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 level.

         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 requirements.

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 them through.

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 stores...
  • It might be the fact that the student association is launching an ambitious program of free meals for the homeless..

This 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.)

This corresponds to the Objectives

Next comes your most important original thinking: who cares? (in other words, So What?)

Here's 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.

Why is 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.

"Important" 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?

This 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.

This is 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.

Once 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.

This 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 has opened
  • 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?

A backgrounder is a 3-5 page informational article that you provide to reporters to help them with their research.

It should read like an informational article from a general encyclopedia -- not like a promotional piece from your client.

The 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.

In some fields of public relations, backgrounders are called "white papers" (because they're plain, unembellished manuscripts), but not all white papers are backgrounders.

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?

Well, 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.

Or 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.

Or if 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.

As you 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?

It will be a plain-looking document without any hype -- put your name and contact information on it, but no release date.

Use a 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 could be.

What's 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. :-)

If a 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.

Of 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?

Some 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 History," perhaps.

These 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.

As I 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.

Explaining the difference between position papers and backgrounders, one textbook1 writes

Backgrounders 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.

Get it? 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.

Note 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 a backgrounder?

Here it is by the numbers --

    1. 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.
    2. 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.

By the way, your research may cause you to alter the premise of your overall theme in item #1 above.

    1. Plan your work in three parts:

I. Introduction (your conclusion will go here)

II. Body

III. Conclusion (restate the point of your introduction)

    1. 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 .

What if your backgrounder were going to deal with the history of Peron's Argentina -- here are some possibilities:

      • 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 charismatic leader.
      • 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.
    1. 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 conclusion.
    2. 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

I. (section)

A. (main point)

1. (supporting point #1)
2. (supporting point #2)
3. (supporting point #3)

...but you do not need to do a formal outline unless it helps you.

    1. Now put it aside and do something else for an hour, or for the rest of the day.
    2. Revise and rewrite.
      • 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.
    3. Finally, edit yourself ruthlessly. You might want to put the work aside again before doing this.
      • Overall, did you provide the information you set out to provide? Anything left out?

         Does your backgrounder start with a compelling paragraph?

         Did you deliver your message clearly in the beginning of the piece?

         Did you sum it all up with a restatement of the message in your final paragraph?

         Are the main points in the best order?

         Have you examined it for "spin"? Are you satisfied there's no overt hype? Does it read like an encyclopedia article?

         Have you supported every important assertion with some authority that the reporter can depend on?

         Are your paragraphs more or less proportional to each point, so you haven't gone off on a tangent?

         Finally, what can you delete -- repetitions, aimless sentences, vague references.


This concludes 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 text

2 A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker, 2nd ed., Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press. Back to text