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Public Relations and the ‘Cult of the Specialist’

The idea of ‘specialisms’ has come under increasing scrutiny, from world politics to sport. Why is the PR industry moving in the opposite direction?

Specialists and experts have had a difficult few years. In 2016, UK MP and Brexit advocate Michael Gove claimed that the United Kingdom has “had enough of experts”, while Donald Trump’s election victory the following year has been described as a triumph for ‘anti-intellectualism’. It’s become clear that experts aren’t as influential as they think (or once were); today, it’s the ‘uniformed masses’ that decide elections.

In cricket terms, the emergence of 20/20 has led specialists to be dispensed with altogether; with disastrous results in England’s case. Only last week, England’s cricket team of ‘35/35’s, as I call them (i.e. the entire team effectively shares the same bowling and batting average) were roundly beaten by Pakistan’s humble Test match ‘specialists’.

Non-specialists appear to be taking over the world! For better or worse, the Internet has created a generation of ‘finitely’ informed, but disproportionately opinionated citizens; the ‘vocal generalist’. Basically, people who have precisely 280 characters’ worth of knowledge on any given subject! The disconnect between objective knowledge and influence is made complete with the addition of ‘celebrity’; it wasn’t ‘expert’ (in the traditional sense) who knocked $1.5 billion off Snapchat’s value in February!

As previous analysis has demonstrated, the less ‘informed’ a person is on a particular subject, the more susceptible they’ll be to persuasion; and the better bet they’ll make for a brand to engage. This is the logic behind the ‘consumerisation’ effect; every brand is – in the final instance – a consumer brand, as long as it employs people, pays taxes, and plays a role in the community.

We may deplore the replacement of genuine ‘knowledge’ for ‘popularity’ in debate – I certainly do – but it is a reality which organisations have to navigate. Today, a brand’s fate is more likely to be at the mercy of a ‘semi-informed’ but popular blogger, than any qualified, but discrete, academic. Which makes the PR industry’s current obsession with ‘specialisations’ hard to fathom.

The latest global firm announcement cites no less than 14 industry specialists designed to combine ‘deep industry expertise with specialist capabilities’. If you look deeper into the announcement’s implications, you’ll note: ‘Over the past 12 months, meanwhile, (the firm) has laid off a number of staffers, many of whom were senior-level generalists…’

I’m all in favour of industry expertise – my own firm includes some of the country’s leading banking and finance experts, for example. But not necessarily at the expense of more generalist career. Let me explain the shortcomings of the ‘cult of the specialist’ (in my view):

  1. PR practitioners should be able to counsel clients from a communications perspective, not compete with them on industry knowledge. The client will always have a distinct and informed perspective, deeper than our own – it’s their business, after all. Our domain of expertise should remain communications, reputation, influence… so-called ‘generalists’ remain ‘specialists’ of communication, and should be positioned as such.
  1. Deep industry knowledge is no substitute for an understanding of the wider societal context of a particular decision or communication. There is, in fact, an inverse correlation between depth of specialist knowledge and the ability to engage non-specialists; experts don’t necessarily make the best communicators (they often make the worst). Since it’s the non-specialist audiences who are becoming increasingly vocal and influential, brands should disregard them (and ‘generalist’ PR practitioners) at their peril.
  1. Clients want original, alternative thinking; creativity represents an essential quality to cut through the noise, especially across social media. Such thinking is less likely to emerge from teams exclusively made up of hardened, sector experts, than those supplemented (and valued) by unabashed generalists. It’s a separate and controversial debate (for another occasion), but my own experience attests to a type of ‘self-endorsement’ cycle amongst specialists, that tends to generate linear, conventional and logical thinking. Not necessarily that alternative variety that the client (and the issue) may require.
  1. The ‘80%/20%’ reality’; honestly, the greatest secret of agency life is that the majority of work is routine and repeatable, but no less essential. Expert, industry-specific counsel is required on the occasion of strategic planning, industry shifts, crises, risk mitigation etc. which accounts for less than 20% of account time. The vast majority of work is about day-to-day delivery, in a creative, compelling, fresh manner requiring – not necessarily sector experience – but professional And I mean the PR profession (not that of the client). Client service, pattern/opportunity spotting, content creation, storytelling, relationship building, negotiating…these are our specialist skills.

So a note of caution on this particular version of the cult of the specialist that appears to be sweeping our industry.

Since the majority of the planet (with whom our clients desire to communicate) are in some sense ’non-specialists’, it makes sense for PR teams to be well represented by them in their ranks. I’m not suggesting that the generalist is a solution for everything – England cricket team’s current predicament probably goes deeper!

But in PR terms, at least, I’m all in favour of sector expertise, but not at the expense of what should be our real specialism — communications.

The contents of this blog are the opinion of contributors therein and Adfactors PR does not share or ratify the same
Roger Darashah
Roger Darashah (47) brings close to 23 years of international communications experience with stints in the UK, France, Spain, India and Brazil. He is part of the senior management team at Adfactors PR, working in the capacity of Chief Operating Officer.

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