Public Relations Writing: Lesson #11 - p. 4

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...
      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.

    At this point I would like you to answer two questions: "What's the primary difference between position papers and backgrounders?" and "Why can't you use a backgrounder for promoting your product?" Post in the Student Conference Area. This is how I am "taking attendance" on this lesson.

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.

    3. Plan your work in three parts:

        I. Introduction (your conclusion will go here)

        II. Body

        III. Conclusion (restate the point of your introduction)

    4. 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.

    5. 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.

    6. 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.

    7. Now put it aside and do something else for an hour, or for the rest of the day.

    8. 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.

    9. 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.

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

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