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1 Writing for Public Relations

In This Chapter, You Will Learn

Why good writing is important to a public relations professional.

The difference between uncontrolled and controlled information.

The most often–used tools of public relations writing and how they differ.

The process of public relations writing.


Chapter 1 Writing for Public Relations


Before we begin to discuss writing for public relations, it’s probably a good idea to get a grip on exactly what public relations is. That’s not an easy question to answer. If you were to think that public relations is about putting a client’s best foot forward, you’d be right. If you proposed that public relations is about dealing with the media (either keeping your client’s name in the media or out of it), you’d be right as well. If you believe that public relations is helping cli- ents and organizations get along with their constituencies, you’d be right again. In fact, public relations is all of these and more. Public relations is everything from planning entire communications campaigns to writing a letter to the edi- tor. It involves any activity that enhances the reputation of your client, mediates disputes between various publics and your client, helps achieve mutual under- standing among all parties involved in an issue, advocates on behalf of a client or cause, provides guidance and direction, and results in positive and mutual well- being. A quick query on Google nets the following definitions for public relations found on the Web:

The business of generating goodwill toward an individual, cause, company, or product (

The acts of communicating what you are to the public. This is not to be con- fused with publicity, which is just one of the methods used in communicat- ing the image (

Activity, communications, or press coverage that is designed to enhance the prestige or goodwill of a company ( expdef.html).

Any activities or events that help promote a favorable relationship between a company and its customers and prospects; activities used to influence the press to print stories that promote a favorable image of a company and its products or services (

Communication with various sectors of the public to influence their attitudes and opinions in the interest of promoting a person, product, or idea (http://

An activity meant to improve the project organization’s environment in order to improve project performance and reception (www.mccombs.utexas. edu/faculty/Linda.Bailey/glossary.htm).

Professional services in promoting products by arranging opportunities for exposure in the media ( glossary.htm).

A deliberate, planned, and sustained effort to institute and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its publics (Institute of Public Relations definition) (


A promotion intended to create goodwill for a person or institution (http://

What is Public Relations?


Public relations deals with influencing public opinion, through the presenta- tion of a client’s image, message, or product ( Public_relations).

In fact, modern public relations is an eclectic package encompassing a great many job descriptions, titles, and functions. The federal government even forbids the use of the term public relations to refer to roles whose functions in the business world would be identical. The practice is rife with terms synonymous with yet subtly different from public relations. Press agentry, for instance, is usually taken to mean the role of providing media exposure, whereas promotion combines media exposure with persuasion. Public affairs most often refers to those who deal with community or government relations; and the federal government’s decided- upon replacement term is public information. Despite the myriad terms applied to the practice, there does appear to be a rather limited number of actual functions assigned to these roles. Over 20 years ago, James Grunig and Todd Hunt proposed a set of four models, and although these have undergone some changes over the years, they remain relatively accu- rate today. 1 The models are press agentry/publicity, public information, two-way asymmetric, and two-way symmetric. In the press agentry/publicity model, the practitioner acts as a one-sided propaganda specialist. The public information model presents the practitioner as journalist, carefully disseminating balanced information to the public. Practitioners in a two-way asymmetric model are seen as “scientific persuaders,” using social science techniques to gather information on attitude and behavior characteristics of their publics and then adjusting their messages accordingly to influence those publics. Finally, the two-way symmetric model uses practitioners as mediators between organizations and their publics. A broader categorization views the roles of public relations divided neatly into communications manager and communications technician. Managers analyze, plan, carry out, and evaluate public relations campaigns. Technicians provide the support for the programs in the form of writing, design, layout, production, and publication within all of the possible delivery systems. Thus, the role of the pub- lic relations writer is generally that of communications technician. However, that is not to say that there is always a clear divide between the two roles. No respect- able communications manager would be incapable of writing a press release, and frequently communications technicians are involved in various stages of the planning process, as we will see. All public relations practitioners write at some time. Public relations is, after all, communication, and the basic form of commu- nication is still the written word. Regardless of the prevalence of television, radio, cable, satellite television, and increasingly the Internet, the written word is still powerful. Even the events we witness on television and hear on the radio were written down originally in the form of scripts. News anchors on television are not recounting the day’s events from memory; they are reading from a teleprompter. Nearly every entertainment

1 James E. Grunig and Todd Hunt, Managing Public Relations (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), 21.


Chapter 1 Writing for Public Relations

program is precisely scripted—from your favorite sitcom to the MTV Video Music Awards. And although it may not seem so, most of what you see on the Internet has been carefully thought out and written prior to its placement on the Web. It is no wonder today’s employers value employees who can communicate through the written word. Employers want people who can write and commu- nicate ideas—who can pull complex or fragmented ideas together into coherent

messages. This requires not only technical skill but also intelligence. It requires

a love of writing as well. Be forewarned: The subjects of public relations writ-

ing can seem to many to be crashingly dull; however, for writers who love their craft, the duller the subject, the greater the challenge. Even the most mundane subject can shine with the right amount of polish. So, the place of writers in public relations is ensured. From the president or vice president of public relations to the support staff, writing will be a daily part of life. From enormously complex projects involving dozens of people and whole teams of writers to the one-person office cranking out daily news releases, edit- ing weekly newsletters, or updating Web pages, writing will continue to be the number-one concern of public relations. Through it, your publics will come to know you and, for better or worse, develop a permanent image of who you are.

It is in your best interest and that of the people for whom you work to ensure

that this image is the one you want to portray. What is needed before you begin to write, however, is knowledge. Being able to spell and string words together effectively does not make a good writer. First and foremost, a good writer must be able to think. To be a good writer you must be aware of the world around you and understand how your writing is going to affect that world. It is essential that you think before you write; otherwise, your writing will be only empty words, disconnected from reality, or, worse, unintentionally mislead- ing or false.


All public relations writing attempts to establish positive relations between an organization and its various publics, usually through image-building techniques. Most writing in the realm of public relations falls into two rather broad catego- ries: uncontrolled information and controlled information.

Uncontrolled Information

Information that, once it leaves your hands, is at the mercy of the media is uncon- trolled information. In other words, the outlet in which you want the infor- mation placed has total editorial control over the content, style, placement, and timing. Such items as news releases are totally uncontrolled. For example, you may write what you think is the most effective, well-thought-out news release ever presented to your local paper, but you never see it in print. Or maybe the paper does use it, but leaves out all of your skillfully crafted sentences about your employer. In these cases, the newspaper editors have exercised their prerogative

Tools of the Public Relations Writer


to control your information. Once you put it in their hands, they get to decide what to do with it. Then why, you’re probably asking yourself about now, even use uncontrolled information? For at least two reasons. First, it’s generally cheaper because you don’t have to pay for production or placement costs. Second, your message gains credibility if you can pass it through the media on its way to your target publics. I’ve sometimes referred to this technique as “information laundering” (humor- ously, of course). The fact is that our messages are often viewed by our target publics as having a vested interest—which of course they do. However, when those same target publics see the same message served up by the media, it seems to gain credibility in their eyes. Obviously, this is also true for passing the infor- mation through any credible second party such as magazines, opinion leaders, or role models. Thus, the loss in control is usually more than balanced by the overall gain in credibility.

Controlled Information

Information over which you have total control as to editorial content, style, placement, and timing is controlled information. Examples of controlled information are institutional (image) and advocacy advertising, house publica- tions, brochures, and broadcast material (if it is paid placement). Public service announcements (PSAs) are controlled as far as message content is concerned but uncontrolled as to placement and timing. To get the most out of any message, you should send out both controlled and uncontrolled information. That way, you can reach the broadest possible target audience, some of whom will react more favorably to one type or the other of your approaches.


As with any trade, public relations writing uses certain tools through which mes- sages are communicated. The most common are listed here.

News releases are the most widely used of all public relations formats. News releases—both print and broadcast—are used most often to disseminate information for publicity purposes and are sent to every possible medium, from newspapers to radio stations to Internet sites.

Backgrounders are basic information pieces providing background as an aid to reporters, editors, executives, employees, and spokespersons. This informa- tion is used by other writers and reporters to “flesh out” their stories.

Public service announcements are the broadcast outlet most available to non- profit public relations. Although the PSA parameters are limited, additional leeway can be gained by paying for placement, which puts it in the category of advertising.

Advertising is the controlled use of media ensuring that your message reaches your audience in exactly the form you intend and at the time you want. Advertising can be print, broadcast, or Web-based.


Chapter 1 Writing for Public Relations

Articles and editorials are usually for newsletters, house publications, trade publications, or consumer publications. In the case of nonhouse publications, public relations articles are submitted in the same way as any other journal- istic material. Editorials can be either paid for or submitted uncontrolled and vie for placement with comments from other parties.

Collateral publications are usually autonomous publications, such as brochures, pamphlets, flyers, and other direct marketing pieces, that should be able to stand on their own merits but can be used as supporting information for other components in a package. They might, for instance, be part of a press packet.

Annual reports are one of the most produced organizational publications. Annual reports not only provide information on the organization’s financial situation but also act as a vehicle for enhancing corporate image among its various internal publics.

Speeches and presentations are the interpersonal method of imparting a position or an image. Good speeches can inform or persuade, and good presentations can win support where written methods may fail.

The Internet has increasingly become one of the most important communica- tions tools available in public relations. Writing for the Web is challenging and exciting and can garner results often more quickly than any other format.

Although these are not the only means for message dissemination at the disposal of the public relations writer, they are the methods used most often. Knowing which tool to use requires a combination of experience, research, and intuition. The following chapters do not purport to teach you these qualities. Rather, they attempt to provide you with a framework, or template, from which you will be able to perform basic tasks as a public relations writer. The rest is a matter of experience, and no book can give you that.


All forms of writing for public relations have one thing in common: They should be written well. Beyond that, they are different in many ways. These differences are related primarily to purpose, strategy, medium, and style and format. As you will see, these elements are interrelated; you can’t think about a single element without conceptualizing the others. For example, purpose and strategy are inti- mately related, and choice of medium is inextricably bound to style and format. As to purpose, a public relations piece generally is produced for one of two reasons: to inform or to persuade. Strategy depends almost completely on the purpose of a given piece. For instance, a writer might choose a persuasive strat- egy such as argument to accomplish his or her purpose, which is to persuade a target audience to vote for a particular mayoral candidate. The medium that you choose to deliver your message will also dictate its style and format. For example, corporate magazines and newsletters use standard magazine writing style (which is to say, a standard magazine style of journalism).

Key Terms


Newsletter writing, by contrast, is leaner and shorter and frequently uses a straight news reporting style. Folders (commonly referred to as brochures) are, by nature, short and to the point. Copy for posters and flyers is shorter still, whereas pamphlets and booklets vary in style and length according to purpose. Writing for the Internet may incorporate any or all of these styles in slightly to greatly abbreviated formats. Beginning here and continuing throughout the book, we will deal with these elements of public relations writing: purpose, strategy, medium, and style and format. Before we begin, however, we need to address the issue of planning. That is the subject of the next chapter.


uncontrolled information controlled information