Sector specialism in PR and comms is a short-sighted requirement

More often than not, 'sector experience' is listed as a key requirement when a company is shortlisting agencies to handle its PR.

Is sector experience really a must or are companies which demand this missing out on fresh thinking, asks Ruth Shearn
Is sector experience really a must or are companies which demand this missing out on fresh thinking, asks Ruth Shearn

The argument runs that an engineering company, for instance, will feel more comfortable with a team that’s familiar with its sector.

That such an agency will understand the products, services, target audience, hot topics and also have the contacts to ensure lots of positive coverage.

At face value, this seems reasonable, but also rather short-sighted.


Being comfortable isn’t the name of the game. It amounts to saying, ‘no fresh thinking, no disruptive ideas or inspired flights of imagination: just more of the same, please.’

How will creative, pioneering concepts come to light if fresh agencies aren’t given the chance to break the mould from time to time?


Faced with the prospect of winning a new client, any agency worth its salt will do its homework.

Target audience, competitors, topical issues, product and service benefits, points of difference, route to purchase, etc, will all be thoroughly researched to ensure a robust understanding of the sector.

Insights will be gathered from desk research, conversations with the prospect, industry figures and journalists.

Most agency folk find this phase really rewarding - we love to learn, ask questions and become knowledgeable about new topics.


Regarding media contacts, there are two essential pillars on which our profession rests – building relationships and identifying a great story.

So, if an agency doesn’t have any engineering editorial contacts at the start of Day One, it certainly will have by lunchtime.

And whether or not they have a long-standing relationship with a journalist, if the agency has a great story for them, they will value it and work with it.

Fresh thinking and cross-fertilisation

Working in a new sector means no preconceptions or prejudices and a less formulaic approach, meaning an agency is able to bring fresh ideas, undaunted by cries of ‘we’ve never done that before’.

And guess what, successful strategies from non-related markets can often be wonderfully transferable. By using an agency with a wide range of experience, companies can benefit from a cross fertilisation of ideas and contacts.

Good agencies will make valuable introductions among their client base and are often able to produce pieces that feature contributions from a range of clients with very different perspectives, which journalists love.

The bottom line

Underlying everything, surely clients want an agency that understands the commercial drivers and objectives of their organisation?

An agency that will invest time to understand their sector and then bring clarity to their messages, raise their profile and constantly look out for opportunities to help them – not just deliver the same old, same old.

Agencies should be selected on ability, agility and ingenuity to deliver ideas that work… ideas that will come from the most able and creative people, not the ones who’ve frequented a particular marketplace the most often.

Ruth Shearn is managing director of RMS

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