Books of the year 2020

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

This is our review-of-reviews of books published this year, leading to an overall editor’s choice.

Before that, we should mention three new publications we’ve not reviewed but whose arrival we’ve noted in recent weeks. They’re all in the premier league of UK public relations textbooks given their longevity.

The book we’ve come to know as Tench and Yeomans is now edited by Tench and Waddington. As well as a series of new and updated chapters, this edition also has a new name. Management communication is a loaded phrase: it’s not the usual ‘communication management’ and suggests a much greater focus on internal and organisational communication. It also signifies that there’s much more to public relations than media communication; but also that the book is not written to please critical scholars, whose frame of reference is the effect of public relations on society rather than on organisations.

No name change here from the 2015 fourth edition, just the promise of new case studies. But I noticed the unprecedented outpouring of affection for this book on social media when the new edition was announced (see example above). It’s the sort of nuts-and-bolts manual that most academics avoid writing (preferring to ask ‘why’ than explain ‘how’), and there’s evidently demand for such a text. Certainly, planning remains central to professional public relations and it’s a key prerequisite to effective evaluation (a point emphasised by AMEC only this year and by Tom Watson and Paul Noble, authors of another text in the same CIPR/Kogan Page series). There’s still no chapter on applying agile principles to public relations planning, though. For that, you should look to this free chapter by Betteke van Ruler and Frank Korver, who open with the critique that linear planning models are ineffective. Don’t believe them? How well did you succeed with your 2020 plans, drawn up a year ago?

Public Relations Handbook

If Exploring Public Relations is well-established, running to five editions since 2005, then The Public Relations Handbook is even more venerable, the first edition having appeared in 2001. Alison Theaker recently offered us her perspective on what’s changed and what’s stayed stubbornly the same in the past two decades.


Ralph Tench, Anne Gregory and Alison Theaker were all colleagues at Leeds Metropolitan University in the 1990s. The BA Public Relations degree course at the university now called Leeds Beckett was introduced in academic year 1990/91, so is marking its 30th anniversary this year.

We’re now watching out for more new books with a 2021 publication date to review next year. There will be one from the current CIPR president:

Now to the new books we have reviewed this year.

Why we do what we do Boschi

From the review: ‘As I read through each chapter, I found myself wondering (again) why applied psychology is not discussed more in PR circles. After all, emotions, memory, attention, language, storytelling, visual perception, biases, and habits are the stuff of everyday PR plans and campaigns.

From the review: ‘At its heart, this is a book about stakeholder relationship management. Social and environmental issues are just that – issues. And stakeholder relationships are central to issues management.’

From the review: ‘In public relations, we’re writers and storytellers first; but we’re also required to be designers and photographers and data analysts.’

From the review: ‘This is a wise, brilliant, often funny (read the chapter endnotes; or try this criticism of clients who had no hinterland in the arts and popular culture that ‘they didn’t know their Arsenal from their Elbow’) and, yes, profoundly useful book.’

From the review: ‘She presents five tests for distinguishing crises from serious or critical incidents that need managing, and contrasts operational crises and reputational crises. Coleman draws on her experience working for the police to share lessons from the emergency services in crisis responsiveness.’

From the review: ‘The author, a noted researcher and commentator in the field of marketing, explores the challenge of sustainable consumption when faced with climate change. It was written before the coronavirus lockdown but is a good read now we may have the time and will have the need to envisage a better future.’

Exploring Internal Communication

From the review: ‘It was around 2010 that Kevin Ruck, a practitioner and doctoral student in the UK, came to light as the first author to bring together organisation and communication theories to conceptualise the changing practice landscape, including the arrival of internal digital media.’

From the review: ‘The move from classical to post-classical public relations mirrors the move in politics from the pursuit of consensus to a populist politics of conflict, or dissensus.’

Editor’s choice

There should be something for everyone in here: valued textbooks, thoughtful contributions that expand our understanding of the discipline, practical handbooks.

So a choice of one is necessarily subjective and self-indulgent. My pick is How To Be Insightful by Sam Knowles because it is about stories and persuasive communication. In his book these stories are often delivered through, yes, insightful endnotes. I picked one at random and here’s a typically brilliant example:

‘My late father Kenneth wrote the world’s first book on industrial relations, Strikes, in 1952 when he was director of the Institute of Statistics at Oxford. He used footnotes and endnotes for jokes as well as illumination. [He then quotes his father’s etymology of ‘metacognitive’ that draws on Aristotle before discussing other uses of ‘meta’ as follows.] In English, the prefix has come to indicate concepts that are abstractions behind another. Metadata is one of the most frequently stumbled upon these days. The use of the word meta as a stand-alone was popularised by Douglas Hofstadter in his 1979 Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. He made the first recorded use of the phrase “going meta”, meaning taking a debate to a new level of abstraction (aka “going nowhere”). But back in Aristotle’s time, things were different and simpler. Aristotle wrote a book about material things that he called The Physics. The book he wrote after The Physics – about non-material things – was called The Metaphysics. Think about that the next time a bearded consultant tries to baffle you with all his meta-mansplaining. (“How did I do, Dad?)”’

You did well, Sam.

Thank you in particular to Routledge and Kogan Page among the publishers most willing to encourage authors writing about public relations and communication and to promote their books.