Communications Public Relations (PR) Career

Are we entering the era of the specialist generalist?


By Dom Burch, managing director

January 21, 2016 | 4 min read

At Asda we have a habit of moving people around the organisation.

Just when you've got your head around one particular thing or other, you can be lifted up and given a brand new challenge.

It makes good sense, allowing naturally gifted traders to try their hands at retail operations, or marketing folk to experience the realities of buying and selling products on the trading floor.

Poachers become game keepers and vice versa, helping round off the blunt edges of the future senior leaders who need an appreciation of the entire machine from all angles and perspectives.

It can be frustrating for suppliers and agencies. A bit like a government reshuffle, the civil servants remaining constant, but the minister jumping from defence to health to education.

In the comms function too, we liked our press officers to be 'specialist generalists'. We were encouraged to be amazing at one thing, but pretty damn good at everything else too.

When I first joined Asda from Direct Line I was tasked with looking after three distinct business areas, meat & produce, ISD (IT) and financial services.

The last one made sense as I'd just spent four years talking to personal finance journalists, but the other two areas were a complete mystery to me.

It felt like I was suddenly responsible for PRing everything on the shelves. Should I start with baked beans or potatoes?

I also had to man the dreaded bat phone once a week, taking all the incoming calls into the press office and handling them from end to end.

For a relatively inexperienced PR bod like me, it was a daunting and fairly stressful experience.

A journalist from any publication anywhere in the world could call that number and ask anything. It was my job to prioritise the calls, find out the answer, craft a response and hit their deadline.

Asda also had a sundown sheriff rule, meaning all enquiries, be they from the media, or a local store, should be dealt with by the end of the working day.

My heart is racing a little recollecting those early days. 13 years have passed, but the grounding it gave me was instrumental in enabling what has followed.

Earlier this morning I was chatting to the effervescent Rachel Miller, aka All Things IC, about the need these days for communications professionals regardless of their chosen field to be competent at all disciplines.

The internal communications person must also be able to hold their own talking about investor relations, the consumer PR specialist able to converse with the CEO and craft a speech at the drop of hat.

With the onset of social media and technology the spectrum is widening even further, with disciplines merging, boundaries blurring and expectations widening from potential employers.

Rachel shared that entry level IC jobs advertised on her site were now stating candidates should have external media relations experience. Entry level jobs, expected to have a grounding in another aspect of comms.

So, what to make of it all for budding marketeers and PR folk looking to get on and get up?

You can moan about the reality all you like, or you can make it your business to know a bit about everyone else's.

Don't be shy putting credit in the bank with colleagues in other departments. Go visit all of your agencies, not just the one you manage or interactive with.

Put your hand up for everything. Be the eager one, the person who gives anything a try once and shows initiative every day.

There's a great Richard Branson quote:

"If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!"

My advice, become a specialist generalist, prepared to learn a bit of absolutely everything.

It can do you no harm.

Follow Dom on Twitter @domburch

Communications Public Relations (PR) Career

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