Assuring Quality of Public Relations Messages
During the implementation stage of a campaign, public relations
managers need to concerned with quality assurance. This involves
making sure that each campaign message:
Effective implementation of a campaign involves oversight of day-to-day activities to assure that the tactical
implementation of the campaign does not unintentionally subvert the
effectiveness of the campaign's strategy.
Fulfills one or more objectives specified in the campaign
- Is accurate, timely and consistent with other campaign
- Conforms to the applicable styles or conventions for its particular
whether it's a news release, brochure, video script, etc.
- Communicates effectively with its intended audiences.
Quality Begins With Quality Project Input
Once a campaign plan is written and approved, public relations managers and staffs must turn to the
preparation of each of the
project components outlined in the plan.
Often times, these elements are only specified in a general way in
the plan. Thus, planning process continues well into the
implementation phase of the campaign as staffers begin implementing
each part of the program.
How can managers help assure the quality of campaign messages?
Backgrounder or Fact Sheet
A first step is
to prepare a backgrounder or fact sheet that compiles all
of the pertinent basic information about the product, client or
service. The backgrounder is informational, rather than strategic,
and is intended to compile in one place all of the basic information that
might be incorporated in campaign materials. If key facts cannot be obtained,
it might be necessary to conduct additional research or to other steps necessary for them to be available (such as the establishment of an 800-number for processing inquiries).
The backgrounder is a basic tool used to assure accuracy and consistency of
information contained in campaign materials.
Backgrounders should be updated, as needed.
Some examples of items that might be included in the
Creative Start Sheet
With general information compiled in the backgrounder, each project then
should begin with a start sheet, a simple one or two-page outline
that addresses key questions relevant to the particular project.
Start sheets are referred to as "blueprints" in some agencies.
A start sheet is particularly important when the creation of materials will be
done by someone other than the individual
in charge of the project. The start sheet provides strategic
information in written form, and provides a convenient outline for discussions about the project. The start sheet also requires that many key decisions be made before any copywriting begins.
Some typical items found in a start sheet include:
Name of project
- Name of assigned writer or producer
- Format: News release, brochure, video, etc.
- Length (if any) in words, pages, minutes, etc.
- First draft due date
- Projected production date
- Projected distribution date
- Description of product, service or event
- Target Audiences: Define the key publics for this
communication, based on appropriate criteria: relationship to
demographics or psychographics, involvement, etc. If more
than one group is involved, prioritize groups as primary,
- Purpose of project/Problem to be solved (What is this particular
is supposed to do? How does it fit into the total campaign?)
- Objective: State as an infinitive: "To ...." (Good objectives
should be specific, measurable, realistic and specify a
time frame.) If more than one objective is involved, state
order of priority.
- Proposition: State in one sentence the "big idea" that the
audience should get from the piece. Be clear about what
action (if any) you want people to take.
- Themes to be promoted: What is the news here? How will the
product, service or event benefit the audience?
- Features: What information from the
backgrounder must be included, or should be included as a
proof points if space or time permits?
- Tone or manner: Should the copy be serious, refined, whimsical, etc.?
Detailed or simple? What kind of mood should be created?
- Spokesperson to be quoted or other personnel to be featured, if any
- Illustrations or graphics: Any required? Desired?
- Competitive, other factors to be taken into account (but not mentioned).
- Legal disclosures or mandatory information that must be included.
- Comments or cautions, if appropriate.
Message/Media Outline (MMO)
An alternative to the creative start sheet is a Message/Media
Outline. This format is used to provide answers to seven key
What is the ultimate action you want from the reader, viewer or
- Who are the audience decision makers?
Who influences these decision makers?
- What is a need, concern or interest of the decision maker?
- What is the message?
- What are the channels of communication?
- Who are the spokespeople?
- How can the message be packaged to raise an audience
need/concern/ interest and offer the product, issue or organization
as a means of fulfilling that need, minimizing that concern or
satisfying that interest?
Reviewing Creative Materials
With accurate information and a direction agreed upon, the task of the writer or
producer is to create the material by melding the client input contained in the
start sheet with her or his own creative insights and abilities.
Upon completion, all materials should undergo a thorough review
process that includes:
Careful internal review is one of the most important ways to avoid
embarrassing or costly errors or omissions. Thus, program planners
need to incorporate sufficient time to allow all parties concerned
to review and approve all copy. Written approvals should be
obtained in all cases, and should be retained in a file with all other working
- Strategic review by the public relations project manager
- Editorial review by the PR manager and at least one other
individual familiar with the appropriate editorial style and
conventions of the medium being used.
- Technical checks for accuracy by an appropriate staff member.
- Legal review, in keeping with organizational policies.
- Final management review by the client official with overall
responsibility for the product, service or event.
Make Copy Changes Purposefully
The strongest drive is not money or sex. It is
person's need to change another's copy.
This adage looms large in the minds of experienced copywriters, who are
frustrated by zealous clients who make arbitrary or
Copy changes should not be made simply based on one
person's preferences for word choice or phrasing. Instead, copy
changes should be made purposefully to eliminate:
Inaccuracies can be checked against the backgrounder. Inconsistencies with
program objectives or other messages can be revealed by consulting the start
sheet. In checking grammar and spellings, useful resources are a
contemporary dictionary as well
as style guides such as the Associated
- Omissions of key facts
- Wording that is confusing or might be misinterpreted
- Legal or compliance problems
- Inconsistencies with program objectives or other communications
- Misspellings, grammar problems, misused words, punctuation
mistakes or syntax errors.
Legal concerns include compliance with any legal requirements for disclosure of
information applicable to a particular industry. More general legal concerns
include: unintended defamation of others,
accuracy (truth-in-advertising) concerns, fairness, and invasion of the personal
privacy of others. (Be sure to obtain written permissions to use the words or
images of individuals or to use copyrighted or trademarked material.)
Managers working for publicly
traded corporations must also be watchful of material information that
might trigger the need for prompt and full disclosure of financial information.
(Information is considered material if it could influence the activity in the
Simple corrections are a normal part of the creative process.
However, if extensive revisions are involved, it is often
preferable to return a draft to the writer or producer with
specific directions for changes. Extensive changes by wanna-be
editors can often result in inconsistencies and significant
differences in content, style, pace and tone, which can jeopardize
qualty of the piece.
Evaluating Overall Message Quality
Beyond making technical, stylistic, legal, strategic and editorial
corrections, managers should step back to assess the
effectiveness of the message overall. Depending upon this assessment, extensive revisions might be required.
Several leading professionals have suggested ways in which to
Patrick Jackson's Five Key Questions
Patrick Jackson, editor of pr reporter, suggests five basic
questions in assessing a message:
Is it appropriate? For the sender? For the recipient?
- Is it meaningful. Does it stick to the subject, and is it
geared to the interests of the audience?
- Is it memorable? Does it employ devices -- including verbal,
graphic and aural imagery -- that people will remember?
- Is it understandable?
- Is it believable? Does the source exhibit trustworthiness
Behavioral Framework Analysis
Kerry Tucker, Doris Derelian and Donna Rouner
outline a four-part behavioral framework model, which suggests that
messages should move audiences toward some type of desired action.
In evaluating a message, they suggest asking the following four
- Does the communication raise an audience need, concern or
interest? (Can audience members easily put themselves into the
- Is your product, issue or organization offered as a solution
in a clear and concise manner? Are the benefits of the solution
clearly presented? (Can audience members answer the question,
"What's in it for me?")
- Are the consequences of leaving the need, concern or interest
unresolved clearly presented? (What happens if no action is
- Have you helped the individual members of the targeted
audience mentally rehearse or think through the action you'd like
them to take?
For more details, see their Public Relations Writing. An
Issue-Driven Behavioral Approach, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
Communicating With Clarity
Communication involves the exchange of messages and meanings between two or more
parties. Thus, the creation of understandable messages is
critical to effective communication.
The following questions are adapted from points on message clarity provided by Professor Dennis Wilcox.
- Does the message match, in content and structure, the
characteristics of the audience? Write to the age, education, interest, knowledge
and involvement levels of the audience. If in doubt, test the comprehensibility (see next section).
- Does the message use symbols, acronyms and slogans effectively? Audiences
respond to symbols. But symbols must be used appropriately and with respect.
Similarly, acronyms help simplify messages, but too many acronyms in the same
message can be confusing.
- Does the message avoid unnecessary jargon, or excessively technical or specialized
terminology? Even when writing for audiences with high levels of technical knowledge, messages will be more comprehensible by using less technical lanaguage. But be sure the meaning is precise.
- Does the message avoid cliches and hype, or overused and self-laudatory
- Does the message avoid euphemisms, especially when used to hide bad news or
to mislead people? Be direct. For example, don't refer to an employee layoff as a reduction in force.
- Does the message avoid unintended discriminatory language or imagery, especially related to gender and
race? Avoid unintended sexism or stereotyping that can jeopardize the
message's credibility or
For a discussion, see Dennis L. Wilcox, Philip Ault and Warren K.
Agree, Public Relations Strategies & Tactics, 4th ed. New
York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Formal copy research is not used as extensively in public relations as it is in advertising. However, it might be advantageous in certain instances to formally test copy or message elements. Such pre-testing is usually limited to message elements that
involve a considerable investment of time or money, or which have important
long-term implications, such as the adoption of a new organizational logo or
other graphics. Such as developmental research is classified as progressive
research, rather than summative research that is used to evaluate the program.
The following are some common techniques that can be used to pre-test messages. These are listed from relatively modest, low-cost approaches to more sophicated and costly methods:
- Jury Testing -- Involves providing samples to a group of people
who typical of the audience. Jury testing can include inpromptu one-on-one
interviews with individuals who are conveniently available, the convening of
one-time focus groups, or the submission of materials to an established
advisory panel. The purpose is to use qualitative techniques to probe
reactions, to ascertain the degree to which audience members liked or disliked the message, and to ascertain if there were parts that audiences don't understand.
- Expert (Peer) Reviews -- Involves asking other PR or communications professionals to review materials and to make recommendations for improvements based on their experience.
- Readability Studies -- Involves subjecting the text to one of several standardized tests for comprehensibility, such as the Flesch formula or Cloze procedure. (Several leading public relations text include brief descriptions of these techniques.)
- Experimental Testing -- Involves comparing two or more approaches to
determine which one is best. A cross-section of people from the target audience
are randomly assigned into experimental groups and are exposed to one (usually
both) of the alternative copy approaches (treatments). The effectiveness of the two
approaches is analyzed through a series of quantitative measures contained in a questionnaire completed by the participants after seeing the tested messages.
- Test Marketing -- Involves public dissemination of messages within a limited geographic territory to test audience responses. Changes in copy can be made prior to distributing the message more widely.
None of these techniques is perfect; all have limits because they represent attempts to anticipte effectiveness prior to the full widespread dissemination of messages. However, to the extent that they help avoid costly mistakes and improve communication effectiveness these techniques can enhance the quality of public relations
Return to Top of Assuring Quality of Public Relations Messages
Return to Hallahan Course Resources
Return to JT350 Course Syllabus