Public affairs is the strategic management function that helps an organization achieve its goals and objectives through building and maintaining goodwill and trust with various stakeholders/publics. PA writing is designed to initiate, develop and sustain positive relationships with groups of people who can affect an organization or individual’s wellbeing (Treadwell & Treadwell, 2005).
All PA practitioners write at some time. Public affairs is, after all, communication, and the basic form of communication is still the written word (Bivins, 2014, p. 3).
Hone Your Skills
Before you can even begin writing, you must have some baseline knowledge. Being able to spell and string words together effectively does not make you a good writer. 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 (Bivins, 2014). PA writers must be informed individuals who can think broadly and strategically, communicate effectively and ethically and master new communication technologies. In addition to possessing a broad knowledge of their organizations, PA writers must be able to research specific subjects to determine what is and what isn’t important.
PA writing covers everything from speeches and news releases to social media products and preparation for media engagement. You will be expected to apply these communication principles and theories as you research and plan for every PA engagement.
As a writer, you must have a particular effect in mind when you write. You will want to increase your public’s knowledge and understanding about something and to feel a certain way about this information. You will probably also want them to respond to that information in a particular way (Smith, 2012).
A public affairs writer's skill set includes:
- Broadcast writing
- News writing
- Feature writing
- Writing for print and the web
- Writing for broadcast
- Speech writing
- Executive writing
- Social media writing
- Writing for the web
Understand and Evaluate
You must recognize potential news stories and anticipate how these might be received by global audiences. Choosing the right words requires a keen understanding of the complex and often conflicting values held among diverse publics. Today’s readers demand more versatility and a greater understanding of the repercussions of convergence among traditional media and the impact of social media on connectivity. Writers should be well-versed in various media requirements and develop skills in using audio and video to help convey a message (Newsom & Haynes, p. 2-3).
Ultimately, public affairs is a tool that allows commanders to convey information about their missions to the public. Because of this unique role, PA professionals evaluate news based on three criteria:
- Authenticity - Meaning the genuine news value of the information. Simply put, the event is a fact, not fiction.
- Good Taste - Meaning that the content will not offend the audience's social, religious or cultural values. This does not mean controversial subjects are excluded. However, military reporters should be alert to (or sensitive to) the sensibilities of their stakeholders and those involved in the news.
- Mass Appeal - Meaning that the content affects or interests audiences in some way.
Make an Impact
PA writing can be both informational and persuasive. News releases and brochures are often seen as informational, but public service announcements and editorials lean more toward persuasive writing (Smith, 2012). These characterizations tend to be oversimplifications. All public affairs writing is intended to influence knowledge, attitudes or behavior.
PA writers must be:
- able to borrow ideas from other fields, such as psychology, social psychology, sociology and political science.
- alert to changing patterns of thought and behavior in society and must fully comprehend the issues of the day.
- experts in communication.
- knowledgeable on how to write effectively in many different styles and for all media types.
- understanding of the principles of good writing and familiar with the vast body of scientific research on communication, persuasion and public opinion.
What makes PA writing different from literary writing, news writing or selling? You may draw on techniques from all three, but a primary focus of PA writing is persuasion.
- PA writing relies on the power and responsibility to broker goodwill between an institution and its publics (Newsom & Haynes, p. 2-3).
- Strategically, public affairs practice involves the ways an organization’s operation and policies affect people — the face-to-face interaction of employees with customers or clients (community relations) and the organization’s participation in the affairs of the community.
The goal is to be an efficient, effective communicator.
Know Your Role
In all PA roles, writing is a part of daily life. From enormously complex projects and communication plans involving the whole team to the one-person office cranking out daily news releases, editing weekly newsletters or updating web pages, writing will continue to be a major concern of public affairs (Bivins, 2014, p. 4).
- Participate in the organization's strategic management and ensure communication programs are developed for the public. They are part of the dominant coalition of the organization or have direct reporting relationships to senior managers who are part of the dominant coalition (Broom, 2013, p. 62).
- Are responsible for overseeing the positioning of the organization and managing the communication function as a whole. This includes brand equity, relationships and leadership. Positioning can be seen as the execution of issues-management and communication programs.
- May be junior officer or senior enlisted members.
- Are responsible for managing communication programs, campaigns or accounts, and for managing relationships with internal clients (Bivins, 2014, p. 3). The communication program is a set of products, with each product containing a similar message targeted to the same public or audience, and will likely be accomplished through strategic communication management.
- Analyze, plan, carry out and evaluate public relations campaigns.
- Are responsible for the production of communication products and implementation of programs.
- Write, edit and disseminate products.
- Maintain media contacts (Effective Public Relations, 2014, p. 38-40).
- Guide junior PA professionals and train them to write clearly and tell stories effectively. This includes:
- Determining how the story should be constructed and eventually presented.
- Teaching alternative story formats to convey information and tell stories using visually appealing graphics, photos, video or sound.
- Guide other PA professionals to ensure they are developing clear, concise products.
Understand Your Responsibilities
Support the Commander
PA writing services the information needs of its different audiences and helps the commander maintain the support of key stakeholders. It functions as part of a broader communication process of supporting the commander and achieving mission objectives. Specifically, two areas that PA writing supports are:
- Leading Staff Communication Alignment
The PA staff aligns communication with public affairs guidance from higher headquarters down the chain to subordinate commands throughout the staff and with key stakeholder commands, including U.S. and multinational forces.
- Leading PA and Public Communication Activities
The PAO leads the PA staff and public communication efforts. PA writers must be knowledgeable not only about publics and channels but about all aspects of their institutions as well.
Communicate by Writing
PA writers are responsible for tailoring messages to a variety of stakeholders and journalists. PA practitioners will use writing to support:
- Media product development and dissemination
- Public communication
- Assessment and evaluation (JP 3-61)
Learning the basics of writing will prepare you to write in any format, for any medium. If you can write a traditional news release, you can learn to write a release that is optimized for search engines on the web. If you can write a feature story, you can learn to write an interesting blog post. Thus, unless you learn to write in the traditional forms, you won't have a grounding in the basics you need to write well in any form (Bivins, 2014, p. 6).
Types of Writing Products
is management-oriented, strategic communication, and therefore most likely to be persuasive in nature. You must:
- Command a knowledge of publics and their cultures (Newsom & Haynes, p. 10-11).
- Know international communication networks and media systems and how they operate (Newsom & Haynes, p. 10-11).
- Know the organization itself — what it does, where it is, whom it serves, the regulations affecting it, and criticisms of the institution's policies, actions, or consequences of how it conducts itself (Newsom & Haynes, p. 10-11).
- Know which words will work, and why, regarding what message you communicate, what audiences you communicate with and which media you use to reach those audiences (Newsom & Haynes, p. 10-11).
Print and broadcast news releases
are often used to disseminate information and can be sent to every possible medium from newspapers to radio stations to internet sites.
- A news release, also called a press release, media release, press statement or video release, is written or recorded communication directed at members of the news media for the purpose of announcing something newsworthy.
- A news brief is a short news release, normally only a few sentences long, used for breaking or developing news. In an emergency or crisis, news briefs can take the form of daily updates. They can be delivered by email or on the web, and they can be used to begin news conferences.
- A media advisory, or media alert, invites the media to an organization’s event, such as a news conference, grand opening or presentation. It's an invitation to attend an event that might or might not be open to the public.
provide basic information as an aid to reporters, editors, executives, employees and spokespersons.
- The purpose of a backgrounder is to give a brief history of an issue or an event, going beyond the information included in a press release or press advisory to provide useful context.
- Backgrounders are used by writers and reporters to flesh out stories.
A fact sheet,
also referred to as a fact file or one-sheet, presents data in a format that emphasizes key points concisely on a single page, usually using tables, bullet points and/or headings. Fact sheets are sometimes used to summarize a longer document. They often contain product information, technical data, lists, pictures, graphics, statistics, answers to common questions, educational material or how to "do it yourself" advice. Fact sheets often describe unclassified capabilities of military equipment or units, as at Navy Fact Files
, or provide histories, or list and describe subordinate units of larger commands, as at U.S. Army Fort Riley 1st Infantry Division
. They might also provide simple timelines of complete operations.
A public service announcement is a message considered to be in the public interest that is disseminated for free. The purpose of a PSA is to raise awareness and change public attitudes and behavior towards a social issue. PSAs are often disseminated through broadcast outlets and social media for non-profit organizations.
Articles and editorials may be printed in the same publication, but an editorial is strictly the opinion of the writer. Editorials, also known as opinion pieces, op-eds or commentary, may be published in:
- House publications
- Trade publications
- Consumer publications
- General-circulation newspapers
These publications can be internal or external. Know the process for submitting in either circumstance.
- Media kits are sets of material that provide information about a person, company, organization or cause and that are distributed to members of the media for their use. These can include brochures, pamphlets, flyers or direct marketing pieces.
- Press kits are often distributed to reporters at news conferences.
Because they are interpersonal, speeches and presentations are powerful methods of imparting positions.
- Speeches are particularly well-suited for persuading. Presentations are well-suited for information. Either could be educational.
Digital communication can often garner quicker results than any other format. Knowing which tool to use requires a combination of experience, research and intuition. Digital communication includes:
- Social media
Link the Systems
Just as organisms need positive relationships with the systems that can affect their survival, an organization needs positive relationships with its relevant publics, each of which has its own views of how the organization should behave. Ultimately, the health of the organization depends on the strength and nature of the relationships it has with its publics, both internal and external (Treadwell & Treadwell, 2005).
PA writers act as links in this system. They link their organizations to external systems such as:
- Other government agencies.
- Their own and other military services.
- News media.
- External stakeholders.
- Internal stakeholders.
PA writers initiate, develop, and sustain relationships through the power of language and design. Systems thinking and professionalism both require us to monitor the communication environment and the effects of our messages. This means that our relationships with the public should be two-way rather than one-way. We should spend as much time listening and questioning as we spend crafting and disseminating messages (Treadwell & Treadwell, 2005).
- This interconnectedness means that a shift in one set of relationships can have a major impact on other relationships. For example, an internal staff decision to delay a news release in the early stages of a crisis could lead to a lack of critical media exposure and a missed opportunity to respond effectively in a crisis. This is an example of an internal system component affecting a much larger external system (Treadwell & Treadwell, 2005).
- For any public relations problem, PA writers must consider the organization and how it is perceived, the message design and methods of communication that will effectively reach multiple internal and external publics, and desired outcomes.
Be Ready to Adapt as Needed
Understanding the role and purpose of the PA writer will make you a more effective communicator. With the right skills and approach, you can do this job masterfully.
Joint Publication 3-61 (2016) Public Affairs
Bivins, Thomas H. (2014). Public Relations Writing: The Essentials of Style and Format, Eighth Edition. University of Oregon: McGraw Hill
Broom, G. M., & Sha, B.-L. (2013). Cutlip and Center's Effective Public Relations. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.
Newsom, Doug, & Haynes, Jim (2015). Public Relations Writing: Strategies and Structure, Eleventh Edition. Boston, MA: Cenage Learning:
Smith, R. D. (2012). Becoming a Public Relations Writer. New York: Routledge.
Treadwell, D., & Treadwell, J. B. (2005). Public Relations Writing: Principles in Practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.