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Jack of all Trades or Master of One?

Specialist vs GeneralistWe the PR people typically categorize ourselves either as a Specialist or a Generalist PR practitioner. This does not only apply only for practitioners but is also true to boutique to large PR agencies as well. Some take pride in being domain experts of a particular sector such as technology, healthcare, lifestyle etc., and some see themselves as experts dealing with clients from across the sectors. Through this post I am not trying to come to a conclusion on what is the right approach or a choice to opt for but rather I would like to seek opinions from people who have made their choice between one of the options and have decided to stay with it forever. There may be various business reasons for agencies to choose between being a specialist PR firm such as Text100, Waggener Edstrom or MSL 20:20 or a generalist consultancy like Adfactors PR, Hanmer MSL (Now MSL Group) etc., but for this discussion we will focus purely on practitioners.

Specialists or Domain experts have deep understanding of their domain as they know the jargons and subject terminologies. They are more aware about the upcoming trends and how it can shape the business of their clients. They also boast of established relationships with the beat journalists. While on the other hand generalists can take on wide variety of tasks. They can offer wider perspective and ideas from their experience of working across the domains and even help deliver results for broader segments of business including marketing, CSR, HR etc.

Specialists are preferred when the economy is doing well but if a slowdown hits a particular sector, specialists of that sector are forced to leave the domain expertise and work for whatever is available. It is also not unusual either for someone who has been a specialist of one domain to move to a totally different industry. I’ve watched colleagues move successfully from telecom to insurance, from television to the automotive industry, from the automotive industry to a non-profit organization and more.

Most struggle with this question of being a specialist or a generalist, atleast in the initial years of their careers and finally settle down with whatever opportunities come their way as they progress in their career paths. Many practitioners I have spoken to before writing this post agreed that they remained as specialist or a generalist PR pro, not by choice but was purely based on the opportunities that were offered by their current or future employers. No one can actually state with conviction on why the chosen path was the best approach. However each one of us would agree that good understanding of communications principals are fundamental and of utmost importance to   the success of a PR program  rather than deep knowledge of a specific industry. Once we learn the basics of the communications profession, we can apply them to a wide variety of clients.

Rizwan Ahmed, a technology communications practitioner in one of the leading PR agency, says, “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all-clients answer to this question. Generalists can be wonderful for a variety of clients, depending on their needs. But once you get into regulated industries — like technology, healthcare and finance, for example — specialists are worth their years of experience, if only to understand the ever-evolving atmosphere, regulations and long-term competition/pipeline, let alone translating jargon and fine points to various audiences. This is why it’s great to work for big firms with focused practice groups — or small firms that are part of consortia or networks. Gathering original thinking from folks not so immersed in  specialized domains can challenge your views and encourage healthy stretching and collaboration, while your perspective/experience keep your client within the boundaries of what they’re allowed to do.”

As far as I am concerned, I have always chosen to work for different domains as that would free me from the monotony of doing the same things again and again. My profile has experience of working for financial, education, infrastructure, technology and now real estate sector. If given a choice, my next move would be to work for a sector that I have no experience of servicing.

Through this post, I am not expecting you to comment on which is the best approach, but I certainly expect  all of you to share your learning that you have acquired after having worked for few years. I don’t recommend anyone to disagree with any opinions expressed as there cannot be one correct answer. What has worked for one could have been the best option for him given his capabilities and understanding. However I invite you to share your opinions based on your experiences as it might give some directions to people who are still on the crossroads and are yet not clear on what they should choose.

The second question in my mind is for the agency leaders. As we join a particular agency (mostly large), we are typically assigned to a vertical specifically focussing on a business sector. Once we are in the agency we either get stuck to the same clients or clients of the same vertical. This is one of the primary reasons why this divide of specialist v/s generalist i exists amongst PR practitioners. So is it a good idea to introduce a job rotation kind of a system within your agency? For example, if a practitioner has been working for a technology SBU/Vertical for a year, should he/she be transferred to a totally different vertical such as Infrastructure or Finance? I am sure there can be pros as well as cons from such an arrangement but for a PR practitioner it can offer new learning, new team and almost a new working atmosphere. For a client, it may mean a new team every year, with fresh ideas and perspectives from different domains, which can prove beneficial for his company as well. Please share if you would want to try out such a job rotation for your employees? Will there be acceptance from your employees or they would rather prefer to master their skills for one select domain only?

This post does not end here but infact begins here as I am expecting readers to continue from here on and try and answer the questions posted above as well as some given below:

  • Are you a generalist or a specialist, and why did you chose your path?
  • If you’re an ex-generalist/now-specialist, why did you make the change? Is your job satisfaction and/or income higher as a result?
  • Do you think your choice of being a specialist or a generalist has helped you weather a tough economy?
  • What do you see as the pros and cons of your path?

Your feedback and opinions will add immense value to this post and hence request you to share your thoughts freely.


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