Are specialisms a hindrance for PR professionals?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m very interested at the moment about what the future of agencies will look like. And I’m looking forward to the PRCA debate on this exact subject taking place next week.

So I was intrigued by a blog post from Steve Rubel that was highlighted to me yesterday by Drew Benvie.

Systems Thinking

The gist of Steve’s thinking is that despite the current trend towards specialisation – e.g. people that are ‘experts’ in digital and social media – there is an argument that ‘generalists’ will actually be more critical at senior levels in the future. So while specialists will always be important, having an idea of the ‘bigger picture’ and how all these specialisms interlink is also vital.

He refers to this as Systems Thinking:

“Systems Thinking isn’t new. It’s a tried and true process of seeing the entire ecosystem and how all of its different parts impact each other. It allows us to see how if a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, it can cause a storm in another. This all starts with seeing things through the lens of the end customer, rather than through the view of the business. Some of the most successful businesses of the digital age were built around ecosystems.”

The agency pyramid

In his post, Drew demonstrates how this thinking could be brought into an agency setting:

“I see a more complex future for the corporate communications professional. At the top of a pyramid will be the systems thinker – the few good generalists, or the specialists in everything – who have a broad range of skills and experiences, and social and digital media will need to feature strongly in their skill set. Lower down the pyramid will be the operators – skilled managers with specialisms, all diverse in their roles and experiences. Then the foundations of the pyramid will be a large number of technical specialists. A good team will have a balance of skills and personnel from each level, and I think the all star team will have the perfect balance from top to bottom.”

PRs shouldn’t be created equal

I think there is a lot to this theory. As I said in my previous post on the future of agencies: “With PRs increasingly having to deal with multiple specialisms, from SEO and social to traditional media, bloggers and analysts, is it just too much to expect everyone to be proficient in everything? Do they even need to be?”

The ‘Systems Thinking’ answer would be that yes, we do need specialists, but we also need generalists – or strategists – to make everything fit together. If we pull this back to the advertising agency model, I guess generalists are perhaps project managers or senior account people. But I think there’s maybe more to this role.

In most traditional PR agencies today, all PRs are created equal. I have my doubts about whether this model is workable in the long term. Systems Thinking seems to be one possible solution.

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