The Battle of the Generalist and Specialist in Communications
At some point in a communications professional’s career, the internal debate of being a generalist or becoming a specialist arises. While common practice and advice is to start as a generalist in order to figure out the sectors and communications disciplines that are of greatest interest before narrowing your focus, there are still a few individuals who continue late into their careers as generalists.
So, as you debate this eternal question in the communications industry and think about what you want from your career, we thought we would give you an insight into the pros and cons of each type of practioner. This is the heavy-weight debate of Generalist vs. Specialist.
The Generalist: Aleka Bhutiani
Experience: Over a decade of strategic communications experience working with senior executives, emerging and established private and listed companies.
Sectors and Disciplines: Expertise includes corporate, investor, crisis and issues management across financial services, professional services, technology, real estate and healthcare.
Generalist Perspective: I have always strived to be a generalist from the outset of my career, even when in organizations that had a specialist-focused business model. For me, a generalist can be sector-agnostic, multi-disciplined or both. To an extent, I am in favor of doing both as there is a different value to be gleaned from each. A sector agnostic generalist has a broader view of the corporate and economic ecosystem, enabling you to identify new opportunities or flex to meet the changing needs of your clients without them needing to onboard multiple agencies. For instance, perhaps your core client is a listed B2B financial institution. While the core of your work could be on corporate external communications, a significant office move, for example, may require knowledge of real estate PR, internal communications, investor relations and potentially even issues management expertise – pulling in a mix of sector- and discipline-specific expertise. The value I have always seen in being a generalist is that a client would only need one practioner lead and agency team to support them in all of this, versus having to engage sector-specific or discipline-specific experts for ad hoc or ongoing engagements alongside the core corporate communications mandate.
However, the challenge for a generalist practioner is keeping pace with our specialist colleagues. This is a passion before it can become a commercial advantage to you and your employer, because it requires a dedication to reading broadly, stepping out of your comfort zone, learning and making new contacts and being deep like a specialist in multiple sectors rather than just one. In a nutshell, it is hard work! However, if you are looking for variety, challenge and constant learning in your career, I have personally found my choice of being a generalist to meet this ten-fold.
As you progress in your career, there is also value to be had in identifying whitespaces. Something I have come to realize as I have progressed is that a whitespace does not always mean a specific sector, sub-sector or communications discipline. It can also be related to your broader skill set. For example, can you take on complex engagements in an area where there is no specialist available or roadmap to work from? Can you take on mandates that require a mix of sectors (private equity and tech, for instance) that need a deep level of knowledge in each? Or, can you comfortably navigate a client crisis or support a legal client in a litigation case in a sector you have not worked in before across geographies you have never touched? These are all the opportunities and challenges that can await you as a generalist. And while it may seem daunting at first glance, the bird’s eye view it can give you in client situations enables you to see around corners in a way not always considered and to give insights or counsel that add value beyond the core work of what a client would expect.
The Specialist: Mariel Seidman-Gati
Experience: In-house and agency experience developing and executing impactful media and brand building programs for private markets firms. Broadcast journalism background with on-air reporting experience at NBC and NPR affiliated news stations.
Sectors and Disciplines: Deep expertise in private equity and alternative asset management, including investors relations, M&A and crisis and issues management. A member of Prosek’s media training team, dedicated to preparing executives for the routine and unexpected when engaging with the media.
Specialist Perspective: On the surface, a niche specialization in one industry or asset class may seem like it would lead to a lot of sameness. That couldn’t be farther from my experience. I was around three years into my career when I moved to the agency side from an in-house private equity role, joining Prosek with a level of industry expertise that I now know is rare that early in a PR practitioner’s career. What that background granted me, though, was a position as a “go-to” staffer on all things private equity from the outset of my agency career. I was called on to participate in brainstorms and new business pitches, and work on high-profile private equity accounts early on, which really helped me establish my profile and relationships at the firm, especially with senior colleagues.
What my colleagues likely didn’t know at the time was that I felt that my “deep private equity knowledge” just scratched the surface. My previous in-house role was with a middle-market, consumer-focused shop with only one investment strategy. Joining the agency with a specialization in private equity has granted me the opportunity to learn about corners of the market I didn’t know existed. I’ve had exposure to firms of all sizes with a range of strategies, like growth equity, co-investing, secondaries and private credit, to name a few, and countless sector focuses – from renewable energy and infrastructure to enterprise software and consumer tech. Private equity touches every industry and has become an increasingly significant part of the broader economy, which has both challenged me and satiated my desire to continually learn and master new subject matters.
The benefits that come with being a specialist are undeniable. At a base level, it makes it easier to stay current on industry news and reporter moves, and to holistically understand clients’ competitive landscapes. Pattern recognition also makes it easy to jump into a new client’s business quickly and to strategically map what will and won’t work for them. Importantly, it gives PR pros the ability to identify a client’s true differentiators, which is incredibly helpful when developing brand narratives and positioning media pitches. Lastly, many clients are interested in the company their PR team keeps, so having a deep bench of clients in the same space gives instant credibility and provides clients with a sense of comfort that we know how to operate effectively within their industry’s regulatory restrictions.
On the flip side, it’s incredibly important to maintain a certain level of exposure outside your area of specialization in order to understand where it fits into the broader ecosystem. That’s why I’ve always been sure to work with a small set of non-private equity clients, like investment banks, asset managers and hedge funds. Likewise, it can be dangerous to fall into the bad habit of only reading media that’s directly relevant to your area of specialization, for a number of reasons – not the least of which is because it can hinder creative thinking. Finally, it’s imperative that you communicate to clients why your working with their peers is a benefit to them and ensuring they’re comfortable with the way your firm manages any potential conflicts of interest.
The Verdict: So, there you have it. Being a generalist or a specialist has its own advantages and challenges when working with clients, engaging with prospective new business opportunities or when showing your value to colleagues. Ultimately, one is not better than the other and the best advice we can give is to follow your passions. Equally, there are opportunities in the world of strategic communications where combining a specialist and generalist can be highly effective and impactful for a client. For example, we have worked together on a private equity client that is focused on technology, leadership and value creation in business and beyond. Our combined experience enabled us to be nimble with the client’s needs and have a broader understanding of market positioning when engaging a variety of audiences. It also facilitated our ability to tell the client’s story in a compelling and creative way. What made this partnership so successful was playing to each other strengths and collaborating as a team.
Ultimately, no matter which path you choose, strategic communications offers a dynamic career with challenges that will grow your skillset, push creativity and bring you ample opportunities to try something new. The sky is the limit!