Mix a generalist in with your specialist for that winning combination

Author’s note:

As the weeks roll by, an unprecedented number of people are losing their jobs due to the economic hardship presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many of us in the public relations community are actively seeking new opportunities, I encourage employers and recruiters to resist the urge to zero in on the “unicorn” hire and be more flexible in their approach. There are plenty of fish in the sea and it’s good to cast the net wide.

I want to vouch for the round peg, for the PR generalist

It’s not uncommon for recruiters and hiring managers to automatically seek “square pegs in square holes” when looking for public relations candidates. They usually want people with specialized experience in a specific field. In other words, they want specialists.

A round peg in a square hole is a harder concept for a recruiter to pitch. It’s difficult to convince company decision makers to take chances on people whose backgrounds do not appear to closely align with a company’s specialty. But “round pegs” can be surprisingly effective. For our purposes, a “round peg” is a generalist — a PR professional with a wide variety of experience in many different industries. PR generalists have a breadth of skill and originality that can sometimes make them more effective than conventional specialists.

Ultimately, though, both generalists and specialists are at their best when working together.

The making of a generalist

My first public relations job was in Melbourne, Australia for the PR agency Porter Novelli. There I worked with many skilled leaders and clients across industries and managed the programs for law, finance, tech, not-for-profit, government, the arts, and more.

Early on, my agency mentors would ask: “Do you want to be a specialist or a generalist?” I didn’t have an answer for them, I just knew I liked working in PR. Eventually I decided I was a generalist because I found my diverse PR skills were transferrable across industries and I enjoyed the scope that offered. Even better, many of my client contacts worked in marketing or PR themselves, so they could use their specialist expertise to fill gaps in my technical knowledge or to explain industry lingo.

My working relationships with these contacts proved the value of partnerships between generalists and specialists, and showed how effective a round peg can be when paired with a more conventional square one. As a generalist, I could share ideas other industries were using in their PR programs, while my client was able to assess whether those ideas could be applied in their specific industry. A PR generalist can add real value by bringing in new ideas, using them to help boost business performance and increase brand awareness.

Below are a few examples, drawn from my PR career, of the focus areas and effective tactics favored in industries from venture capital to finance. A “round peg” PR generalist can apply these lessons across industries, providing insight and originality that can complement the work of their “square peg” specialist peers.

Startup, tech and venture capitalists frequently host VIP dinners with journalists

The startup, tech, and venture capital sectors invest big in cultivating relationships with the media by entertaining reporters and bloggers. Companies, especially in San Francisco, will invite their target media to trade events or lavish cocktail parties, usually at the city’s hippest (or at least its most expensive) venues such as The Battery or Quince.

This doesn’t mean that favorable press coverage can be bought. Most journalists are extremely scrupulous, and many media outlets will insist on picking up some or all of the check when dining with an industry source. Nonetheless, entertaining is still a great PR tactic to build media relationships and professional rapport, and in my experience no sector does this better than tech.

The good news is this tactic also works in industries outside of tech. A specific example is when I was hired to lead a PR team for the Americas West Region of a commercial real estate firm. At the end of the year, with the holiday season approaching, I suggested to my manager that we organize a fine dining lunch with key journalists and leading company spokespeople. This tactic had never been employed by my manager or the incumbent PR team in the West Region, and the local managing principal was quick to welcome it. I invited a small group of journalists to join me and two of our company spokespeople for lunch at the prestigious Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco. The event helped the journalists put names to faces, allowed them to discuss potential stories, and cemented their relationships with our company. The idea was simple, successful and I had lifted it directly from my time in the tech sector. If I didn’t have a generalist background that included tech experience it might have never occurred to me.

Fashion and arts are all about the visuals

Another industry that tends to use a set of specific PR tactics is the creative arts. Fashion, for example, is dependent on consumers seeing the product firsthand. In my PR career I’ve attended some spectacular runway shows as well as modeling photo shoots and came to understand how valuable these events are from a PR perspective. Arts festivals, similarly, will often upload short clips of their dance, theatre or visual exhibits to YouTube and social media sites so likely attendees can see before they buy.

People who have done PR work in these fields know the importance of putting a good visual in front of the public. This was a lesson I carried with me from working in the arts to a cyber security company. At a software product launch, I suggested we take the company founders outside for a photo opportunity, rather than take their picture inside. The purpose of getting outside was to accomplish a better, more vibrant, visual. The resulting article here included a full color photograph of the founders in front of the former Radio Free Europe headquarters and made the front page of the USA Today business section. While my manager, the PR specialist, had coordinated a seamless software product launch, I was able to add some visual flair based on my generalist experience with more “colorful” industries such as the arts.

Commercial real estate likes to compete for industry awards

Another powerful PR tactic that can be applied across industries is pursuing awards. Entering and winning industry awards is especially popular in commercial real estate. It’s not hard to see why. If a broker, for example, is recognized as a top producer or their deal is singled out as one of the most lucrative that year, this recognition adds mileage to the company brand.

Not all industries pursue awards as persistently as commercial real estate, but perhaps they should. This is an insight the PR generalist can suggest to a specialist in another industry. Entering a company or its standout team members in awards competitions can be an effective marketing tool, one that can benefit any business.

Finance companies regularly issue white papers and sponsor events

Publishing white papers and thought leadership articles is a popular PR tactic in finance. There are a lot of heavyweight thinkers in this industry and it is important their ideas are clearly communicated to their clients. The white paper is a great tool for PR people to communicate a spokesperson’s ideas and drum up media interest in a company. White papers also help position their authors as “captains of industry,” who can be pitched as TV or radio commentators, adding even more prestige to a company’s brand.

Outside of finance, many companies are starting to recognize the value of developing a thought leadership voice via white papers and other techniques. A PR generalist with experience in finance can help other companies apply similar tactics to build their brand and intellectual clout.

Furthermore, finance organizations often have bigger marketing budgets, and can put considerable funds towards initiatives — such as sponsorships — that raise community goodwill. A PR generalist can learn a lot about sponsorship tactics working in the finance sector and use that experience in other industries. For example, I once worked with a global banking institution that sponsored a national rugby club. I would invite journalists to the games along with the bank’s key spokespeople. These events were effective platforms for fostering business and media relationships. When I came to the tech sector I recognized it had large entertainment budgets and I suggested they think about sponsoring sporting teams for hospitality purposes.

Governments hold press conferences and deal with overwhelming media exposure

After my time at Porter Novelli, I began working for the Australian Government. This involved working with Ministers, and on occasion the Prime Minister, on communications campaigns in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and Darwin.

As part of these campaigns, I helped organize several large press conferences. Interacting with so many media outlets sharpened my PR toolkit and broadened my communications approach. This gave me an edge over others in my profession as not many PR people handled such a large contingent of media. In other positions down the road, I was able to draw on that experience to come up with new ideas on media strategies and working with journalists. A PR generalist with government experience can continue to use press conferences and other public sector tactics in the private sector.

Round peg and square peg — the two can work side-by-side

Experience across industries will open the PR generalist up to new ways of doing their job, making them more flexible and creative. Additionally, a generalist’s insight and breadth of experience is advantageous to a PR team that has become fixed in its ways.

At one time or another we will all be called to switch things up. That’s certainly the case now. Generalists and specialists in PR can impart valuable skills to one another. Both can help a company change course when necessary. The two categories aren’t even mutually exclusive — an experienced PR person can be generalist one day and a specialist the next. Ultimately, I encourage recruiters and hiring managers not to discount either generalists or specialists, but to understand how both, working together, can produce great results.

Read other PR articles by Caroline James:

  1. How PR contributes to company sales
  2. Like many in the digital age, PR faced its hurdles and readjusted to the new landscape — but it’s still an industry that thrives best with support

Caroline James is a PR expert with more than 20 years of experience in the industry. Throughout her career she has worked for tech startups, PR agencies, international governments, and corporate firms. She is the founder of Forever Speaks PR, and is always open to new PR opportunities and challenges. For more information, or just to chat about our industry, contact her on LinkedIn here.

Aussie in LA who continued her PR career in the U.S. after relocating with a green card she won in the U.S. Diversity Lottery. Currently seeking opportunities!