Generalists vs Specialists – How to strike a balance

Generalists vs Specialists – How to strike a balance

Hollie Abbott

Hollie Abbott

In the last decade, the growth of digital channels has profoundly changed the world of work, and this change has created a demand for a range of experts in a whole host of niche areas. As comms professionals, we have seen this demand affect our industry and, as a result, the skills required of a PR person are changing rapidly.

The question — will the future of the PR industry require specialists or generalists? — has been asked thousands of times and has produced a multitude of answers. The debate covers both discipline and sector but for our purpose, we’re going to be focussing on discipline.

Traditionally, PRs were seen to be generalists. We worked on media relations, strategy, social, video and more. But in recent years, the pendulum has shifted, and we are seeing more and more PRs specialising in certain skills such as SEO or app development.

The global marketplace calls for a mix of both generalists and specialists but how can you manage the balance between the two?

The role of the generalist

PR generalists tend to have a wide range of skills across various disciplines. They are able to consult across a variety of specialisms and have a plethora of PR tactics up their sleeves.

Having a breadth of skills is useful, particularly if you’re looking to get into a management position. Not only do you need the skills required to perform your job role, but you may also need to have good communication skills, organise budgets, manage people and several other skills broader than your specific role. Similarly, many generalists will often have a flexible and open-minded approach. As they are less narrowly focussed, generalists can, pardon the cliché, often think ‘outside-of-the box’.

However, there can be downsides in being a generalist. They can sometimes lack a deeper knowledge which means they may look to a specialist to advise on a specific niche.

Shifting towards specialists

Sure, it may be helpful to have worked across a variety of comms disciplines, but for many employers, showing that you have a level of depth in one specialism will set you apart from others. PR specialists are often great thought leaders as they have the in-depth knowledge required to be an expert in their field. As the comms industry has shifted from the traditional PR generalist to the PR specialist, we find agencies hiring more and more SEO, social, CRM experts etc. to fill those niche areas that the generalists may not have in-depth knowledge on.

However, as with PR generalists, there are also some downsides for PR specialists. While an SEO expert will have extensive knowledge on SEO and will be the first point of contact for SEO enquires, you are at risk of narrowing your thoughts to your specialism. For instance, an SEO expert may only consider SEO as a solution when a comms challenge arises, rather than looking at the bigger picture — something that a generalist is able to do.

So, what’s the best course of action?

An amalgamation

At the beginning of the month, Firefly attended the PRCA’s Digital Report launch. At the event, the PR generalist vs specialist debate was a hot topic and a panel discussion with Toby Gunton (GM at Edelman), Marshall Manson (ex-CEO of Ogilvy, now Partner at Brunswick) and Abby Guthkelch (heads up Not Another Agency) debated the importance of both roles and suggested that a blend of generalists and specialists is of critical importance for agencies. They discussed that when it comes to PR activities like paid social, it’s better to have a specialist in, rather than trying to make generalists do everything. In this instance, it may be worth hiring a paid social freelancer for a few months to do it properly for your company, but also to teach others in the office while they are there.

You want your generalists involved in planning, management and evaluation and you want the specialised involved in execution, because that’s when you’ll require depth or expertise and knowledge. Modern PR calls for a mix of traditional activities such as media relations and specialised tasks such as SEO management, and the team you build should reflect this. That said, it’s always helpful if the generalist leaders have a solid grounding in the principles of what they’re offering via specialists so that they know what they’re talking about – unlike the recent case of the Japanese cyber-security minister who didn’t know what a USB stick was!

Skill up

Communications professionals are no longer solely focussed on media relations; we need to offer a range of services that call for both generalists and specialists.

The PRCA’s Digital Report found that in 2018, the PR and comms department has taken clear ownership of digital and social media content, and this is only going to grow. Over 57% of respondents said their digital and social content is produced by PR teams, representing a 12% increase from previous years. As the demand for more digital content increases, comms professionals need to ensure their skills, regardless of whether they’re a generalist or a specialist, match the needs of your company. For example, is Instagram an important channel for you? If so, do you have the right skills on your team — because Instagram’s popularity with agencies’ clients has increased from 59% to 70%, indicating that it is still becoming an important platform that comms professionals need to be in tune with.

It’s important to keep one eye on the latest trends impacting the comms industry, ensuring that generalists can swot up on the latest developments or specialists can change tactics and specialise in a new area.

It’s clear that both generalists and specialists are important in our industry and that agencies demand traits from both. Instead of choosing between a generalist and a specialist, think about how they can complement each other and help achieve the goals of a company’s PR programme.

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