Public Relations – and the World – need more generalists not fewer
The contradiction at the heart of modern working life is the concept of complexity. Yesterday’s bespoke is today’s commodity; today’s ‘value add’ will be tomorrow’s ‘routine’. And public relations is at the centre of this contradiction.
A decade ago, clients paid for access to influencers – journalists, regulators, academics, decision-makers – to present their petitions, state their cases or sell their propositions. Today, all this information is readily available on LinkedIn, or even Facebook; the barriers have been lowered – information that was proprietary is now freely available. The ‘value add’ has moved; old school skills such as mastery Media Disk or Hoovers or a black book full of editorial contacts will no longer guarantee you a promotion (or even a place) at a PR firm. The game has changed; and it’s constantly changing.
This is one of the reasons why I remain sceptical about the concept of ‘specialisation’ within my profession; not only can it limit a person’s outlook, it can – in professional terms, at least – prove terminal. In 1995, a specialist telecom PR professional who mastered the intricacies of mono-duopoly regulation, PSTN/IP convergence and the technicalities of voice over IP, could guarantee a career a technology PR firm. One which was based on a form of ‘intellectual protectionism’ – knowledge of a very specific ecosystem, from technology to influencers. However, today’s mobile phones are more likely to be sold on the basis of their camera1 or audio player2; the telecom expert’s particular knowledge has become irrelevant.
From a business and career perspective, the logic of so-called ‘T-shaped’ careers has become indisputable. T-shaped career paths describe a core skill which is then complemented by a more general knowledge of other areas. Research published in the Harvard Business Review3 amongst MBA students revealed that candidates who had specialised in investment banking throughout were less likely to receive multiple job offers than students who had broader backgrounds and experiences. Not only were they less likely to receive multiple offers, but they were offered smaller signing bonuses. In some cases, the specialists earned up to $48,000 less than their generalist peers.
In my sector, a core skill could be media relations, for instance, which is then supplemented by additional knowledge in fields such as design, copywriting, research, public affairs, digital, experientials etc. Not only does this approach make profound business sense (it reduces the firm’s dependency on a few specialists), it facilitates a deeper and more varied career experience for employees. Within our firm, for instance, our vision is that digital ‘specialists’ could spend some time supporting the PR function, or that team members from public affairs could gain experience within the content team. Not everyone will reach the same competence levels outside their core domains, but the broader experience can only be beneficial to their overall careers and – critically – their ability to counsel their clients.
Let me reveal a secret no PR specialist will ever admit: 90% of our daily work – from counsel to execution – is non-sector specific and entirely repeatable. Only 10% requires genuinely specialist knowledge of a particular sector or discipline. The latter remain absolutely critical certainly, but the rest is about quality control, client service, identifying patterns, risks and opportunities, which require a business rather than specialist acumen; particularly in the latter stages of a career. I remain wary of the so-called ‘IP protectionist’ – the professional who seeks comfort and security in the intricacies of a particular sector; in reality, that accounts for only 10% of the job…
The above represents a business rationale, but where does this leave my provocative headline? What does the specialist vs. generalist debate have to do with the wider world? I see a type of ‘cult of specialisation’ emerging; where deep domain knowledge is viewed as an expedient to a lack of interest in the wider world. This form of intellectual ‘binarisation’ is particularly evident on social media, where single issue lobbyists hijack debates and close them down, where discussions are distilled down to the linear, with no reference to other issues or implications in a wider context. We are seeing the effects of binarisation in Europe and the US; political debate has become completely polarised, the notion that politics and ideology are not absolutes, but simply a means to an end has been completely abandoned.
The answer – both in the workplace and the wider world – is not more specialisation, but less. There are no new dilemmas or challenges to be faced that have not been recounted thousands and thousands of times before in music, art, theatre, film and literature; and I’m not restricting myself to Peter Drucker!
Isabel Allende’s historical novels4 about the colonisation of Latin America reveal dilemmas of having to choose between the demands of religion, family and nation; a precursor to the work-life balance dilemma! Charles Dickens5 provides an insider’s view on the first industrial revolution and its impacts on hierarchies and families. Chetan Bhagat’s One Night @ the Call Center6 offers a modern-day equivalent of the same.
You’ll find none of these titles on a typical MBA reading list; that would represent the antithesis of today’s binary logic. But they all provide the type of perspective and insight that today’s PR industry – and society in general – desperately needs.