When I’m blocked at the beginning of a writing project, it’s usually an indication that I need to do a little more research. It can be tempting to just jump into a project without a lot of preparation, especially if your assignment is relatively simple, e.g., a short press release. But your research will influence what and how you write.
Even if you won’t be including a lot of research in your piece, odds are you still should know the information. Details that you dig up can give you a proper context for your subject, suggest a unique selling proposition or simply prevent you from inadvertently misleading readers.
The general rule is, whatever the type of piece you’re writing, research is the first step in your project. Here are the three main types I recommend:
If you’re writing about a product, service or show, it’s a good idea to experience it for yourself. That sort of personal experience may yield details that you could not have acquired any other way, enabling you to bringing a specificity and concreteness to your piece that draws in readers.
For example, I once had to ghostwrite an article about an educational video game. Although I had all sorts of general information about how the games worked, the article kept stalling until I played the games myself. After that, I was able to include details about breaking through energy barriers and inputting weather data at a futuristic tower. I had been stuck because the information I had was enough for a brochure but not the type of article I was required to write.
Of course, it is not always possible to have a first-hand experience. Interviews allow communications professionals to take advantage of someone else’s experiences and expertise. This is my main tactic for article assignments as well as case studies, but interviews have also enabled me to flesh out press releases with some great information about various ways a product has been used or integrated into an organization’s work processes.
Combining firsthand experience and interviews is a good tactic for any assignment that involves a complex subject. For example, the authors of The Public Relations Writer’s Handbook suggest that if you’re writing about a survey or book, you should try to both read the material and ask questions of the surveyor or author.
Review Existing Materials
The most common research tactic involves reviewing print and multimedia resources on your subject. In fact, it often sets the stage for the first two tactics mentioned.
This type of research helps you to learn about your subject’s background and development as well as relevant trends and the targeted audience. Review existing materials such as press kits, press releases, brochures, manuals, videos, podcasts, or websites so you can gain a better understanding of the product, service or organization and, in turn, help readers appreciate what’s being offered.
This type of research does not have to be limited to in-house materials. Journal articles often require you to cite external resources. Also, checking out external articles, papers, videos and so on may make you become aware of any trends that you can use to create an angle for a piece.
An extreme example of this occurred recently when a client wanted me to write a press release about an updated product. However, I suspect that communication had broken down between the research & development and marketing departments because when the assignment passed through the company pipeline to me, my contact had no guidance on how important the new feature would be for prospective customers. She asked me to do some general research that could support the concept of the upgrade being noteworthy, and my research revealed that the update actually filled a very significant need for two segments of the company’s targeted market.
You should also research media outlets that you are specifically targeting. Many busy pros neglect this step and wind up sending irrelevant pitches and other materials to outlets. It can be time consuming, but you should research whether the outlet actually covers your topic, what angle(s) would best suit that particular outlet (editorial calendars can be a great help in that area), and who would be the best person to contact. The outlet’s website is a good starting point and you can also look for newspaper and magazine articles in public library databases. If possible, review the most recent articles or shows related to your topic so you can reference them during your initial contact with the outlet.
Research may not be the most fun aspect of public relations or promotional writing, but you ignore it at your peril.