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10 Books every PR person should read


Over the past 20 years that I’ve been working in the top level of the PR industry in the UK and Ireland one thing has remained consistent, my love for reading. Since 2006 when I set up MediaHQ I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of books that influenced me throughout my PR career. In the world of PR, it’s not enough to rely on your own resources to get your story picked up by the media and books are one of the best tools in your arsenal.One of our favourite things here at MediaHQ is our expert newsletter, ‘The Mid-Week PR Read’ which is full of essential stories focused on media trends. One section though that has proven extremely popular among our followers is the ‘Must Read Book’. The section helps PR people to get a plethora of new ideas and influences. To help, we’ve put together ten books that every PR person should read to accelerate their PR strategy. Check them out below.Want the eBook version of this article? Download it here.

Book 1 - The Information Diet - A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson

I’ve been working in Public Relations and communications for over 20 years now. I find that it’s healthy to ask myself, at least once a week:‘What is my job exactly?”It’s not that I’m trying to force an existential crisis on myself, but merely that I think probing the heart of what makes us purposeful as communicators is essential.I first read The Information Diet weeks after it came out in 2011 and it blew my mind. It also made me realise that our job as PR people is to change how people think, based on the information they consume. It’s a simple equation. In the main, this is information that we are responsible for creating. The easier we make it to consume the better the outcomes for our project, cause, or even the criticism we make.In this book Clay Johnson lays bare the modern dilemma with the consumption of information. You know how you feel when you have spent hours on your phone and you can’t remember a single thing you’ve read, listened to or watched. As I write this my phone pings to reveal the average hours per day that I’ve spent on my phone this week. In a word it makes me feel ashamed. What am I doing with all of this time? How could I be spending so much time consuming rubbish?Johson shaped the digital strategy for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential election campaign. He is best known for directing Sunlight Labs at the government transparency operation Sunlight Foundation. It is an open source community dedicated to using technology to promote transparency to transform government.In this book he draws a parallel between how the production of food was industrialised, which at once allowed for ever-greater efficiency and at the same time reined in an obesity epidemic. He argues that blaming the abundance of information itself is as absurd as blaming the abundance of food for obesity.Instead, he proposes a solution that lies in planning a healthy relationship with information by adopting smarter habits and becoming as selective about the information we consume as we are about the food we eat. In the process, he covers the history of information, the science of attention, the healthy economics of media, and a wealth in between.It’s a must read to get a deeper understanding of why we consume the information we do, and how you, as a PR person, can be part of the solution and not just someone else chasing click bait distracting people.

Book 2 - Deep Work by Cal Newport

On a scale of one to 10 how distracted are you? Be honest about it. How do you concentrate and try and calm the noise in your head? For me this is a big challenge every day. My brain is a very active place - like the concourse of Grand Central Station.When my head is working properly, I’m productive, organised and the energy is flowing the right way, when it’s not, I feel overwhelmed and completely bombarded.Everyday we are all pelted by thousands and thousands of messages, and it’s only getting worse. The advent of social media, in the last 10 years, has intensified the problem. How often do you get distracted into a social media rabbit hole and spend hours endlessly scrolling through Twitter, Youtube or Facebook.There is a small wooden stool in our kitchen - a relic of when my daughters were smaller. Sometimes late in the evening when I pop down for a cup of tea I’ll perch on it while the kettle is boiling. I’ll just have a quick look at social media - that’s what I tell myself. Too many times I’m still sitting there uncomfortably 20 minutes later drooling in a mindless scroll - helpless to break out of my bad distraction habit.Enter Cal Newport and Deep Work. I discovered Cal Newport about four years ago and immediately fell in love with how his mind works. Newport is Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and he writes self-improvement books. They’re not your run of the mill ‘how to get better’ books. He has a gift for simple language, powerful lessons and practical tips based on evidence.Deep Work kicks off with the story of Jason Benn and the way he learned to program. He spent hundreds of hours isolated in his bedroom, without a computer, reading and learning before he got near a computer. Being isolated taught him how to work deeply, with no distraction. It is a way of work that he used in his career. The book is full of great examples and practical tips.Deep work is defined as:

  • the ability to learn, and master, things quickly.
  • the ability to focus on your work to excel at a high level.
  • built on the same old-school values we often refer to as key to the success of our design work: craftsmanship, quality and mastery.

Newport argues that in modern work productivity is a goal in and of itself, and it shouldn’t be.Deep work requires determination, focus and effort. Newport strongly suggests that much of the modern work atmosphere is designed to distract. Open offices are distraction labs, and the lure of  convenient work like email and chatting place the appearance of being busy over producing value.If you want to figure out how to get more from your work and get more done in a better work atmosphere read this book.

Book 3 - It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden

Last year I attended the SaaStock conference in the RDS in Dublin. What is SaaS you might well ask?Let me explain. I started MediaHQ in 2006. I bought the rights to publish the Irish Media Contacts Directory, and it’s founder Mike Burns met me in an underground car park off Kildare Street to give me the assets of the publication. I wondered what this curious phrase meant. What had I bought?I shouldn’t have been so naive. As it turned out the assets consisted of five boxes of books. As I drove away that day, I was unaware of the challenge that faced me, and the team I would build. Very quickly I realised that we had a problem. Large PR teams from agencies and in-house would buy one copy of the book and photocopy it. How am I going to make money, I thought? My daughter Matilda had just been born and I kept thinking “This media contacts thing isn’t really buttering the spuds”.So I decided to go online and build a digital product. I knew what I wanted but didn’t fully understand this world. I asked our first developer if we could build something online that anyone could access without downloading it on their computer. “We can, of course, we need to build it in the cloud.” I remember thinking, “Oh the cloud, ok let’s get some clouds.” How have I come so far!Unbeknownst to me, we were building a SaaS company. SaaS means Software as a Service and there are now over 130 indigenous Irish companies doing this. It’s a thriving industry here. SaaStock is the largest conference of its type in Europe and it was fantastic.One of the stars of the domestic and global SaaS industry is a man called Des Traynor. He is a co-founder and chief strategy officer of a company called Intercom. I went along to see him being interviewed at the conference and he was asked to name his favourite book. He thought for a few seconds and said it’s a book by Paul Arden. He couldn’t think of its name, but I knew instantly. It’s not often that you can remember all the details of how you first encountered a book. I got the cover of the book on my phone screen and put my hand in the air. He saw the title:“It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.”He thanked me. We shared a brief moment. I was delighted.In the autumn of 2003, my life was in transition. After almost five years on the political hamster wheel, I decided to branch out and start my own Corporate PR Consultancy. Over lunch with my good friend John Murray - he told me that he’d been offered a job in RTE and was going to leave his PR business to one side. Also most instinctively I said, “What about your clients, maybe I’d be interested.” He had two main clients. I won one of them and I was off. Out of paid employment and a guaranteed pay packet and into living off my wits.Shortly after I left, I got a call wondering if I would like to work on an Assembly election for the SDLP. The election was six weeks away and they needed help in their press office. ‘Why not,’ I thought, and I jumped into the deep end. I love a challenge, but this was senior hurling. The first day, I went to Stormont and addressed their assembled MLAs. Everything was different, the media, the message, the culture, the competition.From the very first day, I willed it to end. I felt many times I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I’d have a victory like picking their campaign slogan or getting a great hit in the media, followed by some big reverse like a row with a colleague, a poor outing by one of their politicians or nobody showing to a press release. The election went badly and I needed to get a way.I booked a few days in Amsterdam to get away from the world, and on my first day I walked into Waterstones bookshop and picked this book up. I remember sitting on one of their arm chairs and being totally engrossed. I went to the till and paid for it and went off for a cup of tea to continue reading.I finished the book in 45 minutes, and I wish I could do it all over again. It’s a book about the power of drive, ambition and the will to get better. It’s visual, dynamic and impactful. It will provoke your thinking like few other books.The late Paul Arden was an incredibly gifted man, through his work in the advertising industry he knew about the power of persuasion. This book is full of his talents. One of the stories in the book that stayed with me was the one about when Victoria Beckham was a small girl. She was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Young Victoria thought for a minute and said:“I want to be as famous as Persil Automatic”Buy this book. It could change your life, and at worst it’ll change your thinking. Oh and it’ll give you 45 minutes you’ll wish you could relive over and over and over again.

Book 4 -  Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind edited by Jocelyn K. Glei

If you work in PR or communications the ability to create is a very valuable talent. It took me quite a while to recognise that I am a creative person, and it took me even longer to come to terms with how to exercise creativity in my life.You could say I was failed by the traditional education system–where creative people are supposed to fit into neat boxes. In the eyes of the education system creative people are great at art, creative writing, drama, singing or even a musical instrument. I tried all of it, but was never much good. Even though myself and Paraic O’Brien once played a classic guitar duet in a talent show, but he was always much better than me!Creativity isn’t a neat process. It can’t be simply classified. It doesn’t follow a straight line and above all else, it needs to be practiced. In 1989 John Cleese gave a seminal talk on creativity where the key message was that:“Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating.”Cleese pointed out that the most creative people practice their craft every day. Singers, writers and artists. And here’s the good news–you can and you should too.In PR there is room for creativity everywhere. Coming up with ideas for a story, a new tactic for getting your brand attention, how to take a great picture, or cut a great short movie, how to compose a killer tweet, or blog post. The opportunities are endless, but you have to put the time aside and the effort in.And so to the book (let’s not forget that), I discovered the creative collective 99U about five years ago and I get a tingle of excitement everytime I read one of their books. It was started by Scott Belsky as part of Behance and then acquired by Adobe. It brings together events, a conference and a series of books all dedicated to creativity.This one is an anthology of advice in short chapters–each written by a great creative mind and focused on how to embrace the best creative practice for yourself. The writers include such heavyweights as Gretchen Rubin, Seth Godin, Cal Newport and Steven Pressfield.The chapters are built into the following four themes:Building a Rock-Solid Routine.Finding Focus in a Distracted World.Taming Your Tools.Sharpening Your Creative Mind.Don’t delay–it’s about time that you embraced your creative side. This book will help you find a routine, block out the noise and be better in mind and in body. I learned a long time ago that you’ll never have a poor day if you can keep coming up with new ideas. This book puts a structure on that energy and will help you to get real results. Read it.

Book 5 -  The Ministry of Truth by Dorian Lynskey

What's the most influential book of the last 100 years? 1984 is definitely on the list. George Orwell's terrifying look at life in an imagined dystopia - set in 1984 - is full of language and ideas that have shaped modern media.For anyone wishing to study the dark arts of media manipulation this book, by Guardian journalist Dorian Lynskey, is a must-read. It is the biography of 1984. It takes a deep dive into the inspirations and experiences that shaped this seminal work by Orwell.Just to whet your appetite - it starts with this wonderful passage:“December 1948. A man sits at a typewriter, in bed, on a remote island, fighting to complete the book that means more to him than any other. He is terribly ill. The book will be finished and, a year or so later, so will the man. January 2017. Another man stands before a crowd, which is not as large as he would like, in Washington, DC, taking the oath of office as the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. His press secretary later says that it was the “ largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.” Asked to justify such a preposterous lie, the president’s adviser describes the statement as “ alternative facts.”Over the next four days, US sales of the dead man’s book will rocket by almost 10,000%, making it a number-one best seller.

Book 6 -  The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

Have you ever become intellectually besotted with someone? To become intellectually besotted means that you fall headlong in love with their brain, how they think, their thought processes and the ideas that they produce.When I feel this way I have a phrase to describe how it feels. A few years ago we had a particular, thorny and long standing problem at MediaHQ. It was an intellectual problem and we needed to hire someone to fix it.A senior colleague of mine decided he would source someone to fix this problem. He found a city with a cluster of consultants with a particular skill set and set meetings. We got on a plane and got ready for a day of meetings.The first team we met was very nice and had lovely coffee and pastries. They heard we were from Dublin and they mentioned the silicon docks quite a bit. They did a very detailed and long presentation about how they could help us with lots of buzz words like ‘agile’, ‘sprints’ and ‘scrums’. I felt I was either at an athletics meet, rugby training or a very bad gymnastics class. And then came the big reveal - what would all this great work cost? I nearly choked on my pastry when he revealed the cost was almost €100,000. We smiled, made some non committal noises and left.Our second meeting was with a very high end group of consultants. They had been recommended by my senior colleagues friend. They said he would bring us for lunch first. We went to a nearby swanky hotel, where I ordered meat and seemed to receive every last piece of the animal in question. After a lovely meal we returned to their office. It was quickly evident that they had no real clue what we did, and that they were hopelessly winging it. They had nothing prepared, no incisive questions. There was no way I was entrusting our complicated problem to these people.Our last meeting of the day was at 4pm. We were tired from a flight and a long day. We made a deal that if it wasn’t going well we’d have a signal and leave to go to the pub. We were meeting a young team of consultants that we picked from an online review. Early signs weren’t great as we were meeting them in a shared office facility that they were renting for the meeting. Why don’t they have an office I wondered? There were 3 of them. They were young and enthusiastic. Their senior consultant very quickly got to the nub of our issue. He completely got what our worries were and asked all the right questions. He cared, he was clever and he wanted to sort our problem. Ninety minutes in he asked if I was bored. I replied “I’ve had a day of this and I could listen to another three hours of this.”And here’s my line on when I fall ‘intellectually in love.’ Three months later my senior colleague asked if I was happy with the work our new senior team of consultants were doing. I paused and said: “Only that I’m a happily married man I’d run away with them.”And so to the ‘Culture Code’. If you haven’t guessed it by now I have a serious intellectual crush on Daniel Cole. The first book of his I read was the Talent Code and that’s why I wanted to read this book. Cole has an easy writing style and effortlessly mixes proven academic results with great storytelling. His books are effective, in that they suggest take-aways and action items.For the last two years, as a hobby, I gave an elite sports team (The Galway Hurlers) media advice. It was a fascinating look behind the curtain of what makes a great team tick. Every week was filled with conversations on how to get the most from a team. In some regards high achievement in sport is much easier than in life. The rewards are designed and predetermined.I’m passionate about trying to get the most from the various teams that work on MediaHQ and I learned so much from this book - including:

  • What the Spaghetti Challenge tells you about team dynamics.
  • The importance of belonging and a ‘feeling of safety’ in a team’s performance.
  • Why culture isn’t about who you are, but more about what you do every day.
  • What the World War One Christmas truce reveals about high performing teams.

Read this book if you want to get the most out of the people that you work with. The first thing I did when I was finished was buy a copy for every manager in MediaHQ. That’s how much I loved it.

Book 7 - The True Believer  - Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements By Eric Hoffer

There are certain books that are essential to understanding your chosen craft. They speak a truth that is the basis, or foundation stone, for much of what is accepted about what you do. If you work in communications of any sort - The True Believer by Eric Hoffer is one of those books.Eric Hoffer, the son of German emigrants, was born in the Bronx in 1898. He had a very poor childhood and had little formal education. In a childhood accident, Hoffer lost his sight for two years. When it returned, he began to read vorasciuosly, for fear he would lose his sight again. It was a habit he kept all of his life.When his father died - the Cabinet Makers Union paid for the funeral and presented Hoffer with $300. He made his way to California and ended up working as a Longshoreman in San Francisco. He spent most of his adult life educating himself by reading, writing and attending libraries.The True Believer was Hoffer’s first book and it was published in 1951 - the year he turned 53 years of age. In the book Hoffer discusses the psychological causes of fanaticism. It was published eight years after the end of the second world war and many of it’s reflections are based on the unchecked rise of Nazism.Oddly, extreme examples are often the best fodder for learning. Because they are so pronounced, they are easier to learn from. It’s as if the cause and effect are in clearer focus and make analysis easier. Hoffer uses simple language and critical thinking to shine a light on the motivation behind extremism.Hoffer defines a “true believer” as “the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause.” Leaders of the mass movement “must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.” For Islamic fanatics, death is the key to instant heaven.“If they join the movement as full converts they are reborn to a new life in its close-knit collective body, or if attracted as sympathizers they find elements of pride, confidence and purpose…” (p. 13)The book itself is almost like a religious, or prayer, book. It’s chapters and entries are very short, thought provoking and impactful. Hoffer manages to get inside the mind of an extremist and convey in vivid and logical detail the way communication gets people to act. Here is an example of an entry talking about what attracts vulnerable people to a cause:“The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”I’ve had a copy beside me on my bedside-locker for years. It’s the sort of book that you can pick up on a whim, read a couple of pages, and be thinking about them for the day. It is a wonderful reference book for trying to understand the nature of political movements or why people act the way they do.The True Believer was almost an instant hit. President Dwight Eisenhower read it in 1952 and bought multiple copies for his friends. It came back into relevance after the 9/11 attacks. Hillary Clinton cited it as one of the books that she recommended her staff to read in the 2016 presidential race.Eric Hoffer went on to write 12 books - his first was by far his most famous. In 1983 - the year he died - he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Regan. He proved that you don’t have to go to University to be educated and was one of the most influential thinkers of his generation. Get this book on your list.

Book 8 - The Speechwriter by Barton Swaim

At the start of my career, I was lucky enough to work in political PR. When I left a post graduate diploma in journalism, my first job was with The Big Issues before it went bust after just three months. I then worked in a farming trade magazine, and it’s fair to say I hated that job. Stuck in a small office in Deansgrange in Dublin writing about mastitis in cattle wasn’t how I saw my career going.Then one November evening on my way home, I got a call from my college course head. The Progressive Democrats wanted a new press officer and called him for a recommendation and he was going to recommend me. Two days later I was in Government buildings for an interview, and a few days later an interview with Tánaiste (Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister) Mary Harney. I can still remember getting the call as I walked away on Grafton Street - I’d got the job.To put it mildly, most of the next five years were a roller coaster of crises, statements, press releases, big interviews, judgement calls, victories and defeats. All of that experience drew me to this book. The journey of the author Barton Swaim was very much like my own. In the early noughties Swain was working in a menial job in a library in South Carolina struggling to make ends meet and wondering how his life ended up that way. He had a doctorate in English from the University of Edinburgh and had expected a better career.Swain applied for a job as a speechwriter with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and got the job. He’d got his big break. The book is a wonderful look at the sometimes utteraly mundane world of what it’s like working as a political operative.There are hundreds of books about what it’s like working for Presidents, but what’s it like working down a couple of divisions. Swain’s writing skills were applied to every conceivable format: speaking points, statements, op eds and letters (loads and loads of letters).The tone of the book is very caustic, and Swaim gives a fantastic insight into the creative tension between a politician and their staff. Mark Stanford’s mixture of impatience, lack of articulacy and desire to be different come across as exhausting and more than mean spirited. I really identified how Swaim found it very stressful when he was in the Governor's bad books:“It was as if you were one of those pieces of cork placed in the mouths of wounded soldiers during an amputation. The soldier didn’t chew the cork because he hated it but because it was therapeutic to bite hard. Often I felt like that piece of cork. For weeks at a time I would drive to work in the morning nervous to the point of vomiting. I wasn’t worried about any one thing—it was everything. Almost every day threatened to produce some new debacle: an oversight or blunder that would provoke the governor to wonder with inarticulate rage how someone could do such a moronic thing.”As my career has progressed, I have advised many senior communications people on how to improve at their work. The number one problem is always - lack of activity. The only way to get better at dealing with the media, is to deal with them more. That’s why I would advise anyone to take on a job in a political press office. It is relentless, fast-paced and never dull. You learn so quickly by falling flat on your back side. Your judgement is questioned every day, and you get better or you leave. Swaim talks about how difficult it was on his marriage. I was lucky in that respect, I met my wife on the job, but we didn’t get married until it was all over.In the early days Swaim struggled with the pressures of the job and he wondered if he was fit for it. He confided in a senior colleague who looked him straight in the eye and said:“If you can do this, you can do anything.”I too had the same conversation with a colleague. I was 25 years old and felt in over my head. I heard his words and they’ve stayed with me since. There is nothing in life quite like a Government Minister having a meltdown in front of you when there is a camera crew waiting for answers on the other side of the door.There is a great twist at the end of this book. It’s worth it for that alone. Don’t google, just dive in. You should read it to get an insight into how PR works at the heart of a political machine. It’s relentless, brutal and funny. There are loads of lessons that you can apply - enjoy.

Book 9 - Grouped by Paul Adams

It’s not very often that you fall for the aesthetic of a book before you’ve read a word of it, but Grouped by Paul Adams was one of those books.In 2010, the grip of social media was beginning to take hold on communications in Ireland. I had just started a training business focused on developing core skills like press release writing, planning a PR campaign and how to deal with the media. We got repeated requests from our customers to do social media events. It was new and everybody was trying to get a handle on it.I put on my thinking cap and came up with an introductory two-hour course called “Social Media Unspun.” We booked Damien Mulley to deliver the session and send an email to our customers.It was huge - depressingly huge. The first day we ran it, we had over 260 paying customers from every walk of Irish life including a young entrepreneur called Paddy Cosgrove. Who knew? In the days beforehand, the event the bookings kept coming. We made a massive profit and at the end of the day I was slumped in the corner - more than a little depressed.One of my team couldn’t fathom why I was so downbeat after such a great day. “You should be delighted,” she said. “Wasn’t today one of the biggest events we ever ran?”I explained my downbeat mood. “What you saw today was like the Klondike Gold Rush. No one here understands Twitter, Facebook or Youtube and they’re coming to us for answers. I’m depressed because today wasn’t the start of a process for us, it’s the end of it. Anyone who came today and figured out social media


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