Conversations at the Intersection of PR, Traditional & New Media

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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Categorised in: Public Relations, Vikypedia Exclusives

12 Responses »

  1. Hi, I’d say you can extend your though process to beyond PR. This applies to anyone in the field of communications. eg corporate comms, internal comms etc. etc. As long a one is familiar with the craft of comms, or PR as the case maybe, being a professional adapting, is not an issue in my opinion. Sure, you need to understand the business, jargon associated with the business et al,,s that is again part of the trade as a communications professional. Let me address your questions at the end, I will have to be a generalist as I have moved from advertising, to marketing communications, corporate communications, internal communications and also PR. There has been no significant impact on remunerations and being a generalist did not make a difference to one organization I worked for. When they downsized they did not take that into account. So I would conclude – know your craft, adapt your craft to the business/trade you work for and give it your best shot, you will succeed.

  2. Very relevant and interesting topic Vikram. I personally would like to be a Generalist with specialist skills, domain knowledge is quintessential in any industry and as you you rightly said we need to have strong fundamentals of communication in place. Additionally my response to your queries as below:

    Are you a generalist or a specialist, and why did you chose your path?

    I am a generalist as I got the opportunity to service clients across industries IT/ITes, Education, Financial Services even though I was initially a part of the Technology SBU. I definitely think that it has helped me to know about varied industries and as each sector had its own challenges it made the job interesting and something I was looking forward to everyday.

    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?
    Being a generalist one has the option to move across sectors, learn more about the opportunities and challenges of different sectors. However the negative side of being a generalist is that you might be perceived as someone without industry expertise/knowledge.

  3. This is a brilliant piece Vikram. While the debate for being a generalist over a specialist and viceversa will always exist, however the choice is very personal. Like i am a Sports PR specialist who has tried moving into various domains from Brand Management, Automobile PR, Retail PR and Education PR, but Sporst PR was something that i found happiness in. I also have worked with various agencies (indian and Multinational) but it was never the agency that made by day satisfying at work but its the work that got me satisfaction.

    My being a specialist was a well thought step, which obviously comes with a cost. On the good side i enjoy the reputation of being an industry expert and the go to person for many clients, PR colleagues and Journalists for anything to do with sports in India, what i lose out on is the remuneration, which because of the size of the industry and structure in the country doesn’t pay me much even after spending nearly 8 yaers in sports (4 is sports PR and 4 in sports management).

    However the best part of being a specialist is that when you talk to industry veterans you can talk their language and that is a great sense of achievement towards approaching perfection. Specialising i think is the way to look at in the years to come and every corporate would want their top communication guys to be specialists in their respective industry because, while there can be many plans that can be made and a lot of time can be wasted discussing these plans, but what a specialist can do – noone else can coz he will understand the practicalities and feasibilities in the industry better than any generalist and while he communicates with a client / veteran / journalist he can talk a language which will make sense and result in respect and true acceptance as a brand partner.

    This is completely my point of view and i am sure while many would have a different point of view but if we look deep, maybe a specialist approach will be very rewarding in the days to come.

  4. Good topic, Vikram, but not so easy to answer. However, the question actually are two – What does the industry want you to be? And what do you yourself want to be? The answer to these two questions might not be the same. They never are. And what’s more, the answers keep changing with time and with individual agencies. You’re hired for your expertise or experience in a certain sector, and then a year later, you’re asked to handle a completely different sector. You yourself may lose interest in a particular sector and would want to move onto another, so you switch agencies or look for corporate communications role in an industry of your newfound choice. All that means is that you’re really not sure where your career will take you, not just because of your agency’s changing needs, but also your own changing preferences.

    But being a generalist has many advantages. You have several more takers, your ‘knowledge’ is multi-fold, you can add value to whatever role you’re given, and generally you’re considered a ‘useful’ resource. The biggest advantage, however, is that a generalist always makes a better choice for management roles in PR agencies. Specialists lose out on this front. They make good vertical heads but are not considered ‘CEO material’. Unless of course the agency is a specialist agency!

    Coming to specialist agencies, we’ve noticed that somewhere in the last 5 to 10 years, specialist agencies have been on a downtrend. Look around yourself and you’ll find that specialist agencies in technology no longer focus on technology, those in travel no longer focus only on travel and those in finance are trying hard to develop their consumer PR business. The writing on the wall, at least for now, is that specialisation is restrictive business!

    So, there you go. My inference is that generalist is the way to go today. At least for the next 10 years or so. Beyond that, only time will tell.

  5. Perfect Aarif,

    But from a senior PR leader like you, Bakul sir, BNK and many top PR leaders who are there on this forum and are now at the helm of agency affairs, I expect you all to most importantly answer my second question:

    I am bringing forward the question asked in this article once agin:

    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?

    Eager to know if you would look at job rotation within your agencies?

  6. Job rotation, or rotational training, is actually a good thing to do and several agencies try to do that. But, rotation cannot be at the cost of servicing efficiency. Rotation’s objective is completely internal to an agency. The client does not want it. Hence an agency has to ensure that smooth functioning of a team does not get affected. So, teams are not changed completely. To the client, only one team member changes in a span of a year. And that’s a change a client can live with.

    It also depends on how you pitch the change to your clients. My pitch always is that I’m ‘reinforcing’ the team and bringing in ‘fresh perspective and ideas’. Clients are usually open to that. And no, its not just a pitch. I actually ensure that reinforcing and fresher ideas happen!

  7. Good article. I started off generalist. Now a specialist and would not go back. I think once you find a very niche area you can sometimes command a higher rate and that is a key factor for not just myself but other freelancers i know. Your experience in early part of your career also I think shapes your decision. Occasionally though will still do generalist work – but rarely. Hope this helps with your research into this.

  8. Excellent topic. Its a great topic to discuss between the youngsters and the senior professionals.
    As a young professional i choose to remain the generalist PR. 2 years back wen i joined the agency i had no sector preference. I worked for a packaging client then along with that an Investment banking then CFP and still continuing.. now soon will get the mandate for educational client. As i was lucky to get a hand on all the sector working along with my senior. The preference of becoming a generalist PR and specialist lot depend on your organization and agency size. I work in a small agency so its fullest to my benefit that i get to understand all my clients and can do PR for them. Its a great question to ask yourself which is the sector that interest you the most so that in future you can be specialist in that particular sector. but i am never able to answer myself..or else i would just count the coverage for which client i got the most :P and that is the sector i can handle easily or be the master.. but again it lot depends on the experience.

    The question always keeps running in my mind do i want to be the master of one or jack of all. And am still not clear about it..am just flowing with the wind.

    The question still remained unanswered… But good to get that perspective from Mr. Abhoy about the good and the bad side of it..

  9. I don’t very much get the purpose of being a specialist in a specific domain, being a part of the PR industry. How does the domain expertise help being a better PR. An overview of the domain knowledge is enough to do your job well. How will it help ? Is it for making statements on behalf of the client ? This will never happen. It always the client and the Journalist who needs to have indepth knowledge of the domain. How in depth domain knowledge help when all you need to do is identify the correct Media and route the client stories to them. I dont think that requires EXPERTISE :)

  10. I’m more confused than ever.

  11. Dear Mr. Raghave,

    With due respect to you, your opinion and your right to opine …. With my limited knowledge about the industry, I believe you are equally challenged as I am, in your knowledge or highly biased in your value judgement or perhaps unfortunate enough not to come across any seasoned, professional PR guy.

    On the onset of this mail, I regret hurting your or anybody’s sentiments, if at all with my words. The fact is as a professional I am hurt by your idea of portraying my profession.

    If I may attempt answering to your views…

    1) How does the domain expertise help being a better PR. An overview of the domain knowledge is enough to do your job well. How will it help ?

    The answer is simple. Until you know the industry well, you will only end-up doing mediocre or average job. There are numerous real life cases to substantiate my point. The industry is full of examples where client treats agency as partners and value its ideas. In fact any exception to this means the agency is not performing its duties in the right manner.

    2) Is it for making statements on behalf of the client ? This will never happen.

    Let me correct you. “making statements on behalf of the client” is not a mirage! It happens and any reasonably good pr professional does this. And this one of those things that we are suppose to do as a part of our job. And this can’t happen until again you understand your client, its business and the industry equally, if not better than your client! I don’t think I need to give an example to illustrate my view.

    3) It always the client and the Journalist who needs to have indepth knowledge of the domain. How in depth domain knowledge help when all you need to do is identify the correct Media and route the client stories to them. I dont think that requires EXPERTISE :)‬

    You are mistaken again in your idea of identifying the correct media is no brainer and do not require expertise.

    Please be clear that your non-performance do not mean non- existence of these roles and definitely do not set the industry bench marks.

    Identifying the correct media is not just finding the names of journalist from the newspaper, it is much beyond and actually includes a better understanding of not only the journalist but also the media houses and its senior editors, their polarisation, association, etc etc. We must remember that we do not live in isolation and to get an understanding of the media in itself need a lot of investment in terms of time and effort. Only those who invest, outshine others in the long run.

    I repeat, you cannot set someone’s non-performance as the industry guidelines! And PR is much much beyond media and column centimetres!

    You are again wrong when you say only clients and media need to have in-depth understanding. First- many of the journalists actually have no or limited knowledge of the domain. (pls do not generalise this) No doubt they need to have the domain expertise but we PR professionals need to have that expertise as well. Unless we have it, we can’t have a control over what are pitching. To an extent we can’t even pitch a story in first place!

    Now coming back to the original debate- specialist vs generalist- my take is- we need to be a specialist in our client’s domain but generalist in our approach. Like I mentioned earlier, we can’t live in isolation, so the industry we are in, we can’t afford to just be specialists. We need to have holistic understanding of everything with specialisation in particular domain of client’s functioning.

  12. Brilliant explanation Rakesh, I completely agree to your point and i dont know how much would anyone agree, but the specialist approach is something that we are moving forward to…if we are really interested in utilising the power of PR in its rightest manners.

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Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed by me in this blog are my personal views and do not represent the views of my employer or the organizations I have been associated with. I believe in the principle of sharing information. Feel free to link to any of the posts in this blog.
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