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I know, after years of being asked to blog about communication, I've finally broken down and created a new blog. Please take a second and see what's going on with me, my research, or my opinions about various issues related to human communication, organizational communication, or workplace learning and human performance imrpovement. More...

Over the next few months, I have a number of new books coming out. In July, the 6th Edition of Communication Apprehension, Avoidance, and Effectiveness coauthored with Virginia P. Richmond and James McCroskey will be available (Published by Allyn & Bacon). In November the two-volume set on Workplace Communication published by Praeger will be available. Also in November, look for the 2nd edition of Quantiative Research Methods for Communication.

Case Study Organizing & Writing Tips

Case Study Organizing and Writing Tips
PDF Document Version

Before beginning to outline a case study, writers must decide on less than six dominant communication problems. Case writers must ask, “What is this case study about?” Each problem (topic meant for discussion) should be written in the form of a simple question (For example: Which of the topics being covered by Casing Public Relations am I interested in investigating?).

If it takes several sentences to ask a problem-defining question, then it is too complicated and not likely to be recognized or understood by readers. If there are more than five problems in a case, readers are apt to become confused and fail to focus on the important problems the writer intended to address. A case study with more than five problems is difficult to discuss in a practical amount of time (a class period, for example) and apt to require many hours of rambling discussion. If the situation being studied contains more than five problems, then the case study should be written in several sections. Each section, in addition to being a continuation of the narrative, should be able possible solutions to the problems (answers to the questions). For example: networking and technology goals are not the most effective ones, activity and task-oriented goals are better. For the purposes of this class, case writers should tie problems to topics discussed in the assigned reading material. There are often multiple approaches to solving problems, several answers to the questions. However, case writers should know what the potential solutions are and have a sense of what the best solutions are.

Remember, every case should end with a protagonist needing to make some decision that relates to a major public relations issue.

The next step is to select or create situations that give readers a clear delineation of the problems and point the way to a discussion about possible solutions. The most effective way to depict a problem is to write situations or scenes that have conflict in them: scenes in which the characters have opposite points of view, disagreements, or different solutions. In the literary world, we call this drama. Remember, a good case should first and foremost be a good story (written in narrative fashion). As such, each situation or scene in a case study should either: (1) carry the narrative forward, (2) relate directly to one of the major problems in the case, or (3) provide insight into the personality, motives, and /or communicative behaviors of one or more of the characters. The ideal situation is one that the writer knows will elicit conflicting opinions about potential solutions.

Case Study Writing Tips

1.   Keep your audience in mind: Remember that you are writing for students or discussants who may not be familiar with the background, details, and terminology of the situation. Keep jargon to a minimum.

2.   Use short-story-writing techniques: A case has flesh-and-blood characters who should be intriguing. Each story element should move the narrative forward. One of the biggest mistakes case writers make is attempting to “tell” the reader what happened instead of “showing” the reader within the story itself. While some exposition may be necessary, you should always keep the idea that this is a short story in the back of your head. If your writing sounds like something you’ve seen in an academic journal, then you’re definitely not keeping with the notion of a good story.

3.   Openings: Grab the reader with a character facing his or her biggest problem: set the scene for the confrontations, the frustrations, and the main conflicts.

4.   Present situations and scenes without any attempt at analysis: Scenes must follow a logical order and should illustrate a point, concept, or issue that relates to the problems that the writer wants to have analyzed. Do not give any signals that one solution might be preferred.

5.   Provide relevant details: After an opening that sets up the situation, provide relevant details about goals, strategies, dilemmas, issues, conflicts, roadblocks, appropriate research, relevant financial information, people, and relationships. Be stingy with numbers; they must help solve the problems, not confuse readers or send them off on unproductive analytic tangents.

6.   Use as much dialogue as possible: Make the characters come alive with dialogue. Straight narrative is boring. Again, this really helps to show your readers what is happening in real time. While we don’t want to see a play script, dialogue can definitely help move a story along and show readers what is occurring as the plot unravels.

7.   Endings: Leave the reader with a clear picture of the major problems--either ask or imply “what is to be done now?” Avoid providing the readers with a laundry list of possible solutions. The goal of these cases is to teach students how to apply public relations content in making decisions, so leave the decisions alternatives to the reader.

8.   You should follow the basics of general story telling. You need to have a clear introduction, body, and start towards some conclusion. You should also have a clear protagonist and an antagonist.

9.   Remember, these are public relations cases, so make sure that your problem is clearly public relations related.

10. Be imaginative while staying within the realm of modern public relations realities. In other words, we’re not looking for science fiction or fantasy cases. The cases should be grounded in real public relations problems that practitioners are facing in our world today.

What are the most common pitfalls of case development?

1.   The case with no clear decision or focus.

2.   The case with too much in it (unmanageable detail).

3.   The case with no structure, or shifting structure.

4.   The case with no context (how does this case situation compare with comparable situations?)

5.   The case with no actors.

6.   The case with no controversy.

7.   The case with no drama (boring--selectivity is often the key here. Don't swamp your story with too many sub-plots.)

8.   The inside-joke (assumed familiarity).

9.   The case doesn’t follow the template provided online.

10. The case tends to tell the reader what has happened instead of showing the reader what is happening.

What are common causes of casewriter's writing block?

1.   No structure or clear decision focus (try telling the case story to someone and asking them what is most compelling?)

2.   Not enough specifics/concrete details from which to build the story.

3.   No sense of urgency (try setting clear deadlines for yourself).

4.   No audience (line up several fair, intelligent readers).

5.   Lack of clear direction of concepts the author wants to cover within the case.

Some mundane tips:

1.   Always write cases in the present tense. We need to experience the situation along with the main character up to the point where he or she must make a decision.

2.   Use nonsexist, nonageist, nonheterosexist, nonracist, etc. language.

3.   Use standard case conventions (for example, refer to actors by last names consistently; don't capitalize position titles; number exhibits and refer to them within the text at appropriate points; etc.).

Please make sure that you use the template provided on my website for your case study.

Parts were adapted from Charles Warners “How to Write a Case” and Mary Gentile’s “Twenty-Five Questions To Ask As You Begin To Develop A New Case Study”

Helpful Resources for Writing Cases

yWriter is a software program designed to help writers think through the creative process. You can use it to lay out your story and to write your story – it has a built in word processor.


Provides 10 great tips for writing creative short stories. A case is always a good story first.


If you do not have Microsoft Office, Open Office is a great substitute.


For all of your basic writing needs.


Writers’ Digest is the largest publisher of both fiction and nonfiction related books and magazines.


HRB publishes monthly case studies similar to the ones being written in this class. Just run a search in Ebsco Host for HBR and the keyword “case study.” You’ll find tons of examples.

Harvard Business Review