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We’ve been doing this a long time – more than 30 years.  We’ve always said we’re a generalist firm – we work across a variety of industries providing comprehensive public relations and marketing communications services.

And since we’ve been around since 1980, I’d say this has worked pretty well for us.  But now “they” say we’re not relevant any more. That we need to carve out specialties to be successful.

“They” were several of the speakers I heard at this year’s Counselors Academy. Julia Hood of PRWeek touched on it during her talk about the evolving role of the corporate communications officer.  Steve Cody alluded to it in his talk about how the smaller agencies can compete with the big firms.

I posed the question to my colleagues in the Public Relations Global Network.  I think David Landis of Landis Communications, Inc. in San Francisco summed it up best:

Yes, it is much easier to market to a specific audience if you have a niche. But generalists (like us) have been able to make it through the ups and downs of a topsy-turvy economy by staying nimble and not tied to one industry.

I’m still curious. To those of you in the professional services business… doesn’t necessarily have to be communications, what do you think?  Specialist or generalist?

Abbie S. Fink
Abbie S. Fink
Vice President/General Manager Abbie has been doing public relations her whole life…from organizing a picket line in 6th grade to organizing client communications today. She’s passionate about a lot of things, you’ll see. Check out Abbie's full bio

11 Comments

  1. Stephanie Lough says:

    I think firms should be more “generalist” and its staff should be a variety of “specialists”.

  2. David Landis says:

    I stand by my comments, Ms. Fink! Cheers, David

  3. Adam Sawell says:

    Generalist, particularly in the current climate. With very few exceptions a ‘top notch’ generalist firm or practitioner can work across most media, projects and clients. Unless that is you are looking to sell your business. Plan ahead – 5 years out from selling is the time to develop a specialisation. Bigger agencies generally don’t buy generalist firms, but the do buy specialists 🙂

  4. I don’t know how you could be anything but a generalist in this day and age – Lets say you were a specialist in the home builders market 4 years ago……… chances are you’d be out of business today. Same goes for the savings and loans crisis in the late 80’s early 90’s – and don’t get me started on the dot-com bubble. And good luck trying to keep creative thinking employees when everything they are working on is the same old cookie – generalist equals longevity

  5. Mary Barber says:

    Being a generalist seems more the way to go in this economy as it allows you to benimble. However, specialists within your team are also critical to growth. I think it’s much more important for your team to be up to date on trends and the new tools wee’re seeing come and go these days. That is more where the specialization comes into play.

  6. Abbie — For 15 years, we have been a generalist firm in Kansas City, as we have all built our firms together. Our “niche” is based on providing strategic integrated communications counsel and support for leaders. I have found that our “excellence” is what people want, not the simple fact that we specialize in a particular service or vertical industry.

    We wrestle with this same question; if you guys get it figured out, please share (as we all know you will!).

    See you again soon!

    Thanks again for all you do.

  7. Aaron says:

    So true. Generalist and specialist -same thing unless you want to be laser focused. There is a place for everything.

  8. Don’t our clients decide who we are and where we go? We’ve been both at different stages during the past 22 years. As Eric suggests, the standard of what we do seems to matter most.

  9. Stacey Wacknov says:

    I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all-clients answer to this question. Generalists can be wonderful for a variety of clients, depending on their needs. Once you get into regulated industries — like healthcare and finance, for example — specialists are worth their years of experience, if only to understand the ever-evolving atmosphere, regulations and long-term competition/pipeline, let alone translating jargon and fine points to various audiences, particularly patients/customers.

    This is why it’s great to work for big firms with focused practice groups — or small firms that are part of consortia or networks. Gathering original thinking from folks not so immersed in your specialty can challenge your views and encourage healthy stretching and collaboration, while your perspective/experience keep your client within the boundaries of what they’re allowed to do.

    (Disclaimer: I’m a healthcare specialist, but with a consumer product background. I love bringing both perspectives to my clients.)

  10. It is an interesting debate for sure.

  11. No question I like the variety of clients in different industries.

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