Malcolm Gladwell called for specialisation of the press recently. His claim was that only those reporters focusing on a specialist niche work can hope to survive, because they will do a better job of providing relevant information to the public. I dare to make the same claim for public relations.
There are good arguments for specialisation. First of all, being knowledgeable and deeply involved in a certain subject makes the expert difficult to replace. The organisation needs them more than they need the organisation and that stabilises their profession and creates better job security.
Take Gladwell’s example of John Weil, a journalist who broke the Enron story because he knew his way around financial statements and a balance sheet. “Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. Most accountants don’t write articles, and most journalists don’t know anything about accounting.”
When a practitioner specialises, immersion in the field of her choice follows. For example, getting deeply involved in finance means that she will be well aware of a difference between a sale and lease back product and operative leasing. Furthermore, she can support her reasoning with valid arguments citing financial mechanics and legislation. She knows that all pension funds are legally obliged not to make a loss and why it is that way. All this knowledge leads to getting under the client’s skin and being able to provide him with better advice.
“We are in the business of building brands and helping them to excel. How can you help a brand to get better when you don’t know its core business? That is like trying to get hired as a doctor without passing the medical school,” said Ladislav Baca, CEO of Ogilvy Group Czech Republic.
His message is simple: specialise or perish. The clients stopped requiring space in the media as the results of the PRO’s work. They are demanding a different type of service nowadays. They need advice that will help them to build their brand and legitimise their efforts and actions. This vision applies mainly to the British market but it is assumed that the Czech Republic will follow in a couple of years.
Benefits? Relationships, credibility, money
Knowing the market and the client’s business is directly correlated to your success and your salary. According to a small-scale research by Heyman Associates, there are ten dimensions of success. One of them is very relevant to being a specialist – the ability to forge more prosperous relationships with the client as well as the media. Some journalists (most notably staff writers for technology or finance publications) tend to view PROs as flacks who have no idea what they are talking about when pitching clients’ information.
Your high involvement within a given field can safely eliminate this perceptual flaw. Due to the knowledge you have obtained, you will cease being a pest for the reporter and become his partner instead.
The same applies to relations with the client. When the marketing director of a large banking institution doesn’t have to explain to you for the fourth time the difference between putting your money on a term deposit account and investing into mutual funds, your relationship will get better. It works the other way around too. When you catch a glimpse of a topic discussed in the news relating to the nitty-gritty areas of your client’s business, you can be the proactive force and kick-start the client to begin communicating.
When it comes to individual salary, I think you know the logic I’m following. The more involved you are with the subject of your choice, the better advice you give to the client. The better your advice is, the higher the fees you agency can invoice. The higher the fees, the higher your salary and social status will be. It looks simple because it is that simple.
Taking the first steps
“This specialisation talk is all well and good but where do I start?” I hear you saying. The trick is building up your expertise in a subject you enjoy. Start with an idea of what turns you on professionally. Those of you interested in automotive should get busy with reading industry reports and educating yourselves in the technical aspect of the field. Watching Top Gear reruns will simply not suffice.
College students have it easier because they can still shift the focus of their studies and take additional courses related to their field of desired specialisation. Those who decide to go for their Bachelor’s and Master’s in one run should diversify their efforts. Doing a Bachelor’s in business administration or finance or interior design can be helpful to gain the foundational insights into the area of your future expertise. Going for a Master’s degree in PR will then formalise your experience.
While you are still in college, it is an imperative to take up internships and work placements to discover the practical side of the profession. In case you don’t like the field of focus you can still switch while maintaining a relatively low opportunity cost.
The key to your successful profiling in PR is determining what you want to do and building up your expertise in that field. You will soon find out that it’s not as easy as you thought it would be but that’s fine. You will discover that aside from the soft skills you will need to develop some hard ones as well.
Maths skills are good to have for finance-related fields, understanding aesthetics will get you ahead in design-related business and knowing the foundations of chemistry can help you in the FMCG food sector. However, all these helpful skills are overshadowed by one characteristic – a willingness to work hard.
I will leave this space for the closing words on specialisation to Malcolm Gladwell yet again. “I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing.”