Industrial Specialisation in PR; vital or over complication?

In the sphere of corporate communications and some of its subsets (strategic, financial comms, PA, etc) there is something of a philosophical schism. On one side, the belief that developing deep knowledge of a small number of often interrelated industry sub sectors brings added value to the client. On the other, there is the belief that a broad base of knowledge, taking experience from other sectors will bring more value.

There is an additional level of complication that makes this a three dimensional matrix: communications offering. Full industrial specialisation is much easier if the agency either has a limited thematic offering (eg fin comms) or focuses on one industry (financial services).

Of course what agencies say about this schism focuses on output and value to the client. What is less mentioned is the value to the agency. Internally the discussion focuses on the question of value. How can the agency best market its services and win mandates? How can capacity be most efficiently utilised?

This is not a binary choice. There are hybrids. Some agencies are pure specialisms, particularly around financial services and professional services. Some agencies have risen on the back of commodities booms and then fallen, or been forced to diversify.

The second sort of hybrid is the generalist that by coincidence of client demand creates adhoc specialist team. I’ve worked at two agencies where this has happened, where coincidentally a significant number of natural resources mandates were won, which in turn created an unofficial sector team, whereas our colleagues were far less focussed.

Specialisation is obviously useful when running and executing outreach / advocacy programmes. Deep sector knowledge will help when dealing with a wide range of stakeholders as contextualisation can create credibility – vital for communicators of all sorts. A stakeholder might take an interest in a client narrative story because it’s a great story, but as PR advisors, we’ve all had challenging mandates that need creative thought and execution to tease out the detail that captures the imagination.

It’s not just the client you need to know well, but the wider sector contextualisation. BP will always be compared to Shell, Total, BG and Exxon, by a wide range of stakeholders. The peers group’s operations and reputational campaigns need bearing in mind as no actor operates in isolation.

There’s also the issue of historical precedent. Something that happened 5+ years ago might not be considered by a generalist, but could lead to giving ill informed advice to the client. This is negative on two levels. On the tactical level, the campaign won’t work. On the more strategic level, senior in house communications leaders are often industrial specialists. Even more so at the executive level. A relationship won’t last long if they think their advisor is winging it.

This is not to say that we should be blind to developments in other sectors. There are always lessons to be learned from communicators in different industries. For instance there are parallels between pharmaceuticals and energy. Both are highly regulated and politically sensitive. Both are dominated by global vertically integrated giants. Finally both have a universe of start up, incubator, entrepreneurial firms of varying size that are meant to be swallowed up by the big boys if they are successful.

Bringing in techniques from other industries can be massively successful. Some industries are intellectually conservative. A generalist might well bring innovative break through concepts that can really change the perception of a client, if he or she can persuade the client to take them on.

I’ve seen this whilst at my current shop. Working with our creative events and marketing team who do a lot of work in the tech and consumer brand space was a breath of fresh air when they drove a project for a client. Working hand in hand with sector specialists created the best result possible, because we had the best possible combination of skill set and experience.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are significant costs to the agency if it only employs specialists. Unless very successful, and agency won’t cover every industry, thereby leaving gaps and missing opportunities.

So my answer? It might surprise you. I’m something of a specialist myself. Whilst I have a varied CV, having worked on pretty much any industry in the past 15 years, at heart I’m an extractives industries and capital markets specialist who has a deep interest in the post soviet, MENA and sub Saharan regions and a post grad MA in international relations and have advised numerous sovereign states. I’ve seen the value in specialisation. I’ve got to where I am by being a specialist. I also passionately believe that there is a place for them, particularly during times of intense pressure. Sometimes you need to know more than the chap/esse on the other end of the phone.

BUT that’s primarily tactical. To put it simply in today’s communications industry, it’s not enough. Clients demand a wider perspective. A broader and deeper knowledge base. The big global agencies therefore look to develop advisors with as wide a range of industry and thematic skills as possible. We are of course allowed a foundation, or core skill set, but we have to build on this and develop far more than I once thought.

Pure specialism is therefore either the province of limited and almost certainly quite small agencies, or something of a luxury in a global integrated agency. Given the current state of the global economy, there’s not that much room for the luxuary of a rota of comms specialists only useable for a small number of client assignments.

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