A backgrounder is a brief article that summarizes an issue or company for the press and media; it is one of the more common press materials that a freelance writer or PR writer may be asked to provide. A backgrounder is often provided with press releases or other brief press pieces. The purpose of a backgrounder is to give a brief history of an issue or an event that is above and beyond the information included in press release or press advisory.
Look, media personnel and press writers are busy. The backgrounder serves the purpose of parsing out information for them. You want them to have the facts about your story, right? You don't want them to dig! The backgrounder is yet another separate, discrete piece of information that you, as a writer, can feed to the press!
So, you better make it good!
What's Included in a Backgrounder?
As demonstrated in this sample backgrounder, the main components of the piece are the leading summary of the story, the history of the issue, the summary of the current action being taken (that is, what makes the story current and important NOW), and some illustrative stories (often emotive and pressing) which can be useful to journalists when crafting the story or report. These are often included in the backgrounder as opposed to the press release or advisory because the release and advisory are necessarily short and to the point.
Please note, this is a heavy revision/re-purposing of an actual backgrounder that I wrote for a client, as are many of the sample pieces I've provided in this series on PR/media writing.
Like most of my sample pieces, the following backgrounder displays the sample in regular font, and instructions in italics.
Constitutional Violations in XXXX Situation (A brief title that summarizes the cause or organization)
Name of Organization
Backgrounder (labeled as such for the convenience of the journalists)
(The following section will be a succinct summary of the problem, event, or organization.) In the course of working toward our mission of (insert sample mission), a coalition of advocates and community-based groups has noted strikingly similar stories about violations and overreaching authority on the part of (insert sample group) when responding to (insert sample situation). (Note that this introduction gets directly to the point and answers a lot of the basic who, what why-type journalistic questions. It also names the major players in this issue).
Coalition members working with the (target group) on various projects noticed this pattern and shared incidents which prompted further research. The current status of the research is a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of materials related to (the situation). (The FOIA request references the press release that accompanied this particular backgrounder.)
Insert a Summarizing Subtitle Here (Remember, writer, subtitles and sections enable for skimming, which is all that most busy journalists have time for!)
(At this point, the backgrounder delves into the important details of the situation. Use this sample to discern the format of these details.) This group often enters into routine actions or situations to perform an action within the community. However, this minor situation then becomes (statement of the related problem, giving supporting evidence and detail).
To promote greater transparency in these situation, our alliance initiated a deeper look at the mechanisms and communications that result in these heightened incidents. A FOIA request was officially filed on X date.
Insert a Subtitle About the Next Paragraph (Again, writer, remember that subtitles are your friends.)
The FOIA request seeks information regarding the circumstances under which (targeted group) provides this kind of assistance to other community agencies and participates in similar activities, the scope of their legal authority in this matter, the applicable policy guidance they are given, training materials provided, statistical data, and complaints filed with (agency) as a result of these practices.
(Again here, we have chosen to break out another section with a subtitle:) Violations, and Consequences
These practices may violate the constitutional rights of individuals who are (add situation here). Also, the use of (sample agency) causes discrimination against (the target group).
Voices from the (Advocacy Group) (This is where we will begin telling the illustrative stories, and the subtitle should match that tone and get the journalists' attention. These stories often provide the journalist with great slants for his/her piece.)
These illustrative stories were gathered by the (advocacy group) and may be used by members of the press in crafting stories and statements about (the issues at hand).
(In this space, several stories are inserted which mirror the issue at hand and provide ample examples and details. In this particular example, these brief stories of about one paragraph were delineated by bullet points. Again, we are trying to make for easy skimming on the part of the journalist.)
About the Advocacy Group (The portion under this subtitle provides required background information on the organization itself.
This space tells a brief history about the group putting out the backgrounder and often includes organizing mission, members and other vital information that the press outlet might need to know. Be sure to include a website and contact information.
Conclusion: Your Sample Backgrounder
There you have it, an example backgrounder page. This page had the organization's header at the top, and contact information at the bottom. It was sent as a PDF (a solid choice, often expected and easily accessible by journalists), along with the press release. Both were clearly labeled for the target journalist.