By John Onoda
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career in corporate communications that has allowed me to make the acquaintance of many of the seniormost public relations professionals in North America. As you would expect, they are a remarkably talented and accomplished lot. Almost without exception, they are well read.
Since founding a site for book lovers – dozenbestbooks.com – I have gotten a look at the books that helped to form them as people and top-notch professionals, the sort who have the gravitas to offer wise counsel to CEOs and chairmen in times of crisis or when fortunes are on the line. What their book lists reveal is that they are people who have a deep understanding of the world and of human behavior, people who like to wrestle with new ideas and to understand the motivations of others.
I haven’t attempted to analyze the books these high performers have read in an attempt to figure out if there is some perfect mix of categories and topics which, if consumed, provides the brain fuel for thoroughbred PR performance. What’s more important is that these people started reading books at a young age and never stopped. In addition to the newspapers, magazines, blogs, and white papers most consume, they make time for books.
Sure, they read romance novels and mysteries like everyone else, but they’ve also devoured many books about business, politics, world affairs and history. They have read many biographies about people who had a deep impact on the world, and they tend to favor fiction with moral complexity and social commentary. Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway’s work comes up a lot. Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill get a plenty of attention. To Kill a Mockingbird seems to occupy a special place in many hearts.
Reading is not a passive experience. It exercises the brain and stimulates the intellect. My web site focuses on lists of a dozen books in part because I think reading twelve books on almost any topic will make you an expert compared to the average person, whether the topic is the Revolutionary War, earth worms, silent movies or anything else. If you want to demonstrate your value to your bosses or to clients, don’t you think it would be helpful if you had an expert opinion to offer on some key aspect of a challenge?
So, it may serve you well to think a bit strategically about your book reading habits. Ask yourself how well you know business, how the government works, how politicians are elected and how they behave in office, how high profile people prevail in times of crisis, what can be done in a hopeless situation, and what is the appropriate balance between ethical considerations and practicality?
If you talk to the most senior people in the communications field, almost all of them would have well-considered answers to all of these questions, in part because of their life and work experiences, but also because of the vast amount of intellectual ballast they have gained over the years by reading good books.
For the curious, here are some of the books senior communications professionals have been listing:
- The Last Lion by William Manchester
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
- Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White
- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
- Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
John Onoda, the founder of dozenbestbooks.com, also is a member of FleishmanHillard’s International Advisory Board. Prior to his work as a communications consultant, he was head of the corporate communications departments at Charles Schwab, Visa USA, General Motors and Levi Strauss. He also managed communications functions at McDonald’s, Holiday Inns and Harrah’s Casinos.