Planning exercise

Writing a problem statement based on client briefs

A problem statement describes a situation in a way that guides the rest of the strategic process. It should also be concise, preferably 30 words or less. Clients are typically not used to formulating strategic problem statements, so they will describe their situations in ways that will not necessarily be useful to you in developing a strategy. So the first task of the public relations professional is to formulate a problem statement correctly, and decide what kind of formal and informal research needs to be done.

For example, a hospital blood program director might tell you, “Our problem is that we never have enough blood on hand. We can use as much as you can bring in through a blood drive.”

This statement does not include enough specifics, and it also implies a solution (blood drive). Proper strategy requires you to reformulate the problem as a usable starting point for research and planning. This usually requires you to ask probing questions to obtain specifics from the client. Once you have done so, you might come up with the following problem statement, for example:

Blood supplies run short by an average of 100 units each month during June, July, August, and December, resulting in emergency room delays, postponed elective surgeries and expensive transfers.

To check against the list of criteria given in your book:

  • What is the source of concern? Blood shortages
  • Why is it a concern? Delays, postponements, and expense
  • Where is it a problem? The implication is that it is a problem within the hospital, although this could be stated more clearly (e.g., Blood Supplies at Good Samaritan Hospital run short…)
  • When is it a problem? June, July, August, and December (peak holiday and vacation months)
  • Who is involved or affected, and how? Here again, patients and doctors are implied, but could be incorporated into the statement.

Adding this extra information would be useful, but would also make the statement less concise. Regardless of minor flaws, then, the statement is clear and would offer a useful starting point for strategizing.



The executive director of a charity-run homeless shelter asks you to help solve what she calls “a public relations problem.” For each of the past three years, the amount raised in the annual summer fund drive has decreased. As a result, the facilities are in disrepair and several programs have been suspended or cut back, including a summer program for homeless children. “To solve the problem” (her words) the executive director wants you to design a new brochure that will “really catch the eye of our prospective donors” (again her words).

  1. Formulate a problem statement for this scenario that meets the criteria discussed in the book.
  2. What research methods would you use to conduct your situation analysis? Make sure to explain your choices.

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