Professional Development: Turn over a new leaf

There's more to holiday reading than trashy airport fiction. Peter Crush reports on the latest PR-related titles.

'Anyone who thinks they can't learn anything new about PR is an idiot.' This wise counsel comes not from some obscure academic, but from Lord Tim Bell, founder of Saatchi & Saatchi and chairman of Chime Communications.

At 63, it is an honest statement from a man who surely should know pretty much everything about PR. And yet while most would almost certainly agree with him, far fewer take his words to heart when it comes to the latest PR books that hit the bookstalls.

The book industry is, in fact, extremely generous to PROs, with new books published virtually every month. But Stuart Thomson, author of the newly published New Activism and the Corporate Response, and who is currently writing the next book in the CIPR's PR in Practice series, says most PR books only sell a couple of thousand copies, with a successful book only selling around 5,000.

It does not have to be like this. As the summer holidays loom, now is the perfect time to catch up with some of latest works.

For those who do, the experience can be an epiphany.

'I'm an avid reader of business books,' says Henry's House deputy MD Ginny Paton.

'No Logo was fantastic, and so was Rolf Jensen's Dream Society, which explains why companies that have brands with a story behind them are so much more successful.' So devoted is the agency to reading relevant books that Paton bought a copy of Macintosh computer history Insanely Great for each member of staff.

And while Paton admits the more populist books get most attention (such as Peter Oborne's biography of Alastair Campbell and Piers Morgan's autobiography - 'a brilliant insight into how journalists work'), she also believes textbooks have their place. 'You wouldn't read Campbell if you had a crisis management issue, you would go to a textbook,' she says.

So, what is hot off the press? We chose four just-published books and asked a senior PRO to review each one.

THE TRAINING MANUAL

Effective Writing Skills for Public Relations - third edition; Author: John Foster Publ: March 2005, Kogan Page £16.99; Reviewed by Gabrielle Shaw, founder, Gabrielle Shaw Communications.

What appealed to me most about this book was its focus on the very basic elements of style, and the importance of attention to detail in successfully communicating with both the press and an agency's clients.

We interview candidates regularly and nearly half of the CVs we receive contain spelling and grammatical errors. First impressions would be so much better if some of them had used this guide. Although the topics seem very elementary - avoiding cliches, how to use a comma and semi colon - it is precisely these skills that are needed. This book addresses the pitfalls that wind up editors, clients and PR managers alike.

Tailored style

One of the best tips here is to read and understand a publication's specific style and tailor pitches accordingly. It also suggests having a 'style library' of great magazine articles - I have always found this useful for stimulating ideas.

The guide also addresses the mechanics of the press office in using resources such as the internet to serve journalists better, and offers tips on using wire services.

Issues of libel law and fact-checking are also well covered.

Crucially, Foster addresses the editor's story selection process and reminds the reader of the chain a press release goes through, in terms of what gets covered and what gets dropped. It may be old-fashioned, but being able to sell-in a story - especially if you are seeking in-depth features coverage - is one of the biggest skills in PR. Involving your client's products with larger lifestyle themes is also a must.

On a similar theme, the book could have been packaged far more sexily - it is bulky and the dull cover belies its well-thought-out contents.

A book of this kind will provide the budding or established PRO with an opportunity to gain a broader understanding of how good PR is created.

For those new to PR it emphasises that writing is an invaluable part of the job. After all, clients and journalists may not praise a good release, but if it is not done well, they shout very loudly.

8/10

OR WHY NOT TRY... Out this month: - Effective Internal Communication, Kogan Page Worth a shout: - Press Here - Managing the Media for Free Publicity, Prentice Hall - Inside the Minds: PR Visionaries, Aspatore - Guerrilla PR: How You Can Wage an Effective Publicity Campaign Without Going Broke, HarperBusiness

IF ALL ELSE FAILS...

- I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson - a story of one woman's attempt to juggle her city career, love, life, children and men.

- The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom - a novel about the surprising five instrumental figures in the moral life of ordinary maintenance worker, Eddie.

THE TEXT BOOK

Risk Issues and Crisis Management; Author: Michael Regester and Judy Larkin Publ: April 2005, Kogan Page £16.99; Reviewed by Deborah Saw, managing director, Citigate Dewe Rogerson.

We are all aware that businesses have never been under such scrutiny as they are today. What this book makes clear is that there is a whole range of forces coalescing, increasing the risk profile for companies.

The social landscape is changing. We no longer trust people in authority.

We trust ourselves and the people like us. No wonder there are 1,000 single-issue campaigning groups in the UK. Combine this with real-time media that operates 24 hours a day and you begin to understand why companies need to be on constant alert - identifying potentially hazardous issues and developing responses to them.

The authors state a stark reality - that the majority of companies do no issues-mapping at all. When an issue escalates they are completely unprepared for it. Regester and Larkin demonstrate how to structure the management of issues and the book is packed with case studies.

The first half of the book sets out a methodology to identify, anticipate and manage issues, the second half focuses on how to handle such crises.

And you really won't find two more experienced crisis managers than these authors. This book will surely be regarded as the classic text on how to prevent an issue turning into a crisis.

9/10

THE QUICK READ

Essentials guides

Author: Tom Peters Publ: June 2005, Dorling Kindersley £7.99 each; Reviewed by Peter Lawlor, creative director, Hill & Knowlton.

They say travel broadens the mind, but when it comes to reading I find it drastically shrinks the concentration span. So what do you do if, like me, you like to add a little substance to your holiday reading?

Well you could do a lot worse this summer than delve into Tom Peters' Essentials.

These four breezy little books are a reworking of a chapter from Peters' excellent 2003 work Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age.

Each tells a story - Talent, Leadership, Trends and Design - in a bite-sized but very satisfying way that you can enjoy long after the tan has faded.

Essentials have something for everyone. Advice and examples on how to manage, or be managed, whatever the size of your agency, is provided by the Leadership and Talent titles. Trends, meanwhile, offers all of us a lively snapshot of some major consumer trends, that 'bigger picture' we're all so fond of mentioning, coupled with intriguing and challenging insights.

Peters' talk of a 'disruptive world' rings very true. As he says, 'The fundamental nature of the change now in progress has caught us off stride... business, politics and the essential nature of human interchange have come unglued. We have to make things up as we go along.' Underpinning Peters' thinking is his belief in the critical role of women in overcoming the 'disruption' and making sense of this no-rules world.

In both Leadership and Trends (the latter co-written with Marketing to Women author Martha Barletta) he makes the case for women as business leaders and as the most important and influential consumer audience.

If you think this all sounds a bit worthy you'd be missing out. Bold images, strong colours and memorable phrases ('Brand You World'; 'Think "warmer" not "winner"') will stimulate even the most sun-addled PR brain.

Don't get me wrong, I want to flop by the pool with something mindless too. But business while you're bronzing is more fun that it sounds.

8/10

GENERAL INTEREST

PR Power? Inside Secrets from the World of Spin; Author: Amanda Barry Publ: May 2005, Virgin Books £10.99; Reviewed by Mark Bolland founder of Mark Bolland Associates.

PR Power? Inside Secrets from the World of Spin sets out to be a manual for anyone interested in PR - 'whether you are new to PR or a seasoned practitioner'. But it will be most useful for novices, who will benefit from Barry's clarity of thought and her clever provision of 'toolkits' for beginners.

First, she explains why businesses need PR. 'It's as old as the hills,' she explains. 'Alexander the Great was his very own spin doctor.' But in this multi-media age, 'where reputations can be wrecked by a careless remark or badly handled crisis', businesses and individuals have a direct route to their own customers in a way they never have before.

Warning signs

With some amusing case studies - including the infamous Gerald Ratner 'because it's crap' remarks, and the story of a university in the North of England that assumed one tabloid newspaper would report its research into binge-drinking in a straightforward way - as a salient warning, the second function of Barry's book is to explain how to go about it.

The sections on PR fundamentals and media relations are the most thorough.

Some of it is a bit too simplistic - 'go and buy a selection of today's newspapers. Give yourself 20 minutes to flick through them all' is her proposed starting point - but by and large Barry has identified the critical issues in successful media relations, from internal communications to crisis management.

By far the best parts of the book are the excellent case studies she has assembled - including the way Johnson & Johnson handled the poisoning of its product Tylenol with cyanide, and the very clever 'National Dunking Day' initiative by McVities.

Ten of these studies are included in the appendix at the end and all make fascinating reading (although I wondered how wise it was to include the campaign to launch 118 118 given the subsequently chequered history of the directory enquiry service).

Absolute beginners will also benefit from the inclusion of useful toolkits and 'worksheets' but may be rather mystified by the more complex section on evaluation.

Perhaps the most useful thing about the book is its realism. Barry notes that 'sometimes serendipity steps in' to help your PR work - how true that is - but that 'in the main, PR is a slow-burn, long-haul activity that may not necessarily be immediately obvious'.

On the balance this book will, I hope, assist many as they set out on that long road.

8/10.

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