Book Review

PR Today, The Authoritative Guide to Public Relations by Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy
Palgrave MacMillan 370 pp ISBN 978 0 230 24009 4

This review can also be found in Ethical Space : The International Journal of Communications Ethics February 2012

There is no doubt that the pedigree of the authors – Trevor Morris, former CEO of one of the UK’s biggest PR groups, and Simon Goldsworthy, senior academic and founder of Westminster University’s MA in PR – gives them credibility and authority. But to say that PR Today is ‘the Authoritative Guide to Public Relations’ might be rather over-stating matters. It is, however, a very readable and well reasoned overview of a much maligned profession.

PR Today ranges from meaningful discussions about how PR is defined and sees itself through to simple, practical tips and tools for planning, practising and even securing a job in PR. The debate about propaganda is excellent and pops up at relevant and challenging places throughout the book, poking a finger at PRs who insist that it is others who engage in propaganda – and not them. The assertion that PR is amoral is well reasoned and accurate while the thorny subject of ‘truth and ethics in PR’ is also handled honestly and well.

Public Relations has an uncomfortable time in academia as this book points out because it comes from practice, is too often considered light weight – even fluffy – and lacks rigour. But what do we want to achieve from an academic study of PR? The theories will be scant because we are looking at – in relative terms – a new discipline which needs time to build up its academic credentials.

The nature of PR requires practitioners to be able to draw from a wide variety of underpinning knowledge and theory ranging across persuasion, ethics, politics, social sciences, creativity, law, business disciplines and – possibly most of all – reason. A successful PR practitioner will be able to marshal their thoughts coherently, write and speak eloquently, command respect at all levels of an organisation and to deliver their strategies.

You could argue that there is no need to study PR in and of itself but a programme of study that brings all these elements of knowledge and skills together produces a well rounded graduate rather than one with specialist knowledge of just one discipline. The future for PR in academia is bright if this book is anything to go by with its willingness to challenge the practice and to encourage deep, critical thinking.

One of the major roles of PR, it has to be stressed, is helping organisations and individuals think through the implications of their decisions and actions and how best to present the same. Some of that will require the media and other third-parties, but much of it will be around presentation and tackling crucial questions. For instance, are the messages aligned across the organisation? Is the time and the place right? Do we need to move the goal posts? PR also crosses boundaries, keeping an eye on what is going on that could affect the organisations and individuals ensuring that issues are identified and managed, avoiding the need to delve into the crisis management tool kit.

Dividing the book into three sections, covering theory and analysis, planning and strategy and finally practice, allows PR to be considered from all angles leading to a realistic conclusion that bodes well for the future. It is disappointing that PR Today spends so little time on integrated communications – where PR, marketing and advertising come together in a powerful combination. It would have been a great opportunity to consider the power struggles – particularly with marketing – and debate where the emphasis could lie with each.

The future is rosy according to PR Today and growth in PR is something to be welcomed as a source of employment not just for young practitioners but also for the necessary growth in the industries that nurture, educate and train the practitioners of the future. I do, however, take issue with the authors’ assertion that reduced state ownership is a prerequisite for this growth. They seem to forget that PR is also about providing well presented public information with its roots, certainly in the UK, in national and local government campaigns to help the citizen live a better, healthier, safer life.

PR Today is an excellent text book covering many of the crucial areas. The exercises dotted around the text are useful to stimulate the application of the theories and ideas. As yet the web resources on the companion website are unavailable but I will look forward to exploring those in due course. I shall have no trouble at all recommending it to my students, to new practitioners and, indeed, to organisations who need to understand what PR can do for them.

Let’s be honest: any book with a list of sources of useful information that includes The girl with the dragon tattoo (Larsson), Salmon fishing in the Yemen (Torday) and Absolute power (BBC) has to be worth a second look.

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