Does the navel gazing within PR (as noted in the interesting “Endless Fight” post and comment discussion preceding this one) – and a focus on being recognised as a profession – argue that the function is a specialism seeking exclusivity, even isolation and protection of a territory which may be shrinking beneath our feet?
Or is our claim to engage with broader stakeholder issues and organisational governance at a strategic level, evidence that PR is a generalist function?
Isaiah Berlin stated in his celebrated essay on Tolstoy: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (quoting the Greek poet Archilochus). And, there’s a saying that generalists know less and less about more and more, while specialists know more and more about less and less.
Does either approach offer a model for PR careers? Or is the answer found in arguments for T-shaped people who combine breadth and depth?
The T-shape concept has been interpreted in many ways – indeed, I’ve seen it used in relation to digital communications to focus on being familiar with a range of tactical areas, with competence in one. More widely, the idea has been promoted by the California based design firm IDEO, with the horizontal stroke a “disposition for collaboration across disciplines” alongside the vertical stroke reflecting depth of skill in a field. On this basis, we could state that PR is inherently T-shaped.
The term itself was first reported in 1991 in an article in The Independent, a British newspaper, referring to a hunt for a Renaissance Man of computing, and was used extensively in the 1990s to discuss T-Shaped Managers. A Renaissance Man is a polymath – who knows a lot about many different things. Knowledge and other broad strengths resulting in strong cultural and social capital would seem inherently important for public relations careers. But is this something we gain like middle age spread as we develop our careers from a lean, athletic starting point of specialist competencies?
This could be considered a military model of a profession where a career begins in a specific area, before breadth is added to become a General.
Alternatively, we could argue the starting point of PR careers – especially for graduates – is a rather broad underpinning before going onto specialise in digital communications, internal relations, public affairs, marketing PR etc?
This reflects the medical model of a profession where a career begins with a broad base, before a narrow focus is added to become a Specialist.
Where does this leave those who, to use Lauzen’s term, are ‘encroaching‘ in public relations by moving into the function mid-career? Are they adding breadth to their previous depth in an area such journalism or another focused discipline or sector expertise?
Does this imply that PR is actually Pi-shaped π – with two specialisms (sector and discipline) topped by general, transferable competencies? Or are there tripod people, if we apply a revolving doors metaphor to careers – where people switch between journalism, PR and other management roles. We could extend the idea for careers which could be N or M shaped to accommodate periods where time out is taken for various reasons – although this implies a loss of the horizontal breadth, where such breaks may actually enhance transferrable skills.
The traditional idea of a career was I shaped, drawing on a metaphor of a specialist ladder which was climbed until someone reached a plateau (i shaped?), possibly a comfort zone or level of incompetence (as the Peter Principle asserted). The ladder is still evident in PR agency models (account executive, to manager, to director, for example) and practitioner views of working your way up in the occupation.
However, the ladder model was challenged in the 1970s by Edgar Schein who argued a need for cross-sectional and cross-functional moves with a cone-shaped model indicating moving up hierarchically, around functions to gain experience and into the middle with closeness to a strategic decision making responsibility.
PR practitioners may gain access to the inner core as specialists, but without cross-functional knowledge or experience, their contribution there may be limited. Also, do they have the breadth to reach the sweet spot as organisational leaders. Public relations seems less of a track to this goal than other disciplines that perhaps offer specialisms viewed inherently as a stronger vertical path.
Or perhaps we should draw on punctuation as a model instead? Does a full stop represent those who spend their time practising essentially a tactical, craft? Or maybe a colon where they’ve jumped from PR as media relations to become social media ‘gurus’ (content marketing, storytelling or whatever)? Or is this a hyphen approach? Are those who practice shouty marketing-publicity approaches simply exclamation marks? With the reflective, strategist as the question mark?
I wonder if this isn’t all too structured to equip practitioners in a changing world with less career certainty and greater perceived mobility. Would a messy squiggle or an infinity symbol better represent the modern world?
This might seem light-hearted but masks a serious question for the PR function, those working within it and their careers. Is this simply a specialism to be mastered using a ladder metaphor? Or is it a generalist competency that supports robust T-shaped development?