Reading Recommendations from PR Pros


With the ever-evolving public relations industry, professionals are looking for opportunities to be an “eternal student.” The Plank Center has interviewed industry professionals and always ask: What’s the best book on leadership you would recommend? Their recommendations have us adding to our reading list.


BRIDGET COFFING: There is a great book that I have been quoting wildly for the last probably six months. And I think that everybody that is in communications should read it. It’s by, Rich Karlgaard. It’s called, The Soft Edge Where Enduring Companies Find Success. And the premise of this book and why I like it so much is he’s a real hard nosed business person. And he spent his entire life working on profitability and margins and that kind of thing.

But his new premise, and this is based on intensive research, a global perspective, and really looking at a lot of case histories is that there is one factor that separates enduring companies when they hit rough waters. And it’s the soft edge of their business, and it is their character and their values. So he articulated this using the icon of a triangle. And so the one side of the triangle is essentially the heart– is strategy actually. The first part is strategy. We all know you have to have a good strategy or your business is caput.

The second edge is the hard edge. That’s speed to market, your product, your margins, pricing relevance to your customer, critically important. The foundation is a soft edge and it is all about your values, all about your character. Something we’ve all talked about for decades now. What makes this different is that he is saying that it is of equal, if not greater proport than the other two sides of the triangle. And then he goes on to build a business case for why that’s true.

It’s fantastic and it is language that any communications professional can use in talking to any person in management, regardless of what end of the business they might be running. From operations, to legal, to HR, two to whatnot. So, I highly recommend everybody get a hold of The Soft Edge by Karl.

DR. DIANA MARTINELLI: There are so many books on leadership. I cannot name just one, but I would recommend for young professionals, I think, anything by John Maxwell. He has written so many books, and he’s so accessible to so many people. And also a couple of classics from people who are no longer with us but I think they still hold lessons for young people, and that would be How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and also Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Managers and that series. It’s practical advice and something that people probably know on a subconscious level, but I think it can help bring it to the forefront and they can take something very valuable away from those books.

ALICIA THOMPSON: So there’s an amazing book out right now that I would recommend to young professionals about leadership. And it’s called Grit, The Passion, and Perseverance of Success. And I think for leaders, even though I didn’t note those as specific skill sets, I think perseverance and a passion and strong sense of what we do is critical to developing leadership skills in this industry. So I would say Grit is my new book, and it’s something that’s light, an easy read for young professionals. And it’s not 140 characters, but yet it can still be enjoyed.

DR. NILANJANA BARDHAN: Well, some people might laugh when they hear my answer about which book inspires me a lot when I think about leadership, and it’s one of those books that will mean something to people of all ages, it’s the Little Prince. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that book but it’s actually back from the 1940s and It seems like it’s a children’s book but it’s actually not just a children’s books, it’s for adults and for children. And it’s by, and I know I’m going to butcher the name, but it’s Antoine D. And he was an aviator, an author, a poet back in the last century in France. And Little Prince always inspired me when I first read it. I was so excited about this book because to me it was the message was, is important expose yourself to different kinds of experiences. And to learn from every experience. And you meet so many different kinds of people and have some new different kinds of experiences if you allow yourself to go through those experiences and you grow so much as a person and how you understand people in the world around you if you open yourself up to that. And that to me is very inspiring and I think leaders need to be people like that.

PAT FORD: I think a good place for starting on leadership in any profession, I think certainly in ours, is a book called True Professionalism by David Maister. And he has very good ideas about what the elements of great professionalism are, which are also coincidentally many of the characteristics of great leaders and I think he’s got very helpful, practical advice in that book. I think it came out in the late 90’s.

KEVIN SAGHY: So this will be a mighty task in terms of a reading assignment, but the book that impacted me the most personally in terms of taking charge of my own future was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and the book is about that thick. So it takes a little while to get through. It’s not related to public relations specifically. But in terms of a philosophy where you take on your own destination and get yourself there to those really helpful. In terms of industry publication that identifies and exemplifies the strong leaders in our industry.

Achieve a little bit instead the Plank Center published the profiles of industry leaders that recommend because we’ve given them to students and really takes them as leaders that we should all consider as role models and learn more about how they go about their work.

JULIA HOOD: I recommend that young professionals read biographies or autobiographies of business professionals. Especially an autobiography, an honest narrative that a career is not a linear progression. It takes many, many unexpected twists and turns. You make mistakes, you run into dead ends, you overcome many hurdles, and sometimes you don’t, and sometimes frustration overwhelms you.

But, in the end, you may end up in a different place than you expected. But if you can be open to the opportunities ahead of you, and that’s one of the themes that I think you see often in the best sort of business biographies and autobiographies. And my favorite is the autobiography of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post.

It’s called Personal History. And she wrote it about her journey from being a daughter, and a wife, and a mother to being publisher of the Washington Post herself, upon the suicide of her husband. And it’s wonderful how clearly and honestly she expresses her self-doubt, her uncertainty, the attacks she had from others, the doubt that others threw at her.

And she actually really triumphed. It’s a wonderful story and a real inspiration.

ANN BARKELEW: I really think that for students that Peter Drucker books, The Keys to Effective Leadership, the basic leadership books are the best ones.

RICK LOOSER: The one book I would recommend, and it is a book that’s, actually it was written by Louis Timberlake. And the name of the book is Born to Win and I heard it at one of my, I heard him speak he was a motivational speaker went around and spoke to different groups and there’s absolutely nothing that you can find as a public relations person that has a redeeming value about public relations.

There’s no talk about the four-step process, there’s no great examples of PR. But what it is, it’s a book of inspiration. And it talks about people who either at the beginning of their career or at the very end of their life, found what they were meant to do.

One great example is Colonel Sanders with KFC. The fact that this was his second career. He had retired. He had given up his own life and contemplated suicide. And then it talks about him writing a list of the things that he was good at and one of them was frying chicken, and how that turned from door-to-door, to one of the most successful franchises of all times.

And I say that because I think that young people need to be inspired, and that book made a huge difference in my life. There’s parts of it that are cheesy and motivational speaker type parts of the book, but I’ve read it half a dozen times. And he brings a lot of analogies from religion and from the Bible.

And it’s interesting, one of the few things I remember the first time I read it and remembered ever since is that as children, as babies we’re born with two fears. The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear in life that we have, we learned that fear.

And he mentions how in the Bible, 365 times, verses start with fear not. And so he talked a lot about fear, and what that can do to you, and how it’s a paralyzing feeling and so early on in my career it made me less fearful of saying things, doing things, of speaking up in meetings where I probably was supposed to listen and not speak.

But I think that could maybe change a young person’s way of thinking. Again, it’s not going to give them some great PR insight. I think all that’s great PR insight if you look at it the right way. But it’s not a nuts and bolts, mechanics book on how to be a leader.

It just talks about a bunch of great leaders and how they got there.

MARIA RUSSELL: Well, if I’m thinking about books for young professionals to read, I have three that come to my mind. Maybe it was because I’m on vacation and I’m reading things that I never get a chance to read during the academic year. But some of those, The Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I think is a great book on leadership. And then right now, The Bully Pulpit, which is about Theodore Roosevelt, and I think that’s another great book.

And these are historical novels and historical documentaries. But I think this is something that by reading biographies of great leaders, it really helps our students see how the world has evolved to where it is today. Well, how leaders stepped up to the plate when it was necessary. I also think of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.

And these were very, very simple people who took on leadership positions when they needed to, and then came back to a country to start their lives, their families, their industries, their careers, and really were true leaders. Very humble, but very effective leaders that built this country after World War II.

BETSY PLANK: I think the founder father of public relations, and I’m very prejudiced and very adamant about this, is a man named Alexander Hamilton. One of our founding fathers who helped to persuade 13 very obstreperous colonies.

Each with their own thoughts about what their vested interests were to join together and come together as the United States. And pray that Mr. Hamilton had some help from Mr. Madison, etc. But primarily that was an achievement of Alexander Hamilton. So that I feel very strongly that some of the best books to read that gives you, that would give a student or anyone an opportunity to appreciate the foundation of public relations, as a democratic institution, and a democratic profession lies in reading some things about those remarkable founding fathers Mr. Hamilton.

There are recent books out on George Washington, on John Adams. That’s all a very exciting history to read. Not only to appreciate our country and our republic, but the fundamental role that public relations, although it wasn’t called that at the time, but public relations played in establishing all those relationships and compromises and discussions and debates that were fundamental to the founding of this republic.

So I commend that library of books, recent books, that have been written about the Hamiltons, Adams and George Washingtons, and so they’re at the top of my list.

T.R. REID: I’m not sure there’s one good book, only one good book on leadership. One that I’ve read recently, that fits pretty nicely with the things I hold most critical to leadership generally, including leadership in public relations which is near and dear to me, is a book by John Cotter called A Sense of Urgency.

And among other things in the book, he talks about and cautions against false urgency, which can be characterized a variety of ways. One that strikes me is the notion of doing things with great effort and with great passion and with short deadlines, in many cases, but without clear purpose on the other end.

Public relations is something that occupies time and consumes resources in an organization when it isn’t working toward a specific purpose. So, the purpose gives us the destination of leadership, that sense of urgency helps to keep us focused and get us there more quickly. And I think Cotter’s got some important things to say to leaders, whatever their discipline, including for those of us in public relations.

DR. BRUCE BERGER: It’s very difficult to name one best book on leadership for young professionals. I think I’m going to name three or four books. The best leadership book, if you want to call it that, is a thin book by a gentleman by the name of Max Dupree. And the book is called Leadership is an Art. Max Dupree was the CEO of a furniture manufacturing company in Grand Rapids, Michigan for many years, highly successful one.

And he was what I would describe as an old time leader in that he was highly visible, he walked the plant floors, he walked the office floors, he greeted everyone, everybody knew Max. He didn’t have 100,000 employees but he probably had 10,000 employees, and most of them had met Max.

So they worked really hard for him because they knew him and they liked him, and then they wanted to do a good job for him. So he’s written a book called Leadership as an Art, that is maybe 100 pages long, that is filled with rich principles that I personally believe fully apply.

There are three other books I would recommend for young professionals. They’re not directly about leadership, but they can certainly help you. Peter Senge, an MIT professor has written a book called The Fifth Discipline, which is about systems thinking. And for people who work in large, complex organizations today, it’s a great way to understand how decision-making occurs in complex organizations.

So The Fifth Discipline is a great book. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a very popular best-seller ten years ago, is all about communication. And it’s important for leaders because it emphasizes through many anecdotes in the book it’s what you do, it’s not what you say. The strongest message is in your behaviors and interactions.

The last book is a current one, or a newer one, called Drive. The author’s name is Daniel Pink. And that’s an important book for leaders because it’s all about employees, and it’s about what’s important to employees, how you can motivate employees, make them more creative, more engaged, more involved. And that’s an eye opener, I think, as well. So those are all great reads.

RON CULP: Since you’re talking about young professionals and they usually have a lot of other things to read this is a very simple book to read and I’d highly recommend it. It’s by Bob Kornecki and Bob wrote this book How to Thrive in the Public Relations Business.

I have 35 practical tips. It is so easy to read and understand and we’ve purchased these books and we give them to all interns and young people who start in our office. People are coming in for interviews saying, what’s PR all about? And it’s a simple book that has all the right pointers and if you read it and you say it’s a bunch of bunk then you probably shouldn’t be in PR.

But if you read it and say yeah this is really what this business is all about, then we know that they’re going to be long term public relations professionals, because easy, simple advice, and I’d highly recommend it.

BILL HEYMAN: The one best book on leadership was the one that was recommended to me by you and Bruce Berger, The Leadership Challenge. I want to say by Kouzes and Posner and it was one particular part of it that I really enjoyed because it talks a lot about the notion of how important building relationships. I already talked about the fact that we all love to say, hiring managers have, we try to hire the smartest people on the planet. We’re always looking for, and that everybody in our organization is brilliant and that’s important. But one of the things it said about in this book, which I thought was very, very Insightful was that brains today, in 2008, what brawn was when the country was founded. We still need to have the right kind of managers, supporters, leaders if you will, to harness that. And that’s one of the things that said in this book, and I thought it was brilliant because I got so many tons of our clients will talk to us about how smart they need the people we put in there to be. But yet, you wonder whether or not, are they really compelling members of the corporate community or the not for profit community or the agency community where we’re placing them? So I thought that was a terrific book.

MARK HARRIS: I thought about this for a second, and there is one. I would suggest to people to read a book by the former CEO of IBM, a man named Lou Gerstner.

The book’s title is, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? And not only was he the right man at the right time for IBM, which was a failing company when he arrived and is now one of the most successful enterprises on Earth. That book gives you tremendous insight into Lou Gerstner as a leader, not Lou Gerstner lecturing people on leadership.

The insight into the way that man thought about what was required to turn around this gigantic company, i.e., the elephant that once could not dance. To turn that organization around, to shift culture, to position the brand, reposition the brand and then push it to leadership, I think it’s a tremendous book on leadership without being a book on leadership.

ANDRE TAYLOR: One of my favorite books on leadership is the Secrets of Leadership of Colin Powell and is written by a fellow named Harari, I forget his first name right off hand. But it’s an easy read, so that’s why I would recommend it, to young professionals. But Colin Powell is just one of my personal heroes as well and that’s the book I would just recommend right off the top of my head for anyone to go out and read.

RICK WHITE: I would say, John Adams. Now, it’s certainly not on public relations. And there are a lot of good books on leadership out there, but one of the things about public relations and leadership, in general, we have to understand is number one I don’t think it’s a PR-specific thing. I think it gets across all disciplines. Number two, as public relations professionals we better be fairly broad about what we do. We better understand the business and how the business works. We had better understand psychology. We better understand research. We better understand media relations, all these things. But at the heart of it, we have to be knowledgeable about a lot of different things. So when I look for examples of leadership, I’m not looking just in PR, I’m looking at a fairly broad spectrum.

I say, Adams, simply because here was a guy who reluctantly was thrust into a leadership role. But once he was there he tenaciously went after it, his values were rock solid, he had some rough spots and there were times that he was very disappointed and just wanted to quit but he didn’t. So, the books on leadership, I tend to look to books about people and what they did, how they overcame adversity and how they made the world a better place. Whether they got credit for it or not and there are a lot of leaders that don’t get credit. The good leaders don’t care.

JOHN PALUSZEK: I would say that a book I read recently is intriguing in terms of leadership, not just in public relations, again, but in life. And the name of the book is Franklin and Winston: The Intimate Story of an Epic Friendship. And of course, it relates to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Now, why would I cite a book like that? And incidentally, it was written by Jon Meacham who is now the editor in chief at Newsweek Magazine. I cite that for three reasons. Number one, these were national and international leaders who were faced with tremendous challenges, and lived up to those challenges, and conquered those challenges.

Number two, they each had very serious setbacks in their development as it were. With Franklin Delano Roosevelt it was physical for the most part, but it did interrupt his career and it could have caused depression as it were, but he was resilient. Winston Churchill took an awful long time to reach the prime minister’s level and really had to conquer a great deal of antipathy along the way.

And then, finally, it speaks to the friendship of these two leaders, and how important that was in conquering Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers. And that’s not to be diminished, this business of personal contacts and personal chemistry and friendships, and it’s by no means a pejorative to talk about contacts.

What we’re talking about are people who can relate to each other, and work cooperatively, and complement each other’s capabilities. So I think that’s an interesting book in terms of leadership.

MARILYN LAURIE: John Gardner wrote a book on excellence and then he wrote a book on leadership. They’re very connected in my view. Leaders are always trying to get better and better performance. Gardner was in the administrations of five or six presidents. He was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. He started Common Cause.

And I think ultimately, he taught at Stanford and this book deals with values issues. It deals with the difference between leadership and power. It deals with what dimensions of leadership actually get institutions to move more quickly in order to get to their goals faster. How leadership can foster innovation.

HAROLD BURSON: The book that was written by David McCulloch on the Lewis and Clark expedition was one of the greatest examples of leadership that I know about. Lewis and Clark, particularly William Meriwether Lewis, took about 55 men and crossed the country that no one had ever been through, no European-type Americans had ever been through, explored it, went all the way to the Pacific Ocean, came back, did not lose a single individual.

And he was able to feed those people, he was able to make peace with the Indians along the way. They got into a number of difficult spots, which he was able to negotiate his way out of. I think that was probably one of the great examples of leadership and it’s told superbly in that book.

DR. ROCHELLE FORD: There is a book of a biography of John H Johnson, Succeeding Against the Odds. And I think that that’s a wonderful example because he was born to a very meager beginning. And was able to build international corporation that targeted African Americans in a time where segregation was still happening and his mother only had a third-grade education. And she picked him from where he was raised along the Mississippi River and brought him up to Chicago so that he could actually finish high school because his town didn’t even have a high school for colored people. And so, she packed up her family, moved up to Chicago, he was able to finish high school there, started out by working as his high school publication, and became a leader even though he had this nice country accent from Arkansas City, he was able to become a leader. And what he did, he would practice in front of the mirror, learning how to talk. Because again not saying that a southern accent is bad, because it’s not. But when you talk to northerners and you have a southern accent, all of a sudden they think that you’re slow, or You’re not that intelligent, and so he learned to be able to oscillate back and forth between cultures. So that he could use the southern twang at home, but then go in front of his audience of his peers at school and learn how to speak with the typical standard American English. But in addition to that, he was able to have confidence in himself and his abilities. Again, not looking at what his past, his major beginnings were, but then have confidence in himself and say, you know what? It’s okay to dream, it’s okay to go after that dream. So he actually took out a loan on his mother’s furniture and able to start his first publication, $300. And his publication went from just one publication into Ebony, Jet Magazine. Then he went on to establish Fashion Fair, product line for women, cosmetic line, went on to have hair product lines. So there was a lot of different businesses that emerged just from having belief in himself and daring to dream and go after those dreams. And it’s a very motivational book. It’s very easy to read because it’s written in first person and telling of his experiences. And he quotes a lot of people who are leaders in themselves, from Dale Carnegie and other people. So it’s excellent read, Succeeding Against the Odds. I think one of them is going to be diversity.

OFIELD DUKES: One can think in terms of the Bible and the Bible reflects, whether it’s Moses or David, all kinds of leaders in the Bible. But one of the contemporary books that I appreciate so very very much, and I’ve bought dozens of copies of, was Dr. Richard Carson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. And it was so insightful, so informative. And it provides so many insightful and inspirational gems that would be helpful for people to deal with the challenges of life. And it’s just wonderful and it reminds me of my favorite book in the Bible, Proverbs. And Proverbs, third chapter says that in all of thy getting in life, get knowledge, wisdom and understanding and Richard Carson’s book reflected that type of common sense approach to dealing with the daily problems of life.

KEITH BURTON: There are several great books on leadership. I’m gonna tell you the one I really like the most is the book True North, which I’ve just mentioned to you, that I read most recently. But outside of that, I would also counsel that students and others would go online to the Arthur Page website. Take a look at the Arthur Page study known as the Authentic Enterprise. That should be almost a treatise, really, on thinking about our profession beyond the Plank Center for Excellence in Public Relations and the Institute for Public Relations and the Public Relations Society of America and the Council of PR firms.

All these great organizations that are furthering the interest of public relations today, can take some key learnings away from the study on the authentic enterprise. And what’s important about it is that that particular treatise has been developed by people who are from each of these organizations, that I’ve just mentioned.

And who have a belief about the practice and how it will change. So I think that’s an important paper as well. If you’re really a student of reading and learning about what affects leadership, I would also encourage you to look at the works that have been done as long as back to the 1980s by Dillon Kennedy known as Corporate Cultures and The New Corporate Cultures. Those are two great readings. And beyond those readings, if you wanna think about what change means and how employees receive it, the book called Communicating Change. It was written in 1991 by a great husband and wife team known as the Larkins.

GARY MCCORMICK: I went back through a lot of books that I’ve read, and there are a tremendous amount of books on leadership. And then, what I thought of is when I was first coming out of school, most of those books, I didn’t have any context of the work environment to really understand what they were telling me as far as leadership from the business standpoint. And a lot of our books that you’ll find were that. So I thought about, well, what are the things that I would have really needed to know that I could understand, that I could assimilate as far leadership. And I thought back, and it’s a book I read quite a while ago. But it was by Jack Welch, Straight From the Gut, and it was about the changes within General Electric when he came in that he had to change the industry. He had to change the way they thought about doing business, and he had a very unique principle where he knew there was a Bell Curve of performance. And the upper 20% were going to be high performers, top performers, and he was going to reward them, but there’s a 10% below that he was just going to get rid of. And I mean, there was a lot of controversy and his entire thing. But I think the thing that would help the student who reads this type of book is he didn’t come from a business environment. He was doing things that he, when he say straight from the gut, it was somewhat of what he’d learned, somewhat of what he felt, but it was his value system. It was his perceptions, it was his communication that helped him to lead this. And he also knew that he didn’t always make friends by what he said and did. But he also talks in the book about how the changes he made impacted the environment within the business. So I think that for a person just coming out of school who’s looking for leadership and is going into the work environment, this gives them an idea of what not only the work environment is like.

But those people who are going to be leaders in their companies are going to do these things, and they’re going to hear all different people say different things about it. There’s always more to the decision, there’s always more to the action. And it’s something that they can learn how they can integrate into the company and understand management’s perception and help them, obviously, then communicate that much better on all levels within the company, internally and externally.

DR. BRYAN REBER: A book on leadership that I would recommend is called The Corner Office. Until relatively recently, there was a weekly column in The New York Times called The Corner Office, these books were compilations of these columns. The reason I think they’re useful for leadership is because the idea behind this recently ended column was talking to executives about their leadership styles. I’ve used it in a graduate management class. I think it’s very useful in terms of just thinking of leadership in a way that is very accessible. It’s not theoretical. It gives you sort of real-life people that you can look at, so I think The Corner Office, would be my pick for right now.

JOANN BISCHMANN: First, there are so many leadership books, that you could go bonkers, you can even narrow it down. I did a lot of work on branding and I did a project on Brand Books.  There were so many different ways to look at branding. I’m going to go to the high level and there is a book, and it’s an easy read, it’s called, Lincoln on Leadership, and it’s a really simple, high-level kind of look at leadership qualities through the eyes of Abraham Lincoln and I recommend it to everybody.