Public Relations Writing: Memos
The subject is Planning Memos, Backgrounders, and Other Written
Communications -- some of the most important public relations writing
you're likely to do.
Public Relations writers are
moving into the executive suite. Their work used to be mainly publicity, including
press relations. Today they're playing a role in making policy, helping their
firms or clients not only communicate what they're already doing, but figure
out what to do next. It used to be that the CEO track ran through the finance
department -- from CFO to CEO. Today the career track now often runs from PR
Writer to Director of Communications, to Senior V.P. for Corporate
Communications to CEO.
The PR Writer is often in a
position to "sum it all up" in ways that no one other person in the firm is able
to accomplish. That's a position of considerable influence.
The PR Writer is one of the most
knowledgeable people about all aspects of the business -- few other
people in the firm have regular, friendly, open access to every area of activity.
The PR Writer therefore is widely known
throughout the firm, and has friends and personal resources at every
The PR Writer is well-known in the
industry, outside the firm. PR writers maintain close
relationships with their peers -- the PR writers for other firms. Their work is
also highly visible to the executives of other firms. That visibility means
they are more independent (it's easier for them to switch jobs if necessary, or
to land new clients) -- and that in turn affects their self-confidence and
respect within their own firm.
The PR Writer works closely with the board
of directors and the executive leadership. Even at entry level,
it's not unheard of for a young PR Writer to be asked to join the attorneys and
top executives as they work out the final wording of a crucial press release,
or collaborate to shape press conferences and interviews.
The PR Writer often comes to represent the
firm. Eventually, after an amount of media exposure, even
the general public may come to regard an accomplished PR Writer as the
spokesperson for the organization.
The PR Writer is the one in touch with the
media, making friendships that not only make the job of
public relations easier to do, but add real value to a firm's total assets.
The PR Writer can often bring varied
external resources into a firm. An active,
connected PR Writer is going to network with others from very different walks
of life, staying in touch with the wider culture outside the firm. Since a PR
Writer is essentially a person who's paid to stay creative 24/7, he or she is
one of the firm's most valuable source of new ideas.
Above all, it is the PR Writer's own voice
that tends to become the voice of the organization. From
company newsletters to major speeches and public announcements, the mood or
spirit or tone of a PR Writer can put a human face on an organization -- one
that is not only calculated to advantage, but also spontaneous and genuine.
Organizational memos are where
our creative -- and executive -- talents begin to shine. Today's lesson is all about how to make the most of it all.
Think of the planning memo as
the "public face" of your Message Planner. Here is where you get immediate rewards from all that work
you put into doing the Message Planner right. It's where you get to "show
off" all the thinking you've put into your pre-writing.
A good PR Writer makes the
difficult look easy. Cool, calm and collected, no matter how
much flak is flying, a PR Writer is like a stage manager in a high school
production... the one with the clipboard who keeps track of everything, and
confidently perseveres even when temperamental actors fly off the handle and
lighting boards blow up and directors suddenly need a thunder machine a half
hour before show time. A good PR Writer is so unflappable that anyone who
didn't know better would think their job had no pressures or special
The planning memo is your
opportunity to let people see below the surface of your work. It makes clear just how much planning, creative imagination,
and experience have gone into the public relations planning you've been doing.
Oh, by the way: the planning
memo also helps you accomplish your PR task -- it's not just about making you look good. The planning memo
is an important tool for orchestrating your PR campaign and keeping all the
elements -- from the first press release all the way down to the last thank-you
letter after the last interview, all focused on delivering the same message.
What is a planning memo for?
You write a planning memo for
your boss. In a major PR campaign, it's the stage
between completing your Message Planner and beginning the hard work of putting
it all together. That doesn't mean you necessarily write a planning memo before
a press release -- the planning for your campaign may already have been done by
someone at a higher level. But wherever no formal, written plan has been done,
a planning memo can be appropriate -- even if you're at a low level of the PR
hierarchy in your firm.
You write a planning memo for
your client. If you're working independently, or as a
member of a small firm, one-on-one with your client, the planning memo is an
essential element of your collaboration. It tells the client exactly where
you're starting, and where you're heading, and serves as an instrument of
coordination between the client's expectations and what you intend to deliver.
You also write a planning memo
to get your entire team on the "same page." When you write and circulate a planning memo, it's an
opportunity for others to comment on and help you fine-tune your approach. It's
the best time for serious differences of opinion to surface, so you can talk
The planning memo helps you evaluate your progress. By stating clearly, up front, how you intend for your PR
strategy to unfold, you make it easy to determine, later, how well it worked.
It also becomes easier to understand where things took a different turn, and
how you can make improvements.
What does a planning memo look like?
Use your Message Planner as a
skeleton. You will be able to use the elements of
the Message Planner in putting together your planning memo.
A planning memo begins with a
situation analysis. You don't have to use those words (but
you can). The first paragraph should lay out the essential elements of the
"story" -- whatever it is that you're proposing your plan for.
- It might be the fact that "Evita"
is going into rehearsal, and that tickets are now on sale...
- It might be the fact that Wollmann and Wiess are planning a chain of Natgo
- It might be the fact that the student association is launching an
ambitious program of free meals for the homeless..
corresponds to the 5 W's.
The first graf
also outlines the objectives of your campaign. The first or second paragraph should go on to spell out what
you intend to accomplish, in connection with the PR campaign you're going to
propose. (I prefer shorter paragraphs, so I break this "first" graf into two "first" grafs.)
corresponds to the Objectives
Next comes your most important
original thinking: who cares? (in other words, So What?)
where you tell why it matters... Here's where you make it clear that the
activity you're taking on is important.
There are a thousand activities going on in your daily life, from international
crises to family events. Most of them are submerged into the background hum of
your existence, and only a few of them are elevated, for short periods of time,
into the top rank of your conscious priorities.
it important that "Evita"
is in rehearsal? Why is it important that Natgo
is offering a fuel alternative? If it doesn't address some social need, if it
doesn't spark some public curiosity or concern or interest, then why are you
considering a PR campaign around it.
doesn't mean that it's simply inherently important. All people are
"important," in the broad sense of the word. We know you love your
grandmother. She's very important to you. We know it's her birthday. But why
would an editor care?
corresponds to the angle
Now you lay out your message. You can introduce this paragraph with a simple statement,
something like, "The message we need to send is:" -- and then put the
message down on the paper.
especially important, because others on your team may want you to change your
message, or refocus it. Pay attention to the feedback to your planning memo.
This is your first message test -- almost like a focus group -- and you may be
well-advised to make some changes.
the planning memo has been circulated and accepted, it will be essential for
everyone to "stay on message"... that's why it's important for them
to buy into now, in advance... and for them to take ownership may involve their
input in sharpening or clarifying the message.
corresponds to the message.
Now you tell how you plan to
deliver the message. This is where you outline your intended
schedule of press activities that you will include in your PR campaign. We will
talk in more detail about PR campaigns later. For now, think in terms of
- an initial press release...
- a broadcast release...
- a PSA (if there's a non-profit angle)...
- development of a press kit...
- a second follow-up press release (for example, after an initial
release when tickets go on sale, another when performances are about to
begin, with some duplication of information, and some new information, but
the same message)...
- a feature release (perhaps a biographical profile) after the show
- pitch letters to arrange interviews
For a look at an actual PR campaign plan online, look at these pages from the National Council for Social
Studies. It's an advocacy campaign to promote social studies education.
There's also an earlier version that may be interesting as well: at this Public Relations Toolkit -- web page
What is a
backgrounder is a 3-5 page informational article that you provide to reporters
to help them with their research.
should read like an informational article from a general encyclopedia -- not
like a promotional piece from your client.
idea is that by supplying this backgrounder you will make it unnecessary for
the reporter to do a Web search or page through an encyclopedia, to find
additional background material on the subject of a story.
fields of public relations, backgrounders are called "white papers"
(because they're plain, unembellished manuscripts), but not all white papers
True white papers are "position papers,"
providing an in-depth rationale for your client's policies. They are an important
PR tool for some PR campaigns. Backgrounders, however, are not directly about
your client, and probably won't even mention your client's name.
What would a backgrounder be about?
if you're doing a press campaign on a student-organized food drive, you might
want to provide a backgrounder on the problems of hunger and homelessness,
nationwide or in your state.
maybe you're doing a press campaign in connection with the opening of a
production of "Evita" by your theater
company. If you're trying to place a feature on the "show biz"
politics of Peron's Argentina and a comparison with current American political
antics, you might want to prepare a backgrounder on the history of the period,
complete with apt comparisons.
you're pitching a feature article on the phenomenon of rock operas you might
want to do a backgrounder on the development of that form, from concept albums
like those of The Beatles, to "Tommy" by The Who, to "Jesus
Christ Superstar," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and other compositions of Andrew Lloyd
Webber and lyrics of Tim Rice.
prepare your backgrounder, be sure to keep notes of your sources, and include
them in the text -- either as footnotes or, more conveniently, as (parenthetical)
insertions. This way the reporter can get the full value of your research, and
will be able to credit your sources, not you (or, "a company
spokesperson"), as the authority behind the observations.
What does a
backgrounder look like?
be a plain-looking document without any hype -- put your name and contact
information on it, but no release date.
headline, and then use subheads to break up the copy. Single space it, with
double spaces between paragraphs. Come to think of it, it should look more or
less like the Web page you're reading now (with or without the indents). The
subheads don't need to be as frequent as these Q&A subheads are -- but they
more important is what a backgrounder does not look like -- it does not look like a promotional piece. It
looks more like an essay you wrote for school, except more readable. :-)
reporter begins to feel that you're "spinning" him with promotional
pap, the backgrounder will lose its usefulness. It will become just an add-on
to your press release.
course, you are spinning the reporter, just by what
you select to emphasize and what you leave out. That's the idea of a
backgrounder. If a reporter were to do his own research, you don't know what
direction that might take... but by providing a backgrounder, you can gently
steer the reporter down the lane you want to travel -- toward the PR message
you have so carefully crafted.
What is a
backgrounder NOT about?
things that would not be appropriate for a backgrounder would
be a biographical profile of the CEO of the firm, or the leader of the student
food drive, or the actress playing the title role of "Evita."
That would be a "Biographical Profile." Or a company history of your
client's firm. That would be a document titled, Oh I don't know, "Company
and other items are useful to include in a press kit, to provide additional
information for reporters to work with. But they are notbackgrounders,
and don't do for you what a backgrounder will do.
briefly noted above, position papers are also useful for many PR occasions.
During rare quiet times, PR professionals will prepare an array of position
papers explaining ongoing company policies. These will come in handy later,
when reporters are asking for more detailed information about breaking news --
you will have already completed the foundation work and you'll be able to
concentrate on immediate matters.
the difference between position papers and backgrounders, one textbook1 writes
tend to be heavy on facts and light on opinion. Position papers are heavy on
opinion or interpretation, supported by only a few selected facts...
For example, a backgrounder might deal with alternate fuel vehicles (AFV's) to reduce emissions that are contributing to global
warming, whereas a position paper would argue for the use of natural gas-fueled
vehicles (NGV's) as a solution.
Backgrounders provide information, position papers argue. Again, the simplest
way to describe the backgrounder is as a short, readable, credible document,
with neutral sources identified -- no hype or company promotion of any kind --
that the reporter will trust for basic background information as much as he or
she would trust an article from Encyclopedia Britannica.
that this strict definition of a backgrounder conflicts with what you'll hear
or read in some texts, from practitioners who have a more careless outlook on
the disciplines of PR writing.
How do I write
is by the numbers --
- Start with an overall theme. What is the conclusion you might put in the
final paragraph? Write it down now -- eventually you're going to put it
in the very first paragraph.
- Do your research. Go online, dig into news clips -- wherever you
need to go to get good information. You are going to ask reporters to
depend on the quality of your information, so don't skimp on this part of
the writing. Besides creating a valuable piece of background information,
you will be building solid long-term relationships with reporters as they
learn they can count on you for dependable info to make them look good.
way, your research may cause you to alter the premise of your overall theme in
item #1 above.
- Plan your work in three parts:
Introduction (your conclusion will go here)
Conclusion (restate the point of your introduction)
- Now do your pre-writing -- create an outline, or at least a list of the
points you need to establish to support your theme. You will need an organizing principle -- chronological, cause and
effect, analogy, etc. The library is full of writing books listing more
or less the same ideas as these taken from a writer's reference 2 .
if your backgrounder were going to deal with the history of Peron's Argentina
-- here are some possibilities:
Put your points in order. When you've finished your list of points to
make, figure out how they should unfold. You are going to want them to
support your "conclusion" (which is not only your conclusion
but your opening statement) -- and you are going to want them to lead the
reader logically through to a restatement of the opening statement -- the
Now do the writing. Make each point in order, devoting a paragraph
to each. Where you need to add supporting points to support your main points, feel free to add
paragraphs. If you were doing a formal outline, these would be separate
numbers, 1-2-3, as in
- Chronological sequence: How did things get to be this way? What was
the process? Your backgrounder might recount the history or biography of
the Perons, from one key date to the next.
- Comparison and contrast: Sometimes it is useful to make clear what your
subject is not -- if that can help explain
what it is. You can
start with something comparable, and then outline the distinctions. For
"Evita," perhaps a
comparison/contrast with Jackie Kennedy.
- Analogy: Unlike the comparison/contrast, an analogy
takes an entirely different type of subject and draws comparisons. In
the "Evita" example, an analogy
could compare Eva's story to a fairy tale.
- Cause and effect: Maybe it's important to know what were the
things that led to the present situation. Or, conversely, maybe it's
important to know what the effects will be if the present state
continues. What were the causes of Eva Peron's rise to power? What were
the consequences of her "sainthood" status among her devotees?
- Classification/division: Often you can find the natural groupings in your
subject, the fault lines that characterize its stages or categories. For
"Evita" it might be her
effectiveness as (a) a performer, (b) a political organizer, (c) a
- Definition: Especially if the theme is conceptual, your
best start may be by defining a term. What is "leadership"?
Your theme might be the ironic notion that a charismatic woman showed
more leadership than the military dictator she married.
(supporting point #1)
2. (supporting point #2)
3. (supporting point #3)
you do not need to do a formal outline unless it
- Now put it aside and do something else for an hour, or for the rest of the day.
- Revise and rewrite.
Finally, edit yourself ruthlessly. You might want to put the work aside again
before doing this.
- Start by taking a fresh look at your
conclusion. Do you still like it?
- Polish it, change it if necessary.
- Then come up with a lively lead -- a story
that illustrates your point, or an arresting image, or a poignant
quotation from Bartlett's,
or a paradox.
- Now continue down through your paragraphs,
sharpening and rewording. Are you including everything you need to
support your theme?
- Now rewrite your conclusion, making sure that
your point is clear.
- Overall, did you provide the information you
set out to provide? Anything left out?
your backgrounder start with a compelling paragraph?
you deliver your message clearly in the beginning of the piece?
you sum it all up with a restatement of the message in your final paragraph?
the main points in the best order?
you examined it for "spin"? Are you satisfied there's no overt hype?
Does it read like an encyclopedia article?
you supported every important assertion with some authority that the reporter
can depend on?
your paragraphs more or less proportional to each point, so you haven't gone
off on a tangent?
what can you delete -- repetitions, aimless sentences, vague references.
the four-page discussion of Planning Memos & Backgrounders
1 Public Relations
Writing: Form and Style by
Doug Newsom and Bob Carrell, 6th ed., Wadsworth Publishing Company. Back to
2 A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker, 2nd ed., Bedford
Books of St. Martin's Press. Back to