2001 Summer Reading List

Free-Range Thinking | July 2001

Count on it: at some point in the coming months your communication skills will be put to the test. Here are a few good books to help you get ready.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
by Robert Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

For more than three decades, America has witnessed a disturbing decline in civic engagement. People vote less often, attend fewer public meetings, sign fewer petitions, and are more reluctant to join civic groups. Since your organization probably relies on an engaged citizenry for financial support, to pass or defeat laws, and to “throw the bums out” (or elect the next generation of bums), this book should be required reading. It analyzes the reasons for this continuing decline, and while it stops short of offering solutions, Bowling Alone is immensely valuable in helping to define a problem faced by anyone who must convince others to join, vote, give, or simply show up.

“Between 1965 and 1995 we gained an average of six hours a week in added leisure time and we spent almost all six of those additional hours watching TV.”

– from Bowling Alone


Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion
by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. (William Morrow and Co. 1984)

“Behavior change” is another common theme for public interest advocates as we’re often faced with the question, “How are we going to convince them to do that?” Cialdini’s book – which is considered a text book in marketing circles – looks at the myriad ways people are influenced (especially by advertisers and politicians) and groups them into six categories: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Some may look at these techniques and think, “Oh, how awful! How manipulative!” I thought, “How effective!” and I hope after reading this book you’ll add them to your communications tool kit.

“You and I exist in an extraordinarily complicated stimulus environment.. To deal with it, we need shortcuts. We must.often use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond mindlessly when one or another of these trigger features is present.”

– from Influence


Trust Us, We’re Experts
by Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber (Tarcher/Putnam 2001)

When I met John Stauber for the first time in April, he told me we were in a war. On our side, he said, are the progressive activists with limited budgets who occasionally win a battle for hearts and minds. On the other side are PR flacks and corporate spinmeisters who retreat from their occasional losses only to regroup, pull another $100-million out of their deep pockets, and launch a new round of attacks. If that sounds paranoid or unduly pessimistic, read Trust Us, We’re Experts. Stauber and co-author Rampton back up this position with case studies on global warming, secondhand smoke, genetically engineered food, and many other hotly debated issues. Just as Bowling Alone defines the problem of civic dis-engagement, Trust Us exposes the hidden persuaders who are constantly working to keep the public apathetic, confused, or dangerously misinformed.

“As the political theorist Goran Therborn has observed, there are three basic ways to keep people apathetic about a problem: (1) argue that it doesn’t exist; (2) argue that it’s actually a good thing rather than a problem; or (3) argue that even if it’s a problem, there’s nothing they can do about it anyway.”

– from Trust Us, We’re Experts


Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising,
by Paul Messaris (Sage Publications 1997)

If TV commercials, print advertising, reports, brochures, or even flyers are staples in your communications diet, consider this book for your summer list. Messaris demonstrates how photographic images can be more persuasive than words, why slightly altering photos is a remarkably effective technique for capturing attention, and how visual style can actually enhance the substance of your message. I wouldn’t describe this book as a vein of pure gold, but there are enough nuggets along the way to make it a valuable read.

“This ability to imply something in pictures while avoiding the consequences of saying it in words has been considered an advantage of visual advertising since the earliest days of its development as a mass medium.”

– from Visual Persuasion


First Break All the Rules
by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (Simon & Schuster 2000)

Okay, this isn’t a book specifically about communicating, but it is just about the best book on management I’ve read in the last ten years. And when advocacy or education campaigns grow large enough to require the coordinated efforts of many, it doesn’t hurt to know a few things about getting the most from your colleagues. So even if you’re not a manager on any organizational chart (or the designated leader of your coalition), add this one to your reading list. More effective teamwork can help you execute more effective campaigns.

“The hardest thing about being a manager is realizing that your people will not do things the way that you would. But get used to it. Because if you try to force them to, then two things happen. They become resentful – they don’t want to do it. And they become dependent – they can’t do it. Neither of these is terribly productive for the long haul.”

– from First Break All the Rules


 free-range follow-up


But Wait – There’s More!

“Now Hear This: The Nine Laws of Successful Advocacy Communications” is a new booklet that covers much of the same territory you’ve been reading about here. Researched and written by Fenton Communications (with underwriting from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation), “Now Hear This” draws from interviews with over 25 experts in the field of public interest communications, including pollster Celinda Lake, SPIN Project’s Robert Bray, Vikki Spruill of SeaWeb, and even yours truly. The advice is excellent and the booklet is free, so what’s not to like? Get your copy by sending an e-mail request to caitlin@fenton.com.

If you want to delve more deeply into the field of public interest communication, I highly recommend subscribing to Social Marketing Quarterly. Published by Best Start Social Marketing and the University of South Florida, SMQ features case studies, academic papers, and reports from conferences all over the world. The publication’s style is more academic and technical than free-range thinking, but each issue features several case studies that will show you what works and (more importantly) why when it comes to effecting social change with conventional marketing tools. Yearly subscriptions are $30. For more information, send an e-mail to Jim Lindenberger atjhl@beststartinc.org.