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Public Relations Writing: Syllabus

    Marketing Communication Department
    Instructor: Alton Miller
    Course number 54-1701 (section numbers vary)


Class Introduction: Public Relations Writing is one of the requirements for public relations majors. It teaches skills of persuasive writing that will be of great value for anyone seeking employment in any of the information industries, from arts and entertainment to politics. This course qualifies as a "Writing Intensive" course.

Course Description: ( from the Columbia College Catalog ) The course covers all forms of writing for public relations, including press releases, public service announcements, magazine queries, securing television and radio interviews, coverage memos, media alerts, features, trade press releases, newsletters, backgrounders, and public relations presentations. Successful students will be able to go to job interviews with the assurance that they have had professional exposure to the writing required for a PR career.

Course Rationale: ( from the Columbia College Catalog) To become employable in public relations today, one must learn to write effectively in the variety of formats expected of PR professionals. This course helps to instill confidence in your preparedness and overcome your fear of writing. It will also prepare you for the writing test you may receive from potential employers.

Course Objective: The course emphasizes the strategy of crafting and delivering a PR message - not just getting in ink or on the air - with special emphasis on pre-writing, preparation and editing. Students learn to develop a "Message Planner" as a platform on which all PR writing and strategy can be based. The course enables the student to seek out a job interview with the assurance that he or she has had professional exposure to the writing required for a PR career.

Learning & Performance Outcomes: Students who successfully complete this course will acquire the following knowledge, skills, and attitudes

Knowledge: they will

  • recognize the importance of crafting and delivering a PR "message"
  • appreciate the need for pre-writing, writing, and re-writing, in writing assignments
  • understand the significance of the different audiences to which PR writing is addressed
  • become familiar with a range of PR writing tools, sufficient to take part in PR planning at the entry level

Skills: they will

  • improve critical thinking skills as they achieve the above knowledge outcomes
  • be able to create a Message Planner to organize their writing
  • be able to write an effective press release on short notice
  • be able to write a PSA (public service announcement)
  • be able to write a pitch letter, and know how to pitch a story

Attitudes: they will

  • understand the ethical obligations of a professional PR writer
  • appreciate the ethical dilemmas sometimes faced by PR writers
  • discern between the relative priorities of client, editor, and ultimate audiences
  • take pride in the role of PR writers in today's information economy

Class Information: These classes are capped at 15 students, to allow personal attention to each student. Every semester there are late requests for us to open more seats to this class. Please understand that it would be unfair to students who have already been turned down, if we were to make an exception for anyone. On the other hand, students who suddenly realize how difficult this course will be are likely to drop out during the first week of classes, so places may unexpectedly open up.

Class Requirements: Over the course of the term students will write 10-15 releases, PSAs, and other short PR writings, plus one (optional) longer piece, which with their final revisions will comprise a final project -- a portfolio due at the end of the term. The only required readng is to read at least one Chicago newspaper daily, and other readings as assigned. Formerly the text was Strategic Writing: Media Writing for Public Relations, Advertising, Sales and Marketing, and Business Communication by Charles Marsh, David W. Guth and Bonnie Poovey Short, which is still on the recommended reading list for additional books you may want to add to your library.

Class Policies: Short quizzes are used to review discussion and readings. In the fall and spring terms there are both a midterm and a final exam; in the summer term, just a final exam. Grades will depend on attendance and quizzes, exam(s), and on weekly writing assignments which comprise a final project. Our department policy is zero tolerance for cheating and plagiarism. Students should always keep copies of all written work, as assignments may not always be returned.

What is this class like? -- here are some things you should know:

  • I do not grade on a curve. I am pleased when I can give plenty of "A" and "B" grades, and I give my students every opportunity to perfect their work and improve their grade.

  • You should expect to write and rewrite each press release assignment at least twice. Especially at first, you are almost certainly not going to be able to get it right without trial and error. I will edit and return each draft to you, and you will have multiple opportunities to perfect your work, up till the next-to-final week of this course.

  • Typically, I don't assign a letter grade to a press release until the second or third draft. Except for the first (diagnostic) press release assignment, every release assignment includes a "pre-writing" exercise, worth about 25 percent of your grade. The lead is worth about 40 percent, and the rest of the release about 35 percent.

  • Learning to write is not learning a string of "facts" -- it's learning a craft -- it takes time and effort, and what ultimately matters is the level of skill you achieve, rather than how long it takes you to get there.

Attendance: In-class attendance is especially important, and final grades will suffer from missing more than one class, habitual tardiness or leaving class early, or falling behind the class schedule. For online students, it is equally important to stay current with class readings, assignments and other postings. Makeup work will be required for all absences, and assignments are due on schedule, regardless of the reason for the absence. Students are urged to share information - by phone, or online.

Abbreviated class schedule outline: In addition to the subject of focus of each session, many classes will include writing exercises designed to make you a fast, effective writer of press releases. Note: This syllabus may change during the term, as new opportunities arise. You will be notified of any changes.

Lesson One: Press Release Basics

The basics of journalistic writing - the 5 W's, inverted pyramid ... the importance of story in PR writing… analyzing the elements of a news story...

Lesson Two: Writing for Editors

The news angle... the role of the editor... what do editors look for in a story? the press release and media alert format... the use of direct quotes... .

Lesson Three: Pre-writing and Planning your Message

The importance of the writing process… outlining, clustering and other ways of organizing information… crafting the message… the importance of revisions and redrafts. ...

Lesson Four: Features

Discovering feature material, placement of ideas… Other uses of PR writing for feature stories. Also, press releases for arts events and similar activities... the relationship of the press release to the press kit, and the press conference.

Lesson Five: Pitching Stories and Interviews

Memos, pitch letters and confirmation letters... "scripting" the interview... how to meet the media.

Lesson Six: Press Release Enhancements

Different ways to diversify your style and make your copy more compelling.... different types of press release lead. Review previous reading assignments.

Lesson Seven: Midterm Exam

Multiple choice test and a writing exercise. Students will be given a total of three hours to complete the exam. Note that this exam is sometimes moved to Lesson Eight, depending on the timing of the semester weeks, e.g., Spring Break, etc.

Lesson Eight: Broadcast Release & PSA

Four principal vehicles for broadcast publicity... differences in writing for the ear vs. the eye... basic principles of writing for the ear, and formats for the broadcast release & PSA.

Lesson Nine: Video News Releases and Radio Actualities

VNRs, filmscripts, presentations, visual treatments... how do news outlets use your PR submissions.. new technologies in PR.

Lesson Ten: PR Writing and the Web

How public relations professionals are using the Internet... Web-based challenges and opportunities. Writing for Web sites.

Lesson Eleven: Research and Fact-Finding

Fact-finding, newsgathering, organizing your information... essentials for interviews... research tools.

Lesson Twelve: Newsletters, Backgrounders and Position Papers

Public relations writing for internal audiences. Writing backgrounders, position papers and other longer pieces for different publics. Also, discussion of advertising for the PR professional... developing a concept and a visual... stages of creativity.

Lesson Thirteen: Speeches and Presentations

Types of speeches... the mechanics of organization... making brief remarks, presentations, formal speeches.

Lesson Fourteen: Public Relations Campaign Design

Developing the outline of a PR campaign and communicating your ideas to different publics... different types of media kit.

Lesson Fifteen: Final Exam

Multiple choice test and a writing exercise. Students will be given a total of two hours to complete the exam.