In the years I’ve been working in public relations (PR), from time to time I’ve come across a potential client who insists they need a PR consultant with expertise in their particular business sector. It happened to me the other day. I spoke to an organisation in a niche education sector, who felt they could only work with a consultancy that was aware of their specific industry’s issues and personally knew the right education journalists and editors.

Fair enough. When venturing into public relations for the first time, you obviously must have total confidence in the individual or consultancy you will be working with right from the start. But it made me think: which is better, the generalist or the specialist PR consultant?

 Any good PR, whether generalist or specialist, will know how to put together an individually tailored public relations and communications plan, in line with an organisation’s business strategy. They will know how to spot a good story, which media sector to approach and how to ‘sell in’ whatever it is the client is offering with a view to achieving client objectives. As part of the mix, they will monitor specific industry issues, be aware of industry conferences, exhibitions and events and, naturally, come up with innovative and creative ideas that will attract the attention of key target audiences.

So, if the same principles of public relations practice can be applied to any business, irrespective of their specific field, why do you need a specialist?

Okay, I admit it, I’m a generalist! Although at Esplin PR we tend to work with small to medium-sized businesses, our client base spans a broad range of B2B and B2C organisations, from training and facilities management to a plumbing company and luxury cat hotel – all topped off with pro bono work for a national health charity.

We thrive on the variety and having the opportunity to learn about how different business sectors operate, who are the key players, what are the burning issues of the day.

However, I can see the other argument too. As master – or mistress – of their own niche, the specialist is able to fast track to the right media contact and will have in-depth knowledge of how that information should be presented.

Yet some clients are uncomfortable with a specialist PR consultancy, seeing the virtue of a generalist outfit, with a good understanding of a broad range of industries and topics. Brainstorming ideas with a group of people with experience across multiple non- competing business sectors can throw up imaginative ideas, often without having to reinvent the wheel each time. A great idea can be equally great for an estate agent or a garden centre, a charity or a recruitment company. And by reworking some specifics, rather than starting from scratch, you can save valuable time and money, impacting positively on your clients’ bottom line.

So, although generalists and specialists are the antithesis of each other, there is undoubtedly room for both kinds of public relations. It all comes down to a matter of choice. Some clients like the comfort of knowing that their specialist PR is familiar with key national journalists or editors in their trade media. Some prefer a generalist, working outside of their industry, who can bring new and outward-looking ideas to the table.

At the end of the day, the target audience is likely to determine which of the two an organisation chooses to work with. If a specialist niche market is targeting other specialists, they need to know the movers and shakers, to be on top of the latest news and views and understand the ‘sector speak’.

But if the niche market is targeting the man in the street, you need a generalist who is not afraid of asking “what is this, what does it do for me?” who can turn the ‘sector speak’ into plain English.

Perhaps generalist isn’t the right term. Maybe we should call ourselves multi-specialists. This much better describes the capability to provide a high level of service, across a multiplicity of market sectors.