Is there still a role for specialists?

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By Christine Richardson, Senior Group Communications Manager, Oxford University Press

In the ten years that I’ve worked in the PR industry, there has been a definite shift in how it is perceived. Once upon a time, the core role for the PR professional was to make their client or organization known, primarily through the media. Even though the days of wining and dining journalists were long gone, the focus was very much on media relations.

However, over time, PR started to be seen more and more as a strategic management function. No longer was it just about getting names in the papers (or keeping them out in some cases); we started to be seen as a discipline that understood our audiences and external trends, and that could play an active role in monitoring, building, and maintaining reputation. We had a niche, and it was valued.

Yet time and time again, we hear how the lines are blurring between PR and other disciplines, such as marketing, content creation, social media, internal communications and public affairs. In the State of the Profession 2018 survey <a href="http://www.cipr.co.uk/stateofpr">http://www.cipr.co.uk/stateofpr</a> , 54% stated that social media was one of the most commonly undertaken tasks of a PR practitioner. Internal communications scored 48%, events and conferences scored 44%, and marketing scored 33%. Convergence with other marketing disciplines was also picked out as the sixth major challenge facing the industry. This therefore begs the question –do we all need to become cross-discipline generalists? Or can there still be a role for PR and communications specialists?

The way we communicate has changed
Before we can answer that question, it’s important to understand what has driven this shift in the first place. I believe we can attribute it to the rise of online and social media and personal journalism – and consequently the changing ways that people access information.

The rise of online news hubs and social media has resulted in the 24-hour news cycle. Whereas newspapers and TV news shows used to be the primary way to access the latest news, now people are just as likely to find out news via online newspapers, or through their social media feeds on their phones. Organizations also have more channels at their disposal to tell their stories. Marketing has become more sophisticated and targeted. And we’ve seen the rise of blogging and influencers; it’s now not just journalists portraying their opinion, or their version of events. Industry influencers create their own platforms, so they too can have a voice.

If we also take the blurring between PR and internal communications, this can partly be attributed to the fact that employees are increasingly being seen as core ambassadors and influencers for organizations; as an untapped resource that has the potential to impact an organization’s reputation. Naturally, those of us working in PR have had to adapt the way we engage with our audiences. There are other means for getting our messages out there – and they don’t always require a journalist.

So does this mean we all need to become generalists?

I don’t think so. Personally, I believe there will always be a need for specialists, in both PR and other disciplines. Although it may cross over or work closely alongside other disciplines, PR is a unique skillset. It’s about understanding audiences, understanding their issues, building awareness, maintaining reputation. It’s about two-way conversations. The only other discipline that truly shares that niche focus is internal communications. Perhaps it’s no surprise that more and more communications roles – especially in-house roles – combine internal and external communications.

However, while we should certainly make the most of that niche, we should still take the time to understand other disciplines; how they work, how they define and communicate with stakeholders, the tools and channels they use, how they measure their work and demonstrate value. The best PR campaigns we see these days are no longer reliant on the media; they’re integrated campaigns, making the most of available channels, tools and approaches. Having a generalist level of knowledge will certainly help – and indeed working in a more integrated fashion with other disciplines is bound to reap rewards on both sides.

If we all become generalists – and this applies to those in other disciplines too – we risk diluting our skills, and therefore our value. As the State of the Profession 2018 survey shows, communications still has some way to go to be valued as highly as other industries; only 1 in 10 senior respondents were a member of an executive board, and underrepresentation of communications practitioners at board level was seen as the top challenge facing the industry. We all have a role to play in raising the profile and demonstrating the value of PR and communications, so if there was ever a time to embrace our unique skills, and celebrate our specialism, it’s now.

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