Public Relations Writing: Lesson #10 - p. 3

Secondary research for background material:

Journalists and PR writers alike use the same basic tools -- references, data bases, and the Internet.

Here are the basic reference works that every PR writer should have ready access to, and know how to use. You may be fortunate enough to have one or more of them in electronic form, on a CD or your hard drive, or in the cloud. Check with the school's library -- and with the local public library -- to see what other databases and resources are available to you:

  • A good dictionary

  • The Associated Press Stylebook

  • A current almanac, like The World Almanac

  • A good collection of quotations, like Bartlett's

  • A thesaurus

  • A handbook of English grammar

  • An authoritative encyclopedia, or access to Britannica.com

  • The phone book

There are also microfiche archives of daily newspapers available in the library -- just about any library -- which you should take advantage of. One of the best cheap dates I know of is the "time- travel" you can do with the microfilm edition of the local paper, in your public library. Find the edition for the day you were born, and page through the events, the ads, the comics -- the signs and symbols of the marketing culture into which you arrived that day. This is not an assignment -- but try it some time, for fun.)

And of course, you need to know how to use the Internet. In particular, how to handle a search engine. Most college students are already well-acquainted with Internet search engines like Yahoo and Google, and the information database, Wikipedia. If you're a little rusty, click on those links in this paragraph for a quick lesson in Internet searching -- a subject which is beyond the syllabus of this class, but which you need to understand in order to do today's assignment.

The Internet has caused as many problems as it has solved, in its ever-increasing capacity for providing rapid information, often unfiltered. You need to be especially alert to the problem of poor-quality information -- for example, self- serving "spin" by a corporate or ideological source. That "grassroots" conservation group -- is it really in favor of environmental protection, or is it a paid subsidiary of an industry trying to counter pollution activists? And if it is really a consumer protection group, can it substantiate its claims or is it merely spreading rhetoric without the data to support it?

One way to protect against bias is to depend on reputation -- for example, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are generally regarded to be fair and accurate. And yet, if you're doing PR for a labor union, your client will laugh at you if you describe the Wall Street Journal as "unbiased" when it comes to labor issues.

In general, when using the Internet, everything should be substantiated through multiple sourcing... and you have to be careful that you're not simply quoting the same source twice, where one "independent source" is actually quoting the other "independent source." This is an inherent problem with secondary research and requires constant vigilance. When I look at the Key Ideas on your Message Planner I will scrutinize your "facts" to be sure they're not simply industry propaganda -- and so should you.

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