The Art of perception: A leaf from Bob’s PR book

The cover of Bob Leaf’s book on a life in PR will come as a blessing to all fans of the seminal TV show Mad Men, with the author silhouetted against the cover in true Don Draper style.

I was fortunate enough to meet Bob and get a copy of his book – The Art of Perception, memoirs of a life in PR – at the CIPR Northern conference earlier this summer as part of a session with President Sarah Hall.

Dubbed ‘the father of public relations’ with a 50 year career in the industry, the Mad Men comparisons proved irresistible to this diehard fan (with even the title of this blog based on a quote from the show).

Indeed it took less than 30 pages of his memoir for the first echoes of the fictional world of Sterling Cooper with Bob describing some of the more exuberant characters he encountered when starting out in New York of the 1960s.

“Was there more drinking back then? Definitely, yes. I remember one executive who had three martinis every day at lunch, a lunch that could last three hours. But he always went back to work after lunch, stayed late and got his work done,” Bob muses.

Perception is reality

This certainly isn’t your typical PR or comms book and the 300 pages are studded with anecdotes, incidents and observations that occasionally make the Mad Men cast look tame and also involve some of the biggest names in media and industry from the past 50 years.

If you want an entertaining history of the PR industry you won’t be disappointed, but the book goes much further than this dispensing some fabulous advice for the current generation of professional communicators.

His central argument is that all PR is basically perception management. The challenge for corporate communicators is to understand the perception of your client or organisation in the eyes of all the relevant audiences and then set about improving it.

It’s a compelling idea that distills the complex nature of the modern role into something strategic and understandable at a broad level.

Changing times, familiar facts

In fact, reading this book it’s amazing to see how much of the core principles of the job remain the same, despite the revolution in communications, media and information over the past 20 years.

For example, in an early chapter he talks about the importance of images to tell stories more powerfully to audiences (and this was in the 1960s) – advice that’s even more potent today with more than 80% of the web being visual.

Having said that change is the real constant throughout the book and a long career, with his advice providing a useful reminder of another Mad Men quote about being successful during periods of significant transformation.

“Let’s also say that change is neither good or bad. It simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy — tantrum that says ‘I want it the way it was,’ or a dance that says ‘Look, something new.” Don Draper.

The good, the bad & the ugly

In terms of practical advice he tackles a wide range of other burning issues including audience segmentation, research, International work, the perennial image problem for PR, media training and the power for our work to really do some good.

Reputation management is another key theme that has been relevant throughout the decades and Leaf describes in detail how easy it is to lose a reputation, despite the agonies needed to build one.

The good (and bad news depending on your outlook) is that mass perceptions about people, politicians, products and organisations can change and be influenced by good communications. He argues against the received wisdom that this type of shift takes time and asserts this can actually happen very quickly and that sometimes a single fact can alter the views of the wider public at a stroke.

But for those looking to use this as a text book then the chapter on crisis communications provides some timeless advice that’s as relevant in the digital age as it would have been during the Cuban missile crisis.

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