Guest Post: The PR Generalist vs. The Industry Specialist

A Guest Post By Suzanne Mannion, EVP & Co-founder, Newsmaker Group

Suzanne MannionOne of the aspects I like best about being in public relations is that it presents opportunities that appeal to a wide variety of people. Because PR is relevant to nearly every industry, practitioners can tailor a career in any number of ways. One notable distinction: becoming an industry-specific specialist or PR generalist.

I define myself as a PR generalist. Throughout my 25 year career I’ve worked with clients from an array of industries – aviation, healthcare, government, museums, education, technology, and more. This approach was completely serendipitous (in fact I didn’t even plan to go into PR, but that’s another story). Yet I’m very glad it worked out this way because it’s exposed me to a colorful career full of sometimes unexpected experiences.

My area of expertise remains public relations as I utilize the core strategies and tactics that every PR professional incorporates into an effective campaign. But this direction has kept me flexible and enhanced my creativity by ensuring I do not simply rely on what works in any one industry.

I think it’s fair to say that today’s global marketplace calls for a mix of generalists and specialists. Some PR professionals integrate their communications skills with specific vertical industries, pursuing jobs that focus on relevant sector subject areas. Techies, for example, might enjoy working with a mobile start-up, while fashion gurus would rather work at a boutique PR firm.  Those with a penchant for finance may go the IR route or look to represent banks or investment products, as someone with a love of travel takes a position with a destination or tourism bureau.

Is industry specialist the right path for you?

While communications may be your forte, with strengths such as writing, creativity, organization and research, your passion might be for something else altogether.  Few people can truly identify the thing they are most passionate about, let alone be fortunate enough to pursue a related career. So if you have a passion, I wholeheartedly recommend embracing it. The ability to marry the two is one of the great things about a PR career.

In that case, your journey might lead you towards a job in internal communications working for a corporation where you promote the company’s various products, services and experts. If it’s a sizeable business, you would be part of a large communications team that almost operates as an agency and the brands or service areas assigned to you are like your clients. Going in this direction would enable you to gain a deep understanding of the particular industry. And keep in mind that internal communication departments often provide room for growth as you develop your skills.

Another avenue for someone wishing to concentrate on a specific industry is the non-profit world. Many professionals are inspired by the opportunity to support a cause or organization. And because the responsibilities of the PR person at a not-for-profit often extend beyond traditional public relations, these professionals enjoy the chance to integrate fundraising, marketing and other related skills into their experience.

Prefer to mix things up?

On the other hand, perhaps you consider yourself a jack of all trades, with many interests. If so, the agency route might be the best for you. While some PR firms do specialize in an industry, such as technology, travel or fashion, the capabilities of most full service agencies cover many sectors. Beyond exposing you to a variety of vertical industries, the agency world also offers different office settings. There are multinational global firms with thousands of employees and seemingly countless clients, as well as small agencies with just a handful of team members, and many sizes in between, not to mention choosing between the big city and small towns.

Among the arguments for opting to be a PR generalist is that this approach makes you highly adaptable to organizational demands. This is something to consider in an ever changing economy where a narrow expertise one day may no longer be in demand.

For many, the roads intersect, which has been the case for Christina Semmel, Lufthansa’s Manager of North American Corporate Communications.

“My first PR job was as an author publicist for a major publishing house, and though I loved it, I was drawn to travel – new cultures, history, authentic foods, etc. – and wanted that to be my specialty. I switched jobs and have been in this area for more than a dozen years, even utilizing my initial job experience when working in the PR department of a consumer travel magazine. That’s not to say I would close the door to other sectors down the line. I also love fashion, music and food, and in fact the travel industry often allows me to tap into these areas of interest.

“If I were speaking to someone starting out, I would ask them if they’re really interested in a certain topic, and then I would encourage them to try to secure a job within that field.  If not, then a generalist approach is a good way to go.”

Where do I go from here?

For those new to the industry or wrapping up their studies, take advantage of established professionals to help you chart your career course. Online communities like #PRStudChat are a great resource for learning, connecting with peers and hearing about different experiences. Consider joining PRSA. Many local chapters have working groups for new and young professionals. And don’t neglect the old fashioned “information interview.” Many seasoned PR people would make time for a newbie. Connect with people via LinkedIn, ask family and friends to connect you with people in the industry. These conversations won’t always lead to a job, but you’ll be initiating valuable relationships while you learn something more about the industry, and about your own career adventure.

Suzanne Mannion, Executive Vice President & Co-Founder, Newsmaker Group
Suzanne has been in the communications industry for more than 25 years. With a focus on strategic planning and program management, she has developed and implemented campaigns for numerous business and consumer-facing clients. Suzanne has extensive experience servicing non-profit organizations in the cultural, education and healthcare arenas. Her diverse background also includes travel and tourism campaigns, including efforts for organizations with an international presence.