The Specialist vs the Generalist: Who Wins?

Marian Salzman, CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, on a PR Week Webcast this week, forecast what’s coming next in the PR industry.  Her outlook for 2012, which was covered in an article by Matt Wilson on, included a prediction that people in the PR industry will have to become generalists, taking on a wide variety of tasks, including but not limited to media relations, developing “content” (a communications industry buzzword that means written, audio or video materials for use online) and serving as experts on transparency.Wilson reported that her explanation for the need to be generalists was, “The media is really being redefined by the second.”

Here’s the thing: some of us saw this coming years ago and refused to be pigeonholed as specialists at a time when the common wisdom was that you had to be a specialist to climb the communications career ladder.

When the dot com bubble burst and the technology sector crashed in 2000, people who had differentiated themselves by specializing in tech or internet PR were being laid off left and right. The situation got much worse after 9/11, when budgets were being cut drastically by PR agency clients in every industry. We learned at that time that it was risky to be specialists in one narrow area. Agencies with general PR practices stood a better chance of survival in a downturn than specialist firms. At that time it was tech that was the weak spot. But at other times health care, financial services, fashion and other industries have been the danger zones.

It’s not unusual for someone who has been a corporate communications professional in one industry 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.

One very nimble friend has gone from the corporate communications department at a Big 5 accounting firm to a beauty products company, a tobacco company, a financial services company, an educational institution, and she now works in the green IT and smart grid sector (and she’s excelled in each position!). Over the course of her career she’s also had a wide variety of roles within communications and marketing, including writing, magazine editing, internal communications, marketing communications and sales promotion.

This demonstrates that good communications principals are much more important to success 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. I would argue that broad experience over different industries is a positive influence on creative thinking. You can leverage what you observe in one industry and apply it to another industry in a way that PR insiders in that industry would never think of doing. To be a good communications generalist, it’s crucial to be able to pick up the basics about a new industry fast, and to be able to distinguish between what you need to know and what you don’t.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in physics to be a PR superstar for a laser manufacturer, or a CPA to head the corporate communications department at an accounting firm.

All of the above is why a liberal arts education is so important for a communications professional. In college, it’s much more important to learn how to learn than it is to learn the specifics of any particular profession.

Lucy Siegel

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