Monday, October 02, 2006

Book Review: The Handbook of Public Affairs

edited by Phil Harris and Craig S. Fleisher

The Handbook of Public Affairs sets out toward an admirable goal - to provide public affairs practitioners and researchers with a core reference text of leading-edge articles. The book is an anthology of scholarly articles by leaders in the emerging field of the study of Public Affairs. It is edited by Phil Harris of New Zealand, and Craig S. Fleisher of the University of Windsor, a former PAAC Board member. It will have special interest to PAAC members because PAAC is cited as an organization for public affairs professionals in the book.

This work focuses on examples from the "Anglosphere" with a variety of comparative articles looking at commonalities and experiences in the English speaking jurisdictions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Other jurisdictions such as the European Union are also covered.

Some articles are better than others, and with some 31 separate articles, there should be at least one that provides elements of value. For me, Chapter 10, The Measurement and Evaluation of Public Affairs Process and Performance, by Craig S. Fleisher stands out as a pointed analysis of a thorny issue in the delivery of any public affairs program. So yes, on the content side, there is definite merit to this work.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend the book. It comes down to this: There is a whole lot of irony in a title, The Handbook of Public Affairs, which suggests practicality and ease of use, when the book turns out to be a slog of a read. The book claims to be something it is not. There is still value in the work; it is just mislabeled.

Former PAAC President Chris Benedetti says in his back cover endorsement of this work, "This handbook will help readers gain a better appreciation of strategies and tactics that comprise successful public affairs campaigns." I agree fully with Benedetti's endorsement. Reading the book will give you those things, but it's not a handbook. There is nothing reader-friendly or accessible about it.

It is often weighed down by suffocating prose, such as the opening to a chapter by Martin B. Meznar, who writes: "The appropriate structural configuration of any organizational function depends on a variety of factors." I refuse to be charitable about that sort of irresolution hiding behind such a verbal thicket. Even the most junior public affairs practitioner knows that effective communication begins with making your message accessible and interesting to your target audience. That's the first lesson in Public Affairs 101.

This is clearly an academic work targeted at other academics. Many of the authors chose a prose that excludes a broad readership and speaks in an idiosyncratic style with references that are likely opaque even to the public affairs practitioners that are the target of their work, let alone the public.

Not recommended.

I can't recommend this "handbook" that reads like an academic tome, but if you're looking for a good book on the actual practice of Canadian public affairs, I suggest PAAC Member Warren Kinsella's still very relevant 2001 work: Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics, referenced earlier in this newsletter. Kinsella's is a practical and useful book, and one I do recommend. If you haven't read it yet, do so.