changing the world in a big way. They feature upstarts who are taking down giants or firms that are on the verge of a massive IPO. The Chicago Tribune, in contrast, does feature stories on companies that are having a meaningful and novel impact on the Chicago economy, and there are a number of other archetypes for Chicago Tribune feature stories. Your job is to reverse engineer the feature stories for an outlet and see if you can legitimately fit their pattern. If so, move forward. If not, move on. This is probably the most important takeaway for today: understand the archetypes that make for a feature story and see if your client is a fit.
- A Few Essentials - Companies have to either have market traction or an affiliation with greatness to get a feature story. Market traction means that the journalist can find tons of evidence that what you are saying about the company is really true, e.g. they've landed tons of big deals, experts say that are onto something amazing, etc. If the company doesn't yet have market traction, they need an affiliation with greatness. If Dick Costollo, CEO of Twitter, opens a coffee shop, that's an affiliation with greatness that makes the story interesting, even though it's a run-of-the-mill coffee shop. If Warren Buffett invests in a startup, that's an affiliation with greatness that helps you get a feature. If a company has plans to change the world but has no market traction, outside validation or affiliation with greatness, it will be very tough to pitch a feature story.
- Client Background Stories Can Tip the Scale in Your Favor - An interesting personal background can help an otherwise uninteresting client get a feature story. Maybe your client was a former NBA pro and is now starting a venture. Maybe your client is working on a new product that solves the problem that made them lose a loved one years ago. Maybe they were fired and then set up a new business in the same industry and now dominate their former company. An interesting personal angle can tilt the scales in the right way when a story is just borderline feature worthy.
- Know the Journalist - Your outreach has to be hand-crafted for the journalist you are working with. A generic email blast pitching a feature is a recipe for failure. Don't ever do it. Instead, you should constantly be reading what is written/published by the journalists and editors you work with. Then, tailor your interactions with them based on your knowledge of them -- what they like, what they need, what their audience wants.
- Prioritize - Don't just send your pitch to ten outlets at once. Spray and pray mode never works, especially for a feature story. Offer the story to the best-fit outlet and journalist. IF they pass, move on to your #2 and keep going.
- Start Their Homework for Them - Give them enough for a feature story. Don't just send a short pitch that explains the story at a high level. Instead, include in the pitch everything that would help the outlet to get the story done well and efficiently. Find experts (e.g. industry analysts) for them to interview. Find statistics or research that might be useful. Line up customers for them to talk to. Journalists will react to this differently. Some will love that you've made their job easier. Others would rather do the leg work on their own. But you should do this regardless. Put yourself in their shoes. If you have a feature story idea in hand, but you can tell you'll have to climb a mountain to get the story done, how does that compare to a feature story in hand where all you'll have to do is climb a small hill? Most people will appreciate that you've taken the time to make their lives easier.
- Follow-Up Is Key - Be persistent, but not so persistent that you are annoying. In some cases, you may have to update a journalist on a client's progress for multiple months before you hit the tipping point of getting a feature story. If your mode is to ask once and give up when you don't get a response, that's not a recipe for success. Always follow up because it's possible that your counterpart at the media outlet was on a big deadline when you first reached out to them. At the same time, if they've told you before that once is enough, don't harass them with additional outreach.
- The Client Must Rise to the Occasion - Be confident in your client. A meek or inarticulate client will strike out when you get them an at-bat for a feature story. You have to have a client that can rise to the occasion with confidence and capability. If you don't have that, you can try to media train them to get them there. If they can't get there, maybe a feature story is not the right strategy.
- Meeting a Journalist Is Golden - Get your client into situations where they will meet journalists. While PR folks are appreciated by many journalists, there's definitely a large population of journalists who prefer to find their own stories. Make sure your client attends conferences (ideally speaking at them) and other events that might allow them to meet journalists. That personal connection is very important. (Even when you are acting as a middleman to introduce the outlet to your client, it's best to get out of the way as soon as possible.)
There you have it – 14 important things you need to know about how to get a feature story placement for a client.
What did I forget? Any tips you'd like to offer up based on your experience getting feature story placements? Please contribute to the conversation by posting a comment below.