The usual advice is to be a hedgehog instead of a fox. I prefer the fox, which explains my reading habits.
The fox knows a little about many things. The hedgehog knows much about one thing. In the parable, the hedgehog wins. The conventional wisdom is that the slow and steady specialist will carry the day over the swift, though unfocused generalist.
Perhaps this is true in some professions. I don’t believe it is so in my profession of public relations, where knowing a little about a lot allows you to see around corners – to know what might happen based on knowing what has happened before, and how people are, and how they want to be. Often, this knowledge is acquired by reading widely, deeply and frequently.
I recommend reading everything but books about PR and business. Per the latter, most business books are 200 pages about three to four ideas that could be covered in two to three pages. Books about PR, because they are essentially business books, mostly have the same problems. There are exceptions, of course, especially those that offer specific, timely instructions – that is, that are primarily technical.
To be a valued PR counselor, I suggest you cultivate an insatiable curiosity about everything and then simply read what interests you, which may make you interesting and possibly worth listening to. Here are some books that have slaked my curiosity over the years:
Culture and History – How We Came To Be Who We Are
Western mythology informs the way Americans think and, most importantly, feel. Believing you are not influenced by the dead white males who created these stories simply means you are not conscious of this influence.
If you don’t understand Rome, and the Greek civilization that preceded and permeated it, you don’t understand the Western culture in which we operate. Rome is also key to understanding the basics of power and politics anywhere in the world.
- Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch
- Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
- Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the American civil rights movement is essential to grasping the foundational issues of race relations in our country. Goodwin’s book shows what great leadership looks like, particularly the important role of humility. Diamond’s book reveals how to look at difficult situations from a different perspective.
Philosophy and Religion – What We Aspire To Be
The essential handbooks. Regardless of your religion, having at least a rudimentary knowledge of The Bible is table stakes if you want to communicate effectively in our culture. Even if you are not Catholic, the catechism of the Church is the best, most concise explanation of the history and rationale of a religion that transformed the world. And the Boy Scouts, perhaps more than any other institution, has been fundamental to the formation of what it means to be a “good man” in America: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. (And, with the recent addition to girls to the boy scouts, the Handbook will also be a manual for becoming a “good woman.”)
- Mere Christianity,S. Lewis
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
- Plato’s Dialogues
- The Cave and The Light, Arthur Herman
Even if you are not a Christian, you are heir to 2,000 years of Christian culture. Ignorance of this inheritance is not acceptable if you are advising people how to negotiate modern culture. Nobody better explained Christianity in plain language than Lewis. Campbell laid bare the fundamental myths that define us. Plato’s philosophy is the foundation of our civilization, and his writing style is worth imitating. Herman’s book explains how Plato and Aristotle still permeate and define our culture – though it is invisible to most.
These two books illustrate how things are often not what they seem, and that what seems random can, in fact, be quite ordered at a deeper level. Being able to see order where others see disorder (as well seeing the chaos that often lies below normality) is a vital public relations skill.
Politics – How We Use Power and Are Used By It
- 1984, George Orwell
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
- The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
- The Federalist Papers, Madison, Hamilton and Jay
- Common Sense, Thomas Paine
Understanding how the siren song of utopia invariably leads to dystopia is important to guiding clients away from options that seem attractive but that will lead to disaster. Machiavelli helps us “keep it real.” The Federalist explains what it means to be virtuous in America and “on the right side of history.” And Commons Sense lays bare the feelings of injustice that fueled America’s founding – and the dissatisfaction that will always lay below the surface. It is also an excellent example of clear writing.
Writing and Art – How We Connect and Persuade
- The Sun Also Rises and In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway
- The Plains, Gerald Murnane
- Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner
- Henderson The Rain King, Saul Bellow
- The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
- Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche
- The Poetry of T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman
- The paintings of Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Robert Motherwell, J.M.W. Turner and Raphael
Public relations is the art of using signs and symbols to bring about belief. To me, these writings and paintings are the most masterful use of signs and symbols ever created. They have taught me how to communicate directly, simply, completely and persuasively.
This list of books and artworks is personal, of course. Yours will be also. The important thing is to find the ideas and communication guideposts that work for you – and stay curious. Not only will you be a better public relations professional, you might just lead a more interesting and fulfilled life.