Over the past few years, this question—will the PR practice of the future require specialists or generalists—has produced a see-saw of answers. First, it was argued that specialization was definitely the way to go, since modern communications has become more complex, there is a need for specialization. Then, the pendulum swung back the other direction as it was noted that presence of too many specialists meant that big picture and strategic planning efforts were falling by the wayside—a real problem, since proper planning is necessary for good execution of a program.
It’s worth taking a moment to step back and define what is being discussed when referring to PR generalists and PR specialists. This is particularly important because when communications professionals talk about this, they could mean one of two things.
PR practice generalization vs. specialization
When speaking about PR practice, a generalist is someone whose work encompasses the practice of PR broadly. These individuals provide strategic advice, media relations work, and more and do not limit their work to a specific industry. A PR specialist does focus on an industry or sub-specialty. Examples include PR professionals who work exclusively with companies in the energy, healthcare, or consumer goods sectors, or who specialize in crisis communications, internal comms, or public affairs work.
PR job generalization vs. specialization
The rapid rise of digital in the mid-2000’s exposed a wide skills gap for a lot of PR practitioners. As talented as a PR pro was in message development and communications, it didn’t necessarily follow that the same person would have HTML skills too. As PR firms rushed to catch up, one of the ways it plugged this gap was hiring employees with specific digital skills. Firms realized they needed everything from video production skills to web design to app development in their arsenal to provide clients with what was quickly becoming standard PR. Since many of these skill sets were very specific, the employees hired to carry out these portions of digital PR were, by default, specialists.
Benefits of specialization
There are many benefits to practice specialization, most of which are readily apparent. When you hire either a PR firm that specializes in an industry or an individual PR pro who is a specialist, you’re hiring very specific expertise. The knowledge level on the industry will be deep, and depending on objectives, a specialized focus could mean better message crafting, more in-depth materials developed, less time spent doing background research, and better audience targeting. For public affairs work, specialization means a solid understanding of not only the legislative process—which is a given—but also an understanding of overarching governmental dynamics, such as what other issues facing a state or district could impact a policy outcome.
Benefits of a generalist
It’s easy to make a case for specialization, because “deep expertise” seems like it would always win the day—everyone would rather have an expert on hand, right? Well, not always. An analogy that works here is that of a general practitioner doctor versus a specialist. Having a heart specialist or an endocrinologist on hand is great if you have conditions that need or require that level of expertise, but if you don’t, you’ll be paying a lot more for routine care. Same logic applies in PR: if your goals are highly specific, such as making certain your industry’s issues are taken into consideration when a state or federal agency is crafting highly technical regulations, you should hire a PR person or firm with solid public affairs chops. However, if you’re looking to increase visibility, build relationships within a community, and improve your rapport with the media, you need a generalist.
On job specialists v. generalists
Whether a firm assigns specialists or generalists to a team will depend largely on what strategy and tactics will be deployed to meet the goals of the engagement. This is true whether you choose a generalist or a specialist practice. Modern PR is a mix of traditional elements, such as media outreach, to far more specialized tasks, such as developing a website. Even something like media outreach will have a mix of traditional and digital aspects to it, since so many journalists are on Twitter.
Is the future of modern PR in specialization, or is it with the generalists? It’s both. Like so much of communications work, there will be a mix of elements needed that match the goals of a company’s PR program. Those goals can change from year-to-year, or even month-to-month. There will always be a role for “big picture” generalists who can step back and view how all the moving PR parts in a company need to interact: the external issues of public affairs and corporate social responsibility, and how those affect a company’s public-facing image, and how that in turn affects employees and internal communications. Likewise, complex issues or crises require, or at least are best handled by, those with deep expertise.