Which to choose: specialized vs. generalized PR

By Ashleigh Mavros

Sometime during your PR college career, you may find yourself wondering whether you should become a specialist or generalist. Here’s the short answer; there is no right answer. Some PR students will graduate as generalists and others as specialists, and both have the potential for long, successful careers. Generalists who have experience in a little bit of everything can remain flexible while specialists who perfect one skill set themselves apart from the competition. The only true guarantee when graduating with a PR degree is that in five years, the industry will be vastly different.

Take a look at how the two options compare to each other:

Specialized 

Most college students wake up in the morning and have trouble deciding what they want for breakfast, let alone what they want to specialize in for the rest of their lives. However, if you know what facet of PR you’re passionate about, why pursue other options?

Ben Lincoln of GolinHarris snagged an internship with the agency out of 500+ other applicants in 2004. What set him apart from the other hopefuls? His previous reporting experience and passion for writing. Lincoln currently serves as the writing director at GolinHarris where he helps brands like McDonalds and Corona find their voice and tell meaningful stories across multiple media channels, solely producing written content.

Two years ago GolinHarris was a generalist agency; everyone there knew how to do a little bit of everything. However, after analyzing the PR industry and looking to the future, GolinHarris realized it was too difficult to be good at everything. They needed to adopt a specialist model. The agency changed its structure, placing employees in strictly one discipline of PR. This opportunity paved the way for Lincoln to become a full-time writer.

“Today, integration means specialization. If a client wants expertise in earned, owned and paid media, then agencies need to hire experts in earned, owned and paid media,” said Lincoln.

Lincoln doesn’t foresee his specialization being threatened anytime soon. “As our industry and nearly everything about it has changed over the years, one constant has been the need for great storytelling,” said Lincoln. “I have no idea what communications will look like in 10 years. I have no idea what my job will look like in 10 years. But I have a hunch writing will continue to play an important role in my career.”

The biggest fear that students have when graduating with a specialization is that they’ll miss out on other opportunities. But if you know where your passions and talents lie, why waste your time with anything else? As tedious as the job search may be, when you find a position that aligns with your abilities, you set yourself apart from the other applicants with your expansive experience.

Generalized

Five years ago only a handful of PR agencies were integrating marketing, advertising and digital efforts, and the thought of a news release condensed to 140 characters was absurd. Communications, especially PR, is a rapidly changing industry that will leave you in the dust if you don’t also evolve. By generalizing you’re leaving the door open to other opportunities that may not exist today but will arise in the future.

Aaron Brown graduated from Ohio University generalizing in PR and today works as senior vice president at the integrated agency, Fahlgren Mortine.

“The most successful graduates look at the world through a holistic communications-marketing theory,” advised Brown. “It’s all about diverse experience.” Brown believes that exposing yourself to as many aspects of marketing and communications as possible provides more opportunities as a graduate.

And why wouldn’t it? Someone who can write a killer news release, be in-the-know about the latest social media trend and understand SEO would be more flexible and beneficial for a company than someone who is capable of only one thing.

As an entry-level associate at Fahlgren Mortine, you’re exposed to an endless number of projects and clients. You get to touch a little bit of everything; you could be writing social media for a corporate client, doing media relations for a b2b company and helping build a website for a non-profit organization. The purpose of this organization is that as you grow throughout the years, you get a sense of which clients and projects you excel with. You eventually find a handful of areas at which you are most beneficial and stick with the clients and jobs that best align with your capacities.

However, with generalizing, how much is too much? No graduate will ever go into their first job as an expert in everything. You should have a handful of skills that are your selling points when applying for jobs, but still have an understanding of what else may be required in the position.

While your decision may seem like a ticking time bomb now, you have decades after graduation to figure out if there’s a certain industry or specialization you enjoy. There are professionals who have been in the industry for 30+ years and still explore their options. Don’t feel the need to try and figure it out in four years and always keep an open mind!

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