Tackling the Public Relations Bookshelves

For months, a big stack of books, more than six feet high, taunted me. It’s not that I’m lazy; I acquire information every day. If you’re really bored, I can tell you all about the latest petitions filed with the Federal Communications Commission. But that’s just news I’ve retained. When I acquire new “knowledge,” it’s exciting–and life hasn’t been too exciting lately. So I dedicated myself to getting through about eight or nine of those piled-up books in the past six weeks. Some of these books have reminded me about important facets of the public relations industry and business in general; some have taught me a few new tips.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

Journalist Michael Lewis (New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg, New Republic) reveals how the Oakland A’s, one of Major League Baseball’s most successful franchises in recent years, wins without spending money.

A’s General Manager Billy Beane has essentially blown up a system that has been in place for years. Instead of overspending on free agents, he takes talented but less-flashy players and turns them into stars. In some cases, he then turns around and sells these players before they become too expensive to employ. Beane’s operation focuses on two things: Finding talent by coming up with new ways to judge talent–in this case, subscribing to a radical theory on how baseball players should be evaluated–and maximizing that talent by grooming individuals to fit into a system.

Beane’s staff is populated not by former baseball players, but by statisticians and economists. As a former player, Beane knows how the system works and redefined it to fit his company’s limitations. By doing so, he’s embarrassed the competition. Ripped by many baseball insiders as an egotistical romp through the Beane’s mind, Moneyball is widely regarded as one of the best business books in recent history. For anyone involved in a business that involves evaluating talent, analyzing statistics, making deals, or operating within the constraints of a severe budget–sound like public relations to anyone?–Moneyball” offers up an incredible feast of knowledge.

As a bonus for PR professionals, the paperback contains a new afterword that describes some of the public relations frenzy that surrounded the publication of the book. Lewis offers a stinging rebuke to critics; more than one journalist failed to recognize that Beane didn’t write the book, merely cooperated with the author.

Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and WWII Espionage by Joseph E. Persico

A look inside the U.S. espionage machine during World War II and how FDR sometimes brilliantly used and misused intelligence gathered by professionals and amateurs alike. Persico details the ragtag intelligence gathering of the U.S. military and government and shows how critical decision making was sometimes made using obviously flawed data.

Employees and managers in any industry will recognize the problems inherent in the U.S. intelligence community during FDR’s time: miscommunication, turf wars, egos, and blind ignorance. For anyone who tackles organizational problems, the book offers keen insight into how not to establish a new organization or reorganize an existing one and how best to maximize widely dispersed talent. The book also provides ample evidence that failure is around the corner when managers fail to listen to those on the frontline. Of note on the public relations end is the constant battle by various intelligence gatherers to get the ear of the President by waging mostly internal, but sometimes very public, public relations  campaigns against one another.

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of The Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough

Historian David McCullough details the birth of one of America’s great landmarks, an engineering marvel that helped reshape a city. Mired in politics, the story of the bridge offers a unique view at the interconnectedness of business, government, and the communities they serve. The public relations  battle surrounding the bridge was sometimes fierce and Chief Engineer Washington Roebling shows how someone can battle public misperception by providing proof of that a controversial concept works by the completed pudding. Forceful and unwilling to compromise, Roebling combined a talent for public relations and the certainty of his convictions to persevere over the bridge’s naysayers.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

An engaging, although laborious look at one of America’s founding fathers. Hamilton is often remembered for two things: Setting up America’s financial system and being killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. But Chernow sheds new light on the man who graces our $10 bill.

Hamilton was one of America’s first great “immigrant sons,” a virtually penniless orphan who rose to prominence in a little less than a decade outside of his native soil. Hamilton showed that passion, intelligence, and bravery can help shape a nation and define a people. He also proved that vanity, bravado, and close-mindedness can cost you your life.

What I found most interesting about Hamilton is that while the man was certainly brilliant, he was also always looking for a fight. (Obviously he picked one that ended his life.) His brilliance was diminished, and sometimes ignored, because his passion was misconstrued as arrogance. Instead of trying to build bridges, he looked to burn them.

Hamilton may have also been America’s first great public relations flack. He worked tirelessly to get the states to approve the Constitution and he used the press–via the Federalist Papers and countless anonymous editorials–to sway public opinion. But while few in his era could spin ideas into a great pitch like Hamilton, he was notoriously unsuccessful when it came to defending himself.

Chernow’s book is a sometimes flawed look at a sometimes flawed man. But Hamilton’s brilliance and dedication to building a country is inspiring and insightful from a business perspective.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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