Reverse Engineering: It’s for PR Pros, Too

Reverse engineering: the process of extracting knowledge or design information from anything man-made and reproducing it or reproducing anything based on the extracted information. The process often involves disassembling something and analyzing its components and workings in detail. –Wikipedia

Ever wonder why a pitch you shipped out to 5, 10, or even more reporters garnered little or no response? How about a pitch you “customized” and sent to just 1 or 2 people?

Sometimes a compelling story is not enough. The most successful pitches not only match a reporter’s beat and have an interesting hook; they match their style.

Enter reverse engineering. It’s for PR pros, too.

Reverse engineering is one of the most helpful processes I’ve used to educate my pitching. I’ve also used it as a training exercise for young PR pros learning the ropes of media outreach – especially to business press, where the necessary components of a story are less obvious.

Getting inside the reporters head and presenting your story in their style works – well. Even if you’re not targeting that particular reporter with a pitch, it’s a worthwhile exercise in rethinking your pitching approach.

Here are a few ways to pitch reporters like a partner to co-tell a story with.

Dissect multiple articles and uncover commonalities

Read through a reporter’s story history and figure out the go-to format, what they like to prove and what supporting points are always included. Do they always have three examples to create a trend? Do they always include an outside anecdote from an investor or customer?

Bruce Rogers’ Forbes Thought Leaders articles, for example, almost always have a mix of the following: a human interest angle (how a CEO got their idea/start); a pivot or revelation that led the company to success; market and company performance numbers; how the company is challenging the status quo.

I’ve secured a number of profiles with Bruce by pulling all his necessary ingredients into my pitch. Try it.

Mimic stories that have performed well

For better or worse, many journalists today are measured on the eyeballs they bring to the site. Figure out how to help them do that.

Awhile back, I was working to place a story on a company whose CEO had data science expertise. After a lot of research, I came across a VentureBeat article about CEOs who also knew how to code. I noticed it did particularly well on social.

I recreated that story – incorporating CEOs (beyond my client) to support the trend – and opened my pitch by mentioning how well a similar story had performed. It worked, and resulted in “5 data scientists who became CEOs — and are leading thriving companies.”

Write like they write

Figure out the template and take it one step further. Use their words – or at least the kinds of words they use.

Last week, I wrote my subject line like a Forbes contributor was writing a lot of his headlines (XXX Are Dead. Long Live YYYYY) and got a near-immediate response. Matching “voice” can help too. Does the reporter incorporate aspirational language, or use compose really straightforward sentences? Do they talk directly to their audience, or avoid using the second person (“you”)? This is a very nuanced part of your pitch, but helps a reporter envision the story they’ll write.

Reverse engineering is a great way to break in with one, specific reporter or to hone your ability to think like a reporter in general. It’s certainly more time-consuming to investigate one reporter’s style, approach and story requirements than to draft up what you think is a compelling pitch and ship it out to 5, 10, or even more reporters. But, in the end, it’s what’ll allow you to tell your clients stories.

Sarah Borup
Senior Account Manager

Posted on March 17, 2016 in Public Relations, Tools, Writing

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