My books of the year

28 Dec

Here's my personal list of the five best books about – or of value for – public relations students and practitioners published in 2010. Notes and further discussion follow at the end.

1. Mediactive by Dan Gillmor ( / Kindle / Online)

Mediactive Had this book been published traditionally, it would have had a 2011 publication year. In the event, Dan Gillmor (author of We The Media) chose to self-publish as he wanted to make his ideas available more widely through a Creative Commons licence.

Since his topic is the pressing need for change in the media industries, this is an example of the medium being the message. Nor does he pretend this book is complete, as is usually expected from published works. He describes it as a work in progress – Mediactive 1.0 – supported by the updates and discussion at the website, where the full text is freely available.

Gillmor begins with a critique of traditional journalism and an analysis of the evolving media ecosystem and moves on to provide a manifesto for media literacy ('mediactivism') suitable for the new media age.

Though he barely mentions public relations, his thoughts apply to all media consumers and media content creators (ie to all of us) and core concepts such as trust and transparency are central to public relations practice.

Gillmor now teaches entrepreneurial journalism and educators like me will find his ideas applicable to their teaching (there's a chapter on 'Teaching and Learning Mediactivity').

UPDATE: I've reviewed Mediactive for Behind the Spin.

2. The 21st Century Media (R)evolution, Jim Macnamara (Peter Lang)

Macnamara's book is a scholarly counterpart to Gillmor's manifesto (the latter just gains top place in my list because it's written to appeal to a wider audience).

Those wanting to understand the major trends in the media, society and politics will value Macnamara's scholarship (I counted 45 closely-typed pages of references), though the author thought I was being ungracious in pointing out several minor errors in my review.

3. The Yahoo! Style Guide, Chris Barr et al, Macmillan

This book's subtitle is 'the ultimate sourcebook for writing, editing, and creating content for the digital world'. That's not quite right. Though it does all that's claimed of it, I have reached a belated realisation that we don't need a style guide for online content. We need a style guide for all of our writing – and this one could be it.

The lessons of good style are universal and any text telling Americans to prefer 'use' to 'utilize' clearly has wider value. The digital-only sections, such as the one on writing for search engine optimisation, can be viewed as adding value to the core lessons in clear writing and accurate editing.

The size and format of an old-style software manual, this book provides copious examples, is amazing value for money – and a surprising reminder of the continuing value of print.

4. PR: Strategy and Application, Timothy Coombs and Sherry Holladay (Wiley-Blackwell)

I'm an admirer of the same authors' previous work, an elegant essay defending public relations as a socially responsible activity, and was at first disappointed to find that their follow-up was a conventional textbook.

Yet it's an important and timely textbook that marks the point at which public relations scholars have finally broken free of the so-called Grunigian paradigm (symmetry and excellence). For this book unashamedly proclaims that 'public relations does seek to persuade people' (in his intellectually agile attempts to distance public relations from propaganda, Professor Grunig had suggested that persuasion was unethical).

The authors are alert to global perspetives, and are strong on corporate and strategic public relations, so this will become an established text for advanced students.

5. Globish, Robert McCrum, Penguin Viking

What has this book to do with public relations? Nothing directly, but everything indirectly. Language is an important component in communication and the book explains why English has become the world's language (and isn't likely to be displaced in this role by Mandarin Chinese).

English, McCrum argues on historical grounds, is the language of liberty. Though academics are rightly keen to explore different global perspectives on the practice, there's no denying the historical connection between Anglo-American political, business and media models, the English language, and the rise of public relations. So that's why I recommend this book to PR students and practitioners.


I had previously published my long list of ten books under consideration for this personal list. It's my list – and I make my own rules. But I'm broadly responding to those books with a 2010 publication date that I've read this year (I buy most with my own money). There's much selection and subjectivity in this – and even more in the final list published here.

I've dropped some useful textbooks from my final list, but also some popular business books. I had thought I favoured well-written business books over densely-referenced academic texts (my first and second places certainly suggest this), but this year I've been frustrated by the lack of context in some popular business books. That said, I remain disappointed by the cost and inaccessibility of some traditional academic publishing, and part of my bias in favour of Mediactive is its challenge to the status quo.

Looking ahead, here are some titles that I'm looking forward to reviewing for my 2011 list. I hope there will be many additions and surprises through the year.

  • Katie Paine: Measure What Matters
  • Nilanjana Bardhan: Public Relations in Global Cultural Contexts
  • Ann Handley and CC Chapman: Content Rules
  • Danny Moss and Barabara DeSanto: Public Relations – A Managerial Perspective

I welcome news and suggestions from authors, publishers and readers – and also hope to increase the number of book reviews published at Behind the Spin with the help of our newly-appointed books editor, Clare Siobhan Callery.

6 Responses to “My books of the year”

  1. Jim Macnamara 29/12/2010 at 4:58 am #

    Thanks for the mention (again) Richard. Sorry my previous comments on your review were not clear – I was having a dig at Greg Smith’s comments which followed your review – he was quite dismissive using the term “waffle”. I was/am appreciative of your review and apologetic for the couple of embarrassing errors that go through. (I think if you look back at my earlier comment you will see that I did address the second part of it to ‘Greg’ (Smith). Cheers.

  2. Paul Seaman 29/12/2010 at 5:41 pm #

    Thanks to you the book by Timothy Coombs and Sherry Holladay is now top of my New Year reading list. I always maintained that Grunig came from the school of thought that wanted to market capitalism as being “not-for-profit”. Grunig’s is a school of PR that positions things as being something completely different to reality; even when describing what we PRs do for a living. This school of misconceptions reached its peak when it persuaded BP to rebrand itself as Beyond Petroleum. BP has since learned its lessons in the school of hard knocks. Now I’m optimistic that the PR trade can also set the record straight and start talking sense about the world.

  3. Dan Gillmor 31/12/2010 at 2:19 am #

    Thanks so much for the extremely kind words re Mediactive. I’m especially glad that you noticed the experimental nature of the project, and why I did it this way.
    I’ll be doing a lot more with the website over time, including consistent updates of the book files to reflect new information.

  4. Jim Grunig 02/01/2011 at 6:50 am #

    I have never said that persuasion is unethical or even suggested it. I have said that public relations should try to persuade management as often as it tries to persuade a public. I also have said that symmetrical public relations is inherently ethical but never that asymmetrical public relations is inherently unethical. I have said that asymmetrical public relations can be ethical if it follows rules set down by persuasion ethicists–e.g., that the persuasive intent of the source of a message should be revealed to members of a public and not disguised through such devices as front groups. It’s too bad that you don’t seem to have read the writings of people you criticize.

  5. Richard Bailey 02/01/2011 at 9:00 am #

    Thank you all for the comments and clarifications.
    Jim Macnamara: I too was surprised by Dr Greg Smith’s comment to my original review. I just assumed it was some harmless Aussie sledging.
    Paul Seaman: I’m glad if my recommendation is helpful – but still think the same authors’ 2007 text the more impressive (and of wider appeal and importance).
    Jim Grunig: I have read your major works (several times) – though I am no doubt in danger of simplifying and missing much. That is why I prefaced my remarks by stating the intellectual agility of your work. I also recognise that your position evolved over time and acknowledge that the point about persuading management is an excellent one that is too often overlooked.
    But for the sake of the readers of this blog (many of whom are students of public relations) – I should note that the distinction between symmetrical and asymmetrical public relations is yours, not mine. By elevating one, you lower the other. By defining one as excellent, you declare the other to be less-than-excellent. (I need to go back and check the reference where you state that it is only possible to practise ethical public relations using a symmetrical model.)

  6. Jim Grunig 04/01/2011 at 1:29 am #

    1. Our research showed clearly that symmetrical public relations is correlated with overall excellence in public relations, as it is actually practiced, and that asymmetrical public relations is not. The was an empirical finding, not a definition. 2. You won’t find a reference in which I said that it is only possible to practice ethical public relations using a symmetrical model. I probably said, and I strongly believe, that public relations is more likely to be effective if practiced with a symmetrical model; but either model can be practiced ethically.

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