Book review: Dark Art by Tim Burt & The Art of Perception by Bob Leaf

The story of the rise of the public relations industry is told with wit and inside knowledge in these two books. But, where's it going now, wonders Roland Rudd.

by Roland Rudd
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2012


1) Dark Art: The changing face of public relations, by Tim Burt

Elliott & Thompson, £14.99

2) The Art of Perception: Memoirs of a life in PR, by Bob Leaf

Atlantic Books, £25.00

It was with great anticipation that I began to leaf through Tim Burt's new book on public relations, not least because he is a former colleague of mine at the Financial Times. Predominantly, it was the promise of an expose of the 'dark arts' practised by the industry's leading figures, a group in which Burt kindly includes me. In reality, the book is less designed for senior people already in the industry, as much of it is more suitable for the beginner. It trawls through the history of the financial PR industry, from its humble one-man (albeit influential) bands to the polished, competitive and global multimillion-pound sector of today. Unfortunately for the reader, Burt has sided with the old adage that discretion is the better part of valour. Those hoping for any expose or detailed examples of how the 'dark arts' are practised will be disappointed. Perhaps that's because Burt had an early lesson in how journalism and financial PR don't always mix easily when, after he first became a practitioner, he sounded off in a letter to the FT about British Airways only to find the company he worked for represented the airline. Oops.

Burt is an engaging writer, which is hardly surprising after many years in journalism and PR, and there is much here for the curious reader. Although the title and the blurb on the dustcover perhaps promise more than the book delivers, it is a thoroughly enjoyable 200-page read. Burt rightly points out that the challenge for PR firms today is how to continue to advise clients and manage reputations now that we have multiple communication channels, all feeding off one another. When I founded Finsbury in 1994, the definition of social media was a good dinner with a newspaper editor, and fax machines were still of the moment. Burt also provides excellent analysis of the increased pressures on today's corporate leaders. Whereas in the past it could be reasonably claimed that a chief executive's sole responsibility was to deliver increased shareholder value, today we see challenges unimaginable when financial PR first emerged. This means that our industry is in a state of permanent change, and only those firms willing and able to adapt will survive.

Burt's experience as both journalist and PR adviser places him in an ideal position to comment on the other big topic of his book: the future of financial journalism at a time when the print media is going through profound changes.

He rightly points out that specialist expertise is under threat, not least because such skills are useful for PR firms. It seems inevitable that the route Burt took, from journalist to consultant, will continue to be a well-trodden path. The facts show that print media is in terminal decline while the digital revolution continues apace.

Unlike Tim Burt's more academic text, Bob Leaf's book is an intensely personal insight into his life in PR, predominantly spent at Burson-Marsteller. He is an engaging and often witty writer, blending anecdotes with opinion about the changing face of public relations over the past 50 years. He tells great stories with vivid colour, such as how a winning hand in poker (played against a staff sergeant during his years in the military) led to a position in an industry that was far from established and respected. It is a stark reminder of how professionalised public relations has become since. That said, Leaf shows through his own experiences how the rise of PR has not always been smooth. For example, he wisely advises that PR firms should never open an office somewhere in the world just to mark the presence of that agency. The book contains a number of similar insights based on the 'red in tooth and claw' experience of running a global communications business. But while the range of anecdotes is interesting, it is the last chapter assessing the future of PR that is perhaps the most compelling. Leaf is optimistic when other practitioners have become curmudgeonly. As he rightly states, senior executives who previously believed that media training was not a prerequisite of their job will undoubtedly be concerned by the events that befell BP, Toyota and G4S. This means PR expertise will become an ever more valuable commodity.

All this optimism comes at a price. Clients now demand better value for money, with tangible and measurable results. Leaf highlights how reputations in the PR industry are hard earned and easily lost. Whether the author's other lessons are of wider interest is a moot point. But as the stage lights are dimmed on Leaf's prestigious PR career, his teachings are at least recorded for posterity.

Given how much change is recorded in just 300 or so pages, one can only wonder where the industry will be in another 50 years.

- Roland Rudd is co-founder of RLM Finsbury, where he is now senior partner

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