The final word – why PR books still matter

When was the last time you read a public relations book? I mean a proper book with pages that you turn by hand, not a representation that you flick with a finger. A real book, where the author had to make a final decision of what to include, before the editing and printing processes committed the ideas permanently to paper. Not like a blog post or other online content that can be readily edited and updated – or deleted.

With so much information available through other means, and doubts that many practitioners have ever read a book about public relations (unless they are studying for a qualification), you have to wonder why writing a book still matters. It takes a lot of time to research and write a book – or even contribute a chapter to an edited text. You can’t expect a huge advance and income from sales is likely to be relatively small. You probably won’t become famous or rich – your work won’t be talked about like Fifty Shades of Grey, or more seriously impressive literature.

But there is something tangible about a book; something that is still special to have produced; something that shows what you think is worth saying – well you hope so as you wait for the reviews. To see your name in print, on a solid hardback or shiny paperback, on the cover and the spine, that feels good. You exist – right there in Amazon and other online, and real world bookstores. Well that’s how I feel about The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit which has just been published by Routledge – my first book (co-written with Alison Theaker).

Toni Morrison is quoted as saying “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”, which is what this book is for me. When I started studying and then teaching public relations, I was in awe of the authors I read – and meeting them was a buzz. To get to know those who informed my own understanding has been a pleasure. In turn, I hope others will find my book to be interesting and I trust useful, and perhaps they – you – will be motivated to seek the final word in print sometime too.

Books are how we have traditionally passed on knowledge – at least since the invention of the printing press. I love that my book sits alongside works by Eddie Bernays, Constance Hope, Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt, Jacquie L’Etang, Kevin Moloney – and many others in my office. Mine is that lime green one!

I’m not sure if the motivation for publishing has been the same for the authors of Share This: The social media handbook for PR professionals which was the brainchild of Stephen Waddington (who kindly sent me a review copy). This book grew out of the Chartered Institute for Public Relations’ Social Media Panel – a group of British practitioners (not all members of CIPR). I know from my own publishing experiences that the time between putting thoughts to paper and the book appearing is several months at best – so it may seem futile to document social media guidelines in a print medium. Looking back at how digital developments are reported in books that are only a year or two old is a clear reminder of how quickly things change.

For me that’s one reason in support of publishing a book – it sets a marker of knowledge as it is at this point in time. That’s what I love about historical books – and it is brilliant that they remain accessible many years later to provide an insight into what is known and thought now. Without these final words, how would we ever have an idea of what has gone before? Online words are ephemeral and temporary in comparison.

A lot is made in the promotion of Share This that it is written by experts – as with our recent discussion on excellence, I would question what this means. But no matter, what interests me is that we can read these opinions as a collection, which Stephen highlights emerged from conversations and were peer developed through a collaborative process. In contrast, Alison and I sought to emphasise that our book was partisan and presented our pragmatic perspectives – not even what we think, but my chapters and Alison’s ones, with our own thoughts and examples. What the two books have in common is that they are intended to be practical and help practitioners. We call our work a how-to book with brains.

With 26 individual chapters, Share This looks at many different areas of social communications. The chapters provide succinct insights – part reflection and opinion, part guidance and observations on practice. Whilst appreciating the book had a very quick production schedule, it seems a shame that there is no formal reference list in Share This. Compared to the conventional academic style, the approach makes Share This easy to read (and write), especially for practitioners who may be unfamiliar with academic referencing. There are some footnotes which reference online sources primarily – but sometimes Wikipedia is cited where more original sources (e.g. for Ivy Lee) would be better. Another benefit of more classical approaches to referencing is to link to what has gone before, some precedents on which work is built or where there are gaps and opportunities. It is notable that the chapter written by Richard Bailey (Leeds Metropolitan University) does include several literature references.

Overall, the strengths of Share This are that it is a light and easy read, with plenty of useful advice and thinking about social media that can be drawn upon by practitioners. It is easy to dip into and chapters are short and accessible. On the whole, the book does not seek to prescribe how to use social media, but makes suggestions and considerations. It is helpful to have such a scope of reflection on social media in one book – rather than having to skim across dozens of blog posts for example. Of course, the downside (despite the use of social media in the book’s creation and online promotion) is that a book is a done work, and as a reader, you cannot engage in the conversation that the authors reflect.

I like the fact that most of the authors are not people who have written book chapters previously and I hope they are all very proud of the achievement. It is a nice book – and although I haven’t yet had a chance to read it throughout in any detail, it seems to be a useful addition to the body of knowledge. I am pleased it is published as a real book – so that the various viewpoints at this time are documented as evidence of opinion and practice at this point in 2012.

Reflecting on my own experience, writing a book is an interesting process. I am pleased with the outcome – it is better than I feared but not as good as I’d like, which I suppose is okay. At the least, I trust it is worth the total commitment of the trees used in its production.

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8 Replies to “The final word – why PR books still matter

  1. Olivia and Enrica thank you for your comments. In terms of physical versus online books, we wrote the Toolkit with a view to it being a print edition. As such, any online or ebook is really only a means of access. If I was producing something specifically for online or digital consumption, I would like to think it would take advantage of multi-media opportunities. The case studies, interviews, tools included etc would be much better if executed using video, talk-through presentations and so on. But that’s an idea we could work on going forwards.

    Indeed, our publishers never mentioned any online aspects – it is only by chance that I discovered it in Amazon online recently (although still waiting for a code from the publishers to download an author’s copy). It seems to me that traditional publishers really haven’t grasped the potential of ebooks – let alone interactive, multimedia delivery of content. So perhaps my future will involve more self-publishing where I can explore such aspects.

    However, the credibility from having a real world book, published by a known publisher, still carries some weight today. The big question for me, is whether that will apply going forwards…

  2. When beginning to read this post, I had assumed it would be much more about the importance of solid PR books to advance our field and not as much about a review of individual books. I can see that you are obviously really passionate about this and as an avid PR book reader, I am as well. How exactly did this whole process start for you and how did you deal with the pressures of being pushed toward an online version along the way, if there even was any?

  3. Though I’m rather late on the date of the post (I was on holiday when it was issued and I have later missed it) I would like to congratulate Heather (and of course co-authot Alison Theaker) on writing her first book. I will definitely get a copy through Amazon.
    Thank you also, Heather, for speaking about books as you did. Long live real, paper, books (and trees are, hopefully, replanted).
    Enrica Orecchia

  4. Heather Yaxley was kind enough to send me a copy of Alison Theaker’s book, “The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit.”

    I don’t know what Heather “hoped” it would be…because as far as i am concerned, it’s awfully darn good. I’m really impressed with how packed it is with information and research, thoughts and debates on so many subject related to public relations. And even though a physical book can only be so “timely,” it also does a really good job of incorporating digital or social public relations into the mix (in particular, some of Heather’s chapters).

    No matter where in the world, I think this book is an excellent investment for under-graduate PR students AND practitioners. Kudos, Alison and Heather!

  5. Share This is great as a quick take on social media as well as a useful reference book. Look forward to catching up with yours! Absolutely agree with your blog point on audio books. Truly they make a book unputdownable…

  6. Great post Heather, glad you liked your review copy of Share This. Interesting point about referencing as it was something I certainly intended to do with my two chapters, but ran out of time. Look forward to reading The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit.

  7. I have asked Routledge about an ebook version – not only for purchase for Kindle etc, but for the University systems which are accessed more and more by students. Until recently, Kindle versions were more expensive in the UK (they attract VAT which print books do not) – but it has been good to see their cost reducing. I agree that there are many benefits with digital books, but there are also limitations. For example, they have no resale value (and students often sell on their textbooks) and cannot be readily passed around colleagues. I do wonder ultimately about the legacy of digital books – potentially we will be able to access everything online but I am not sure they will have the magic of buying and feeling a book that is decades old.

    I would also love to see more audio books available as this can also extend the likelihood of practitioners engaging with such work. I have been known to buy print, digital and audio versions of books – so my dream is for an package option where I can get all versions for a low price.

  8. Without having read either of them I think that “Share This” for me has one big advantage over “PR Strategic Toolkit”: it’s available in a Kindle version. Though I still fancy the dead tree version of publications (meanwhile they cover almost all the walls in my flat) I’ve switched to reading books/magazines/newspaper in their electronic formats a couple of years ago. Especially with non-fictional literature I prefer the ebook version and its advantages like instant dictionary, hyperlinks, easy bookmarking, instant availability, synchronisation (in my case on 4 devices – PC, Tablet, Kindle, Smartphone). And being able to carry around any number of books (without having to be the physical equivalent of Zhou Lu Lu – ) is something I’d never want to miss any more. And, most ebooks are cheaper than their printed relatives.
    This isn’t meant to be a eulogy for ebooks, but if we want more PR practitioners to read more PR books, then we should by all means make them more (and easier and cheaper) available.

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