Do PR books just state the "bleedin’ obvious" or are they an important part of your career development?

Everyone agrees that it is important to keep learning in PR, but are books really that useful? Here industry chiefs discuss the value of PR books, and offer suggestions as to what you should have on your bookshelves.

Against books

There are better ways to learn says Jodie Harris, head of content and digital PR at digital marketing agency MediaVision: “Like most industries which constantly change and grow, PR has always been something that you finesse as you go, learning from the mistakes and successes of others. Having never been a fan of PR books, I think the best forms of education for a good PRO come from reading case studies, branding stories and the news in general, whether opting for digital or traditional PR. With an inquisitive mind, you should see how a brand’s latest PR worked so well, why it is something that grabbed the press’s attention and then analyse what is the forever-evolving recipe for brilliant brand PR.

“Yes, there are books that will literally answer the question ‘How do you create good PR?’ but how is that relevant to the product, brand, sector or industry you work in? It’s never going to be super specific enough that the book can act like a textbook for your PR campaign.

“A book on PR will pick out the obvious points and potentially be vague enough to apply to anything in life, such as ‘connect with the audience’ and ‘tell a story’, practical learning on the job can be much more beneficial.”

Books are too static says Julie Edgar, freelance communications director: “Staying current in the ever-evolving communications landscape means it is essential for every PR professional to keep learning. Consciously or not, learning happens every day – how to use a new social platform better, how to manage an interview opportunity to secure multi-platform coverage or how to refine a crisis management strategy. Books are, by their nature, static. They can certainly offer newcomers to PR some solid theory and broad knowledge of media, PR and public affairs. However, like learning to drive, the real progress happens when you hit the road yourself. 

“Talks by journalists at events or well-targeted conferences are fantastic opportunities to understand how the media works, what a journalist's particular pressure points are, how good PROs can help them and, in turn, offer their clients the most effective advice.

“Watching senior PR professionals at work – in person or through their own books and memoires – can be learning in action. Listening to the advice they give, understanding their strategic goals and seeing how they play out the tactics can be the effective learning of all.” 

Books state the bleedin’ obvious says Simon Turton, director of agency Opera PR: “I have read a few books on PR, but they’re generally preaching to the converted and often state the bleedin’ obvious when it comes to ‘profile raising’. The best thing to do if you’re in PR is to read the publications – on- and offline – that you’re aiming at for your clients.”

In praise of books  

Reading provides a foundation says Drew Salisbury, account executive at agency The PR Office: “Whilst it is undeniable that experience and learning on the job help PROs to understand the workings of the industry and how best to operate within it, reading books about theory and case studies provides you with the foundations upon which you can put that theory into practice. Like watering a plant, reading and learning from books enables you to grow and develop; it gives you the confidence to deal with any work situation. As one of my favourite childhood authors Dr Seuss once said: ‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.’”  

Books play a vital part in gathering information says Ger Peerboom, strategic communications leader: “A bookshelf full of PR books inspires me when looking to find a solution or direction. They then end up next to my computer as part of a journey of deep diving to find out more about the subject.

“It also works the other way around. When I read a blogpost, I go to my bookshelf to see what I’ve got on the subject. I take out the book and start reading it again and have a look at the notes I made before.”

Lifelong reading is a must says Sandra Stahl, founding partner at marketing communications agency jacobstahl and author of The Art and Craft of PR: “Whilst confidence in your expertise as a PR practitioner is always a positive, declaring yourself an ‘expert’ never is. Doing so suggests you have no need for improvement and nothing else to learn. If that were the case, our profession, like any other, would have little opportunity for growth. Lifelong reading, therefore, is a must. Specialist PR books are terrific for practitioners at every level. For one thing, PR professionals are experienced storytellers, so books authored by public relations executives can be counted on for clarity of message, quality prose and useful, often entertaining, anecdotes. 

“For those new to the business, there are a number of terrific how-to manuals. For others, from mid-level to seasoned professionals, there are many offerings that are aspirational, inspirational and motivational – all reminders of why we got into this business in the first place. Personally, I read all the time. My bedside table has PR specialist books as well as those from other genres: business, leadership, behavioural economics, science fiction, historical fiction and non-fiction. Every book adds to my understanding of human dynamics, behaviour and relationships – all aspects of PR.”

Reading list

PR readers discuss the authors who most inspire them.

Richard Bailey, public relations educator and editor of prplace.com, is a fan of Tony Langham: “To ignore books is to ignore ideas. How dumb is that! I won't try to defend academic books here and now. Instead, have you read Tony Langham's book on Reputation Management? It's full of case studies, introduces many voices and perspectives – and is essential reading for those who think that public relations is about reputation. Langham argues you're either doing reputation management – or you're doing integrated marketing communication. An idea worth debating!”

Chris Lee, CEO of marketing agency Eight Moon Media, recommends Dave Trott, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli: “For any student of PR, it is important to understand theory, but the books I recommend tend to be around ‘perennial’ topics that do not change – how humans think and behave. That’s why I recommend advertising expert Dave Trott’s books on creativity. For workplace politics, it sounds cheesy, but Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince have stood the test of time to help understand motivation.”

Simon Turton, may not be a fan of PR books, but he still rates Dale Carnegie: “If you must read a book, then I would recommend Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People – first penned in the 1930s it remains one of the books of the 20th century; it will improve your relationships not only with reporters and editors, but with everyone you come into contact with.”

These days we are all blessed with the amount of content we can access on our screens, as you are doing right now. But sometimes, it is a treat to pick up a book, whether it is about PR or about something completely irrelevant to work.

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