If success is the religion of the '80s, the gospel is self-promotion.

At a time when communications skills and a good public image can land an actor the presidency or an accountant a key to the company's executive lounge, marketing consultant Jeff Davidson is one of a growing number of apostles of personal public relations.

Coauthor of Marketing Your Consulting and Professional Services (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95), Davidson unabashedly sells himself and his services. He says in a studied, confident voice, "I practice what I preach."

Davidson is convinced that self-promotion is a sensible reaction to intense professional competition among baby-boomers. "People in their thirties face greater competition all their lives -- getting in college, looking for jobs, choosing mates," says Davidson, 34, from his office in Falls Church.

"There's greater competition across the board for that generation than for those before and afterwards, because the others don't have the numbers. We've entered an era when very good, competent people aren't getting jobs. One remedy is to stand out, to self-promote. If you do, you're going to get the nod over some coworker."

Self-promotion was a foreign phrase for Davidson 10 years ago. "There was a time when I didn't know how to get my name into print," he recalls, like someone trying to remember blurry details of a bad dream. He now numbers the stories by and about him at several hundred. (And now he can chalk up one more.)

In 1976, as an employe at a small Connecticut consulting firm, Davidson killed some time during a lull in the work schedule by trying his hand at writing a work-related article. A B-student in English composition with no aspirations to writing, the University of Connecticut grad stuck to a simple formula story -- 10 Tips for Survival in Small Business. New Englander magazine published it after five months.

Although the magazine paid Davidson nothing, the lesson he learned was priceless.

"I liked seeing my byline," he says. "And I really liked it when I came home and showed my parents. They looked at me like I was the prodigal son returning. Until that time, my family and everybody I knew thought only superstars got their names in print."

Davidson had stumbled upon what PR whiz-kid and author Art Stevens calls "a uniquely American phenomenon" in The Persuasion Explosion (Acropolis Books, $12.95): "Public relations is the shaping of perception, through communication, for the achievement of positive goals . . . Anybody who needs to relate to the public in order to sell himself or herself -- or his or her services or skills -- has to get a message across."

Davidson plugged away, generalizing advice from his consulting reports to corporate clients into how-to articles. By 1980, he'd seen 10 of his stories published. That more than doubled the next year and was up to 50 in two years.

"And now it's about one or two a week -- I can't keep track anymore," says Davidson, adding that many of his how-to's are simple rewrites of 10 basic themes that he tailors for various industries.

His advice, sometimes accompanied by his photo and brief biography, has appeared, for example, in esoteric publications such as Legal Economics (three times), The Rotarian (six times), Supervisory Management (15 times), Real Estate Today (six times), The Professional Insurance Agent and Dentist.

"You don't meet tons of people writing articles to advance their careers," he says. "I've even advanced my career by writing articles about writing articles to advance careers."

In his book How to Get Publicity (Times Books, $14.95), PR veteran and "pioneer in electronic publicity" William Parkhurst suggests the publishing success of the self-proclaimed authority, like Davidson, shouldn't surprise anyone -- even if its publicity value is shocking.

"People believe that TV producers and editors are too busy to take telephone calls and that their feature ideas spring exclusively from their staffs, but they're wrong," writes Parkhurst, who adds that tens of millions of dollars' worth of media exposure is given away every day by 1,699 daily newspapers, more than 5,000 magazines, 4,857 commercial AM radio stations, 4,500 radio, television and cable talk shows, 3,421 commercial FM stations, and other media in the United States.

In personal publicity, writes Parkhurst, "you have something to say, you're excited about it, you take it to the media and you benefit from the exposure."

Davidson says the next logical step in his self-promotion scheme was placing articles about himself. "In 1981, I discovered the press release." Parkhurst calls the press release "the most important document of your self-promotion campaign."

"The average person doesn't realize that the media need them," explains Davidson. "The media need cannon fodder for stories. I looked in the paper and saw what others had sent in. I started listing everything that I could do a news release on me."

He sent out releases on his speaking engagements, which had multiplied because of the image of expertise his articles created. He wrote about awards he had received as an authority in his field. He took industry surveys and mailed releases on their results. When he'd win a consulting contract, write for a new publication or travel abroad, out would go a press release.

"I had enough things going that I could send out at least one a month to various publications," says Davidson. "I wrote a news release when 'Local consultant publishes 200th article.' You do it for the 300th, for the 400th -- it's like Hank Aaron hitting home runs. It's news.

"Most news releases get thrown away. But the number of column inches that even one can get, as opposed to paying for an ad, is really quite a bonanza."

Strategies for producing effective self-promoting releases, says Davidson, include working with charitable organizations, highlighting civic involvement and making connections with the right people -- publicity by association. And always send releases to your small home-town newspaper because "it'll print anything," he says, adding that promotion, at some point, feeds itself, and you find you're joining organizations for the publicity, creating events for the news value.

"What does one mention in a newspaper do for you? Say you have two lawyers, two consultants, two doctors, or two of any profession who are alike in all ways. One of them is always in the newspaper and the other isn't. Who is going to do better?

"All things being equal, the career person who is going to get ahead is not going to get ahead because he does great work. That is a given. We expect that. What will get him ahead is the edge he creates. It may not be fair, but I don't make the rules. I'm just trying to use the rules."

But self-promoters, warns Davidson, can overdo it. "At some point, it changes from interest to irritant. You've got to know when to say, 'Enough already.' "

Professionals who want to promote themselves should realize "there's no free lunch," says Davidson. Nine-tenths of the professional people who start their own publicity -- mailing, typing, organizing, joining groups, networking, writing articles and press releases -- "stop before they get started," says Davidson, "and sigh, 'There's too much work.' They give up.

"Why? The paradox of self-promotion is that the average person doesn't like to sell himself. He finds it distasteful."