Review: PR for Humans

About the author

Richard Bailey is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students. - FCIPR MPRCA

PR for Humans: how business leaders tell powerful stories
By Mike Sergeant
Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2019. 174 pages.

PR for Humans is the name of a podcast and now a book. It’s also a manifesto, with the author arguing that ‘the most powerful communication is always delivered by humans, for humans.’ And that ‘for tens of thousands of years, stories have been the main method of moving audiences and shifting opinions.’

The author, Mike Sergeant – for 13 years a BBC news reporter and who has been working in public relations since 2014 – describes himself as a ‘communications coach’. But his former colleague Jeremy Bowen is quoted on the cover saying ‘Mike Sergeant is a PR guru.’

This seems a preposterous claim, but Sergeant deserves praise for applying his storytelling skills to the circular debates about the meaning of PR, and whether it should be described instead as communication/s. In one succinct page he sums up these arguments and brings in the claim that public relations is about reputation. (Memo to self: take a note of pages 8-9 to use with newcomers and with students.)

This leads to a critique of much public relations practice. ‘So many of those doing PR don’t seem to understand its main purpose: to improve the relations of a business or an individual with the public. To influence reputation through story.’

Let’s see how this manifesto works in practice. One lesson from the emphasis on humans is that ‘stories about organisations aren’t usually exciting or interesting enough. We want to know about the people leading them.’

This means that ‘leadership and communication are inseparable disciplines. Leaders have got to communicate well and with authenticity if they are to succeed.’

Later on, Sergeant makes the distinction between a trainer and a coach (‘the focus is on the audience not the speaker’). ‘The best coaches are the best communicators. They are also the best listeners.’

‘I’ve come to believe that the coaching mindset is critical in PR, both for comms advisers and business leaders. The adviser who can carefully ask clients the right questions to reveal the real goals, challenges, obstacles and opportunities will be much more effective than the consultant who marches in the room and starts telling people what to do.’

The book is structured in two parts. The first covers the eight principles of storytelling. The second, more practical part, turns to media techniques for telling your story.

The eight principles start with belief. ‘People who care about something are the ones who cut through the noise and enhance their reputation.’ Yet ‘companies don’t care about anything. They are legal constructs, not living beings. Organisations don’t have emotions.’

The next principle is clarity, which ‘is beautiful and flawless’, in contrast to simplicity which ‘can lack sophistication.’ Good leaders also need energy and to understand the context. They need a sense of time and to speak with humility.

The more practical part two of the book shows how these principles can be applied to speeches, performances and media.

For example, he’s strong on the over-reliance on presentation slides. One way forward is to produce two versions: a text heavy version for sharing later and a largely visual version to accompany the talk.

He’s also critical of the conventional storytelling structures used in business and public relations. His alternative: the ‘story tree’.

‘The roots are where you have come from (as an individual and as a business) and the things you care about and believe in… Next is the trunk. This is your main, strong, powerful story… The branches are the different angles and opinions you may use in media interviews or conference speeches… The leaves are the show – the words, the images, the soundbites.’

The book draws on half a lifetime’s experience as a student actor, a broadcaster and as a communications consultant. It also has a ready-made research base in that Sergeant quotes from the many guests he’s hosted on his PR for Humans podcast.

That radio should have survived in the age of TV and YouTube is one surprise; that everyone can produce radio shows in the form of podcasts, and many can find receptive audiences, is another.

‘Podcasts are becoming increasingly important for business communication because they allow companies to reach and curate niche audiences of super-fans and influencers. Even if the show only has 100 listeners, that’s the equivalent of doing an event in front of 100 people every week. And it’s a lot cheaper and easier to produce.’

What about the ‘dark side’ taunt used by journalists of their colleagues now working in PR? This discussion is left until the end of the book when Sergeant turns it on its head: ‘Journalism is the darker realm for sure, obsessed as it is with things going wrong: death, disaster, scandal, resignation, misfortune. PR is the lighter place. Seeing the world through a positive lens isn’t a bad thing.’

He’s also sound on business writing. ‘The problem most graduates have is that they are used to producing academic essays… This isn’t how people write in business. The best professionals write for action… The conclusion usually comes first.’

This is a wise book, based on sound principles and providing practical advice. I’ll place it on my bookshelf between Sandra Stahl’s The Art & Craft of PR (which is strong on the need for listening) and Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity’s Life’s a Pitch (a colourful guide to brilliant presentations).