Backgrounder/Position Paer


Worth 212.5 points total.

First draft = 100 points, due by noon Mon. 3/6

Final version = 112.5 points, due by midnight Fri. 4/14

Purpose: To write a PR quasi-equivalent of a scholarly research paper. A backgrounder is probably about as close to an “academicky” research paper as you’ll see in the PR profession. This deliverable will also involve generating content through the discovery and synthesis of secondary research data. In my mind, this is what makes this deliverable the most academic-natured piece of writing you will produce in this course.

The Set-Up: Imagine once again that you are an assistant account executive at ACME Public Relations. Your newest client, the Commission on Public Relations Education, wants to update the standard materials included in its media kits. These materials will also be published on CPRE’s website (see HYPERLINK “”

Your senior account manager has asked that you work up a backgrounder, a kind of short, reader-friendly research paper, about the declining state of writing skills in the United States. This backgrounder will complement and contextualize an upcoming news release announcing the findings of the Cole et al. study.

NOTE: Remember, the conceit is that CPRE funded the Cole et al. study, which it did not. We are also assuming that the Cole et al. study is about to be released, hence the upcoming news release. You’ll work on this news release during Weeks 6 and 7, so we are putting the cart before the horse a bit by producing the backgrounder before the news release. And obviously, the study came out in 2009 and it’s now 2017. Feel free to fudge the timing as you need to.

Background on Backgrounders (and Position Papers): Textbook authors consider backgrounders in different ways. For instance, Diggs-Brown’s (2013, aka The Public Relations Style Guide [Ch. 6, Media Kits]) description of a backgrounder limits it to being “an expanded version of the history, mission, goals, and purpose of an organization” (p. 64). Which it can absolutely be, but I prefer to think of backgrounders as the informative version of Diggs-Brown’s (2013) position paper, which

describes an organization’s stand on a certain issue….the position paper focuses mainly

on opinions and is supported by facts. [It] should include a sufficient amount of

information that supports the organization’s point of view, but it should also include

opposing points of view. (p. 64)

Read this quote from D. Treadwell and J.B. Treadwell (2005) about backgrounders:

Backgrounders have more defined purposes and audiences [than factsheets]. [They] are

written for people who want or need more information on a subject. They typically

include more details, statistics, and possibly technical jargon if your audience will

understand it…. From the public relations writer’s viewpoint, backgrounders are often

written for reporters seeking additional information to understand your industry or as

background for a story….Reporters might easily seek such information to flesh out

articles they are writing on that subject. (p. 218)

Let’s agree that backgrounders and position papers are two sides, informative and persuasive respectively, of the same coin. Some of their commonalities include:

They are written in paragraph form.

They are grounded in facts and information:

Backgrounders will present such data on their face.

Position papers may use these data as evidence for or against certain viewpoints.

They require the writer to make choices about what to include or exclude: topics, facts, examples, words, and so forth. These “gatekeeper” choices implicitly allow subjectivity to permeate even neutral, informative-purposed pieces.

They should anticipate questions [about the subject matter] and provide comprehensive answers.

They should provide reporters with a wealth of information and context about the subject matter that can be included in the news story.

Execution of Tasks: You can opt to write a more informative backgrounder or a more persuasive position paper, as long as the subject matter is that writing skills in the United States are on the decline. Your client, CPRE, has concluded this is the case. Thus, the premise of your piece must illuminate that general conclusion, as well as the findings and conclusion of the Cole et al. study (hypothetically) funded by CPRE.

Writing your piece as a backgrounder: Your explanatory piece would fall on the informative end of the persuasive continuum. You’d offer a dispassionate presentation of various reasons why writing skills are on the decline, without taking sides but keeping in mind what CPRE has researched and concluded about writing skills in the U.S. Perhaps you’d adopt a devil’s advocate perspective. The content you include and direction you take are up to you.

Writing your piece as a position paper: Your argumentative piece would fall on the persuasive end of the persuasive continuum. You’d offer an opinionated presentation of the reasons to which CPRE attributes the decline of writing skills in the U.S. You’d stake out CPRE’s position, make its case, while also presenting other less valid viewpoints. The content you include and direction you take are up to you.

Regardless of which tact you take, remember that your deliverable is a research paper in the sense that you have do research – describe, analyze, and make meaning of secondary research (research already conducted by others), facts gathered by others, or opinions opined by others. These sources can be scholarly (e.g., like the Cole et al. article) or nonscholarly (from a credible media or social media source; never Wikipedia [or at least be smart enough to not admit it]).

The LBH readings for this week will be helpful as you prepare to write your backgrounder or position paper, as will most of the other readings from LBH and Kallan thus far in the course (assessing the writing situation, generating content, organizing your thoughts into a logical, cohesive outline, and so forth).

How Should My Piece Look?

Cover page with your name and title of deliverable.

Four- to six-page backgrounder (or position paper).

1.5 line spacing, with heading/subheadings and page numbers.

Bolding and/or underlining and/or/italicizing and/or seriation and/or small graphics.

Use APA in-text citation style.

Separate reference page, using APA end referencing style. Must use at least two scholarly and two nonscholarly sources, in addition to the Cole et al. study.

Cover and reference pages do NOT count toward the length requirements of this deliverable.

We are trying to approximate a real-world scenario, hence all public relations materials would be distributed to the media on CPRE letterhead. Please cut-and-paste the graphic below into the top of the first page of your piece (not the cover page). Most organizations use the more expensive graphical letterhead for the first page and plain letterhead paper for additional pages.

Please see the example backgrounders provided. Position papers follow the same format.

HYPERLINK “C:\Users\leahterp\Documents\PRPA 600 Course Development\Turnitin_Company_Backgrounder.pdf” Turnitin company backgrounder: HYPERLINK “”

The Council on Foreign Relations has a sizeable repository of issue backgrounders: HYPERLINK “”

Not to toot this course’s own horn, but you could use the course lecture notes as a model for formatting your piece: a paragraph-intensive structure; with headings, subheadings, and seriation; bolding, underlining, and italics to emphasize points; and occasional use of graphics to enhance the ease of reading and overall look. And page numbers…Always use page numbers.

What About Citing? You will have to use some sort of citing/referencing style for your piece because you must incorporate at least two scholarly sources and at least two nonscholarly sources into your piece. The Cole et al. study is in addition to this total. This is not a piece based purely on your own opinion.

A scholarly source could be:

an article in peer-reviewed journal (access full text via the UMUC library at HYPERLINK “” or even Google Scholar) or presented at an academic conference, or

a study conducted by a serious, credible organization, such as

The National Commission on Writing’s list of reports at HYPERLINK “”

The National Writing Project at HYPERLINK “”

See the University of North Florida Library’s take on HYPERLINK “” What is a Scholarly Journal?

A nonscholarly source might be a news article or item from a credible traditional or online media source – not a crackpot blogger or community-built knowledge aggregator like Wikipedia. Hint: The Chronicle for Higher Education, the newspaper for academe, has a fantastic website at HYPERLINK “”

Some other organizations you may try to mine for information are the Institute for Public Relations Research HYPERLINK “” and the Public Relations Society of America HYPERLINK “” Of course, the decline of writing skills in America doesn’t only affect the public relations industry, so consider other stakeholders connected to the subject matter. Check out the course folder, “The Library” too – loads of good articles in there as well. Also see the University of North Florida Library’s answer to HYPERLINK “” Article Types: What’s the Difference Between Newspapers, Magazines, and Journals?

Please employ APA in-text citation and end referencing style for your piece. This piece offers a good opportunity for you to dip your toes into the APA waters. That’s why you completed the library’s APA tutorial during Week 4.

Sidebar from the Instructor

APA style is used for academic writing, and in the real world…well, let me put it this way: Had you ever heard of APA before you enrolled in this graduate program? Probably not! In the real world, a backgrounder or position paper would follow your employer’s or client’s preferred way of citing and referencing.

What About the Writing Style? As this piece is meant for a media audience, in a real-world job situation you would follow Associated Press – AP, not APA – writing style. If you are well-versed in AP style, then by all means, execute this deliverable in that style. HOWEVER, if you are not, then please write your piece as you know how and to the best of your abilities. Let’s not worry about conforming to a particular writing style right now. Just write.

FYI – The most obvious difference between these two styles is that AP does not use the Oxford comma, whereas APA does. You can set your grammar checker in Word to check for this. AP and APA do offer similar advice about writing, such as striving for active voice, clarity, concision, and precision; general presentation of numbers; and so forth. You don’t have to toggle between these two styles nearly as much as you might think. This is that common ground I mentioned in the Week 1 lecture notes.

Wait – Who’s My Audience Again? This piece will become part of a media kit, so its immediate audience would be reporters, most likely education or business reporters at mainstream outlets (since the subject matter would fall under their beat) or reporters working for PR trade/industry publications.

This piece will also be published on CPRE’s website, something now standard operating procedure for public relations materials (Broom & Sha, 2013). But who is visiting CPRE’s website? Most likely academics, a secondary audience who may be quite knowledgeable or opinionated about the subject matter. You don’t actually know, so write your piece for general consumption. Lastly, project D. Treadwell and J.B. Treadwell’s (2005) point about fact sheets onto your backgrounders or position papers: they “are generally not aimed at the already committed but rather at newcomers” (p. 218).

What’s my endgame with this piece?

Your operational goal is, of course, to write an informative, fact-based research paper that CPRE (or ACME PR) could distribute and publish for use by members of the media and the general public.

Your mission goal is to immediately provide members of the media with any information they need to help them write news stories about CPRE, the Cole et al. study, the issues CPRE is involved with, etc. That’s what supplemental materials like backgrounders, position papers and fact sheets are for.


Broom, G., & Sha, B. L. (2013). Cutlip & Center’s effective public relations (11th ed.). New

York, NY: Pearson.


Diggs-Brown, B. (2013). The PR style guide: Formats for public relations practice (3rd ed.).

Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Treadwell, D., & Treadwell, J. B. (2005). Public relations writing: Principles in practice (2nd

ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


During Weeks 6 through 9, students will write first drafts of Deliverables #3 and #4. These will be graded and significant feedback will be provided. Then, using my feedback and your own improved writing skills, students will strategically rewrite final versions for inclusion in the Writing Portfolio (Deliverable #5) due on the last day of the course (Sun. 4/24).