Time to choose

To specialize or not to specialize? Marc Longpre tackles the question that confounds many in the industry

To specialize or not to specialize? Marc Longpre tackles the question that confounds many in the industry

Public relations pros will traditionally spend their first few years in the business getting a general grounding in the discipline. They learn the basics of everything from simple media relations to working within an agency structure.

But at some point the specialization question looms. It usually happens around the three-year point. A young pro begins to wander down one path or another, using the general skills acquired in the first years of a career to specialize in an area of particular interest to them.

“Specialize as early as possible,” advises Bernie Frazier, VP for talent acquisitions at Fleishman-Hillard. “Obviously, it's always good to have the opportunity to get general experience at the beginning of a career, but the sooner you start acquiring those skills managers will be looking for, the better.” Of course, specialization could mean many things. PR pros can specialize in either sector-based (technology, healthcare, financial, consumer) or discipline-based (new media, crisis, internal communications) work. Or perhaps they could decide to look
for a job on the corporate side.

Entering with some expertise

Whatever the situation, it's good to get an idea of what direction you should go in the first few years at an agency. Some sectors, such as health-care and technology, require greater expertise in the everyday business details. It's no surprise that they're also two of the hottest tracks in the PR business right now.

“In healthcare, you must have deep industry knowledge,” says Nancy Hicks, SVP in healthcare for Ketchum. “You must understand the science behind drugs, how the FDA works, how healthcare works among providers and payers, the whole universe of healthcare. Our clients are deep in this space, so you have to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

The technology sector might be considered similar, though these days tech tends to spread across the spectrum, as opposed to the insular world of healthcare.

David McCulloch, EVP for Text 100, says that while it's good to build specialist knowledge, it's also not absolute. He notes examples of people who have entered the arena mid-career, and says the most important thing is to start somewhere willing to train and educate.

“There is no point in specializing in something you don't truly love,” he advises. “You can plan out your career and say tech PR is [it], but if you don't have a natural interest, there's no point in specializing. For me, I didn't know what I wanted to specialize in, so I chose a company that invested in training me.”

Another specialty that may require some forethought is beauty and fashion. Stephanie Smirnov, EVP for beauty and wellness at DeVries Public Relations, says the focus is unique because communications pros are required to be immersed in that very insular world. For that reason, she continues, if you know that this is the area you'reinterested in, it's not a requirement to work at an agency first.

“Beauty is a field where it's very helpful to have both client-side and agency-side experience,” Smirnov explains. “However, if you know you want to specialize in beauty, the sooner the better. Beauty is one of those industries that's very specialized, and

Not every specialty requires the early dedication that beauty does, however.

Sam Lucas, chair of Burson-Marsteller's brand marketing practice, points out that the great thing about brandmarketing is that it sweeps across many different disciplines. Therefore, it becomes even more important to set yourself apart by showing initiative and acquiring skills that are in high demand.

“The younger generation can bring their knowledge of today's digital environment,” Lucas adds. “We bring relatively young people into very senior meetings on occasion precisely because they have this kind of expertise, which is very important in the brand marketing practice.”

Senior PR pros generally agree that agency experience at the outset of a career is the best way to target a specialty. With agency work, young pros are able to see a wide variety of not only PR disciplines, but also work with a number of clients in a variety of areas.

“When I was starting out, I was on the agency side for eight years and I did that for my own development,” says Anthony D'Angelo, director for global marketing communications at Carrier Transicold, a provider of transport temperature control and anti-idling solutions. “I wanted to be exposed to many types of clients and businesses. I got a sense of what industries I liked and wanted to continue with.”

Understanding the business

For young pros wanting to find communications work in the corporate sector after an initial few years at an agency, there are a couple requirements, D'Angelo points out.

“First and foremost, make sure that you understand business,” he stresses. “You should have some familiarity with balance sheets and be able to talk about what was in The Wall Street Journal today. I see a broad mix of capabilities at that early stage and those with business literacy have a definite advantage.”

Whatever a young pro chooses to specialize in, what's most important is setting yourself apart by showing initiative and a willingness to learn your adopted specialty.

“At that stage, the key to being successful is playing to your strengths,” Lucas says. “And your strengths are energy and being a can-do person. Take the initiative.”

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