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Public relations is fifteen times (pdf) more effective than advertising. And at least 95% of public statements and PR pitches end up as email detritus, spiked by hard-pressed or incredulous journalists or funnelled down the black hole of news aggregation services.

Why?

After all, much of the paraphernalia of today’s PR practitioners – press releases, media advisories, backgrounders – are carefully scripted, on message, and pour out of corporate offices and PR agencies like streams of confetti.

Sounds like music to journalists’ ears.

The reason, according to Alex Singleton in his new book The PR Masterclass, is that most PR pitches fail to understand the needs of journalists – story ideas that grab their readers’ attention.

The PR Masterclass, by Alex Singleton

Singleton should know. A former journalist at The Daily Telegraph and Mail Online, he would have developed an instinct for what his readers were interested in, the kinds of stories that would grab their attention and what constitutes successful, and ineffective, PR.

The PR Masterclass is studded with examples of good, bad and ugly PR, from a local tea blender on the south coast of England wooing the BBC by creating the world’s largest tea bag, to Whitehall departments refusing to pass on interview requests to their political bosses and a top global bank attempting to spin layoffs as ‘repositioning actions to reduce expenses’.

For those of us who have worked in journalism much of this sounds familiar, a good deal of it depressingly familiar.

But while this book is notable for the thoroughly practical way it sets out how to develop newsworthy story ideas, maintain a effective list of journalists, write and pitch press releases, run an effective press office and many other PR basics, what sets it apart is its refusal to succumb to the disease of many business books: a delight in pointing out what is challenging or wrong but providing all too few actionable solutions.

And here the solutions are set out in technicolour detail. How to write a press release headline and build an effective media list. Why anonymous letters can work for personal finance sections of newspapers but not for general readers’ letters. Why most newswire services are a waste of money, but which are worth their salt. And so on.

Arguably, The PR Masterclass suffers from a couple of limitations.

First, it is written from an (unashamedly) western perspective. But while building strong relationships with journalists is central to PR anywhere, a well-trodden path to media coverage in China (and plenty of other emerging markets) is to pay the journalist and/or buy advertising space.

The book also takes a fairly narrow view of PR, centred on media relations. Singleton argues persuasively that the conventional media still matters, despite all the talk about social media.

I concur.

But what constitutes mainstream media has now expanded significantly, with some blogs rivalling the online efforts of major broadcasters and newspapers.

The Business Insider now has a higher readership than the Wall Street Journal.

And as Ryan Holiday has pointed out, these organs can operate by very different rules and demand a muscular and visual approach to PR.

Nonetheless, neither seriously detract from a highly readable and eminently useful addition to the PR canon, and one which should be required reading not just for communications students but for any organisation that wants to get its message out credibly and persuasively.

 

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of The PR Masterclass by Wiley

The rush of tweets, infographics and animated gifs makes it challenging to get a real handle on longer-term communication trends. Thankfully, long-form journalism, storytelling and analysis are in rude health.

Here are the three best books on communication I have read in 2013 (ie. not necessarily published over the past twelve months):

Trust Me, I’m Lying, by Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday - Trust Me, I'm LyingBilled as a warts-and-all confessional on modern-day media manipulation and spin-doctoring, Trust Me is actually principally a polemic on the state of the media in the US and a no-holds-barred expose on the inner workings of the blogs re-setting news industry plate tectonics, notably Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Drudge Report, Gawker and Huffington Post.

If you believe your news should be informative and balanced, then this book makes for highly unsettling reading – Holiday’s thesis is that the media industry has effectively lost its bearings in a desperate quest for exclusives, page views and ad bucks, disregarding any pretence at accuracy, objectivity or integrity in the process.

While Trust Me, I’m Lying reads a little like a personal slanging match in places (the author pulls no punches in fingering those he sees as chiefly responsible, amongst them Gawker Media’s Nick Denton and media talking head Jeff Jarvis), it holds valuable insights and lessons for both communications professionals and consumers.

Exposure, by Michael Woodford

When Michael Woodford, newly appointed CEO of medical to consumer optical manufacturer Olympus, got wind of a scoop by a niche Japanese magazine detailing massive financial irregularities at his firm, he could scarcely have believed that he would wind up blowing the lid on a cover-up of some USD 1.7 billion of losses and becoming one of the highest-profile and most effective whistle-blowers in corporate history. (Of course, Woodford has since been knocked off his perch atop the whistle-blower premiere league by one Edward Snowden.) While Exposure suffers from poor writing and can hardly be described as a balanced account (according to Japanese friends, Woodford is seen to have over-egged the publicity pudding and thrust himself to the front and centre of the story in an unashamedly un-Japanese manner), it is nonetheless a fascinating and, in this case, singularly unedifying insight into the culture of the keiretsu and big business in Japan. It is also an excellent example of how a reputable company can be brought to its knees by a rogue employee (or two) through bitter resolve and smart communication on the one hand and corporate secrecy and intransigence on the other. For fuller thoughts see this blog post.

The New Emerging Market Multinationals, by Amitava Chattopadhyay and Rajeev Batra with Aysegul Ozsomer

A book less about communication and reputation than about brand building, the authors use in-depth interviews with senior executives at emerging giants from Brazil, China, India, Turkey and other ’emerging’ markets to identify how a new wave of multinationals are building global businesses and global brands. Full of valuable insights into how firms like Asian Paints, Asia-Pacific Breweries, Godrej, Haier, Lenovo, Natura and Wipro are building their brands, The New Emerging Market Multinationals sets out a step-by-step process for global brand-building, including how to overcome country of origin perceptions, and ends with a look at how companies are – and should – manage their brands across their organisations, making a strong argument for centrally-managed brands. An excellent resource for professionals at emerging market firms and at established players figuring how to take on their new competitors.

 

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