Looking back across the literature of public relations, one of the gaps has been the story of participants and leaders. The number of biographies can probably be counted on one hand, in English language at least. Ivy Lee, John Hill (Hill & Knowlton) and Edward Bernays come to mind. Others have been memorialised in academic journal articles but they aren't easily accessed.
Now, like London buses, three have come in fairly close timing. Two are memoirs; one is a corporate biography. In this northern autumn/fall, the two memoirs have been published.
The loudest and brashest is Right or Wrong by Lord Tim Bell of Saatchi & Saatchi, Lowe Bell and Bell Pottinger advertising and PR renown. It is published by Bloomsbury and has been serialised in a national newspaper.
More simply presented is Glow worms, self-published by Italian PR adviser Toni Muzi Falconi and available free online or as a low-cost paperback from Amazon. But don't let the packaging confuse you, as both authors have considerable personal and political lives which are placed before the reader.
The Bell memoir has points of Mad Men-type humour that are funnier and more ribald than the TV series, considerable insight into UK Conservative politics from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s and into the golden era of British advertising in the 1970s.
However, it is a mess to read with lumps of Ayn Rand-type libertarianism bobbing up at odd times that confuse the narrative. Lord Bell, in life, is a charmer in the style of what Australians call 'a larrikin in a suit' - Fun to be with, loyal to friends, devastating to enemies (many examples in the book) but not always in control of his actions. His opinions are strongly held but tediously expressed.
Toni Muzi Falconi, now in his mid-70s, tells about his role in the development of Italian PR from the 1960s onward complete with tales of success, errors, and corruption in the inter-relation of government and the promotional sectors. It is interwoven with tales of his privileged upbringing, a priapic youth and a sometimes turbulent personal life. Along the way he developed and sold several PR and advisory businesses and was a leader of the Global Alliance PR body at its outset.
Both memoirists present a 'warts and all' tale of themselves without 'spin' or embellishment. They have impressive networks of contacts which are exercised in personal and professional life, so there is no doubt that they see themselves as leaders and innovators but there is an essential raw humanity in these books.
Published a year or so ago is the corporate biography of Dan Edelman, founder of the eponymous internationally-operating Edelman agency group. Titled Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations and written by former agency staffer Franz Wisner, it is also offered as a free download (via the annoying Scribd service) and as a impressively produced hardback.
It tells the story of Edelman senior as he moved from his home in New York City to Chicago after war service and, with some risk, set up his agency in a distant city after making his name promoting Toni Home Perms to American women. The agency, after initial problems, took off and the book then tells more of the rise of the company than of Dan Edelman.
Treated as a popular history of the rise of the PR business in the US, Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations is useful background. However, it is the product of a (very successful) PR agency which wants to put the best image forward, not only for its founder but his heirs and successors. For all the glossiness and presentation, it could have been a stronger and more engaging book had an historian researched and written it.
All three books are worth tracking down for personal reading and libraries, if you are a practitioner, historian of PR or students. Let's hope more memoirs are being prepared by practitioners and industry leaders to fill this deficit in the history of PR.