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 not backgrounders, 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...
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 --