Book Review: Talespin: Public Relations Disasters

As anyone working in the PR business needs no reminding, the term ‘PR disaster’ has become a synonym in the media for any disaster whether it be an act of god, organizational or individual stupidity, a product defect or an actual PR mishap.  The use of the term ‘PR’ even when there is little of no PR element to the story highlights one of the many perceptual problems facing the profession.


When Melissa Weiner from Stray Dog Media contacted me about a possible review of Gerry McCusker’s new book “Talespin: PR disasters”, I was delighted to agree.  Disasters are something I feel every PR practitioner should be interested in.


Gerry’s book provides a wide variety of interesting mini-case studies detailing how organizations were damaged through poor PR.

�The term �PR disaster� is most frequently used in newspaper columns and media soundbites where the continual twinning of the terms �PR� and �disaster� by journalists and reporters is applied to anything and everything negative that happens to any company or organization.�


The book provides a brief overview of a diverse range of examples, from well publicized episodes such as the failed launch of Coca Cola’s Dasani water in the UK, and Sherpardson Stern & Kaminsky’s e-mail woes to less well known hiccups such as Volkswagen’s disasterous UK direct mail campaign.  Following each example, McCusker provides a brief summation of the issues and highlights some of the many useful lessons to be learned.


For me, one of the great elements of a career in Public relations is that you never stop learning.  If you want a job where nothing changes then PR is probably not for you.  PR is dynamic, the climate is always in flux and no matter how well or badly things are going, there’s always a surprise around the corner.  It’s one of the reasons why I am always interested in finding out how different companies handle different challenges facing their organization.


Talespin provides a rich variety of different disasters.  Some ultimately led to successful outcomes, others fatally damaged the businesses concerned. It serves to illustrate that the elements that can damage an organization go far beyond the boundaries of PR, and illustrates the need for every department to understand the PR implications of their daily work. 


One of the problems for anyone interested in finding out about different PR campaigns, is that it’s rare that you can get a real insight into what went on in the background of a given issue.  The most popular sources of this information, namely PR case studies and PR award submissions, typically only provide the most basic details on a campaign and provide little or no insight into how the practitioners concerned actually dealt with challenges and opportunities as they arose.  The nature of PR means that this detail, the most interesting element, will only emerge at a much later date – if at all.  Looking back at a past PR disasters in the cold light of day is a far different proposition than having to make major decisions in the midst of a crisis when you are besieged with partial information, differing advice and a landslide of media inquiries.


If I have one tiny criticism of the book, it is that it doesn’t really get under the skin of how the PR teams successfully or unsuccessfully dealt with the issues.  While there’s a huge diversity of case studies, I kept finding myself hoping for some more detailed cases, some more inside track on how the PR team dealt with the crisis.  What were the internal and external pressures? How did the crisis build from the inside perspective?  To be fair that’s a shortcoming of any book of this sort.  People are understandably reticent to allow sensitive internal information to be published publicly.


On the other hand, Talespin does provide a wide range of thought provoking crises.  As you go through the book you find yourself thinking through the crisis as it unfolds, and developing your own plans for solving it.  That in itself is an interesting and challenging exercise and in many ways provides a far more satisfying experience than many of the growing number of self-help PR books you’ll find strewn across the physical shelves of your book store or the virtual shelves of your favorite online book seller.


Is Talespin the ultimate crisis communication bible for your desk?  No.  But then it doesn’t try and fulfill that role.  I think it provides some very interesting real-world examples of how PR impacts the entire organization.  For non-PR business people it provides a useful collection of business scenarios that highlight the requirement for PR skills at all levels of a company.  For the Public Relations practitioner it provides a diverse collection of examples of just how badly many organizations have dealt with crises. 


It’s a timely reminder that every practitioner needs to think clearly in times of crisis, while many of the missteps seem incredible in the clear view of hindsight, they were planned and implemented in good faith at the time.


I’d love to see Gerry plan a second book, this time with fewer cases but more in-depth analysis from the PR and business perspective. 


I recommend Talespin for anyone responsible for a company’s good standing whether they are in marketing, public relations and/or senior management. As with everything else, prevention is always better than the cure and reading this book will make you think long and hard about the potential for your company to end up as a PR disaster.



  • Thanks to Melissa Weiner from from Stray Dog Media for providing a review copy of the book.
  • Talespin is widely available (Amazon, Barnes & Noble)
  • Read Trevor Cook’s review and his interview with Gerry McCusker
  • Read Philip Young’s review
  • Read Jim Horton’s review