Generalists vs. Specialists: You’ve seen and heard the debate before. But with 2018 likely to see comms teams facing greater demand and pressures than ever before, and some with shrinking resources, the debate is as relevant as ever. So I asked top communications leaders for their thoughts, experiences and preferences on this ongoing issue.
collated by Darren Caveney
“I’m old enough to remember ‘total football’; a tactical theory based on the idea that any outfield player can take over the role of any other in the team. Most memorably for me, it was used by the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup. I was very young, but I loved that team.
I don’t think it’s a terrible theory, as it allows for the idea you can and should have both specialists and generalists in a successful team. It’s hard to do in practice, and it’s harder to reach the world-class standards that Dutch team aspired to: they didn’t pick any old eleven and send them out in an orange shirt, they worked to have the best players they could get. And there are loads of other factors in any team’s success: personality mix, leadership, team diversity, Belbin roles, team spirit, vision, training, learning, rewards… But a mix of high-quality skills is a big part, and ‘totaalvoetbal’ allows for the idea that you can have both in a single person; a specialist who can play in any role. That seems to me to be the optimum. Specialists are important, but aspiration for the whole team to be the best they can at everything seems to be good ambition.”
Eddie Coates-Madden is head of communications at Sheffield City Council
“I think this is probably an example where we need to think about what we’d want in the ideal world and what we need to do in the real world. Regardless of preference I think most people in the public sector are having to make pragmatic decisions on the way their comms teams are made up.
As resources and teams shrink the more important things to focus on are the key skills needed to deliver the most important work and the levels of leadership across the communications function.
We know that the comms landscape is voracious and multi-faceted requiring an range of different skills to meet the needs of a public who seek out information from a range of different channels often in real time.
Because demand is also rising that means knowing a little bit about lots of things, but also having someone with that specialist knowledge so they can give credible advice at board level.”
Ross Wigham is head of communications and marketing at QE Gateshead
“People who get into comms roles come from a variety of backgrounds and have a huge range of skills. And it’s fair to say that pretty much all those skills will come in handy at some time, given the broad church our profession has become.
At various points in your career you may need to be a writer, a photographer, a facilitator, a techie, a project manager, a brand guru, a designer, a budget holder, a content producer, a performance analyst and evaluator, a videographer, a social media whizz, an event organiser and any number of other things.
Why do we comms bods end up doing all this? Because we’re adaptable, can-do and curious, that’s why. We’ll all have started in one corner but as we progress through our careers we’ll end up knowing a bit about most parts of the room.
So by all means keep your specialist skills up to date. Remember where you came from and the stuff you really love and keep doing it brilliantly. But be prepared also to gather up a whole range of other skills that will help you evolve, learn, develop and be brilliant at even more stuff. You never know - something completely unexpected could become your new favourite thing.”
Sally Northeast is deputy director for OD, communications and participation at Dorset Healthcare
“An ongoing debate that could waste time when there’s work to be done.
From the individual’s perspective I guess it depends where you are in your career. Nobody ever starts as a generalist! It will be a specific role or education/degree specialism that got you into the job. You need years of experience across a wide range of disciplines to develop into a true generalist….whatever that may mean.
From a management perspective, as you move up the pecking order you will pick up skills beyond your expertise and increasingly these days in finance, business and legal, and progress accordingly. As a good leader you will also use the specialists in your team and/or perhaps outsource where they don’t exist…providing a generalist/specialist solution.”
Phil Jewitt is communications and marketing business partner at Leeds City Council
“I have always favoured the generalist approach to roles in marketing and communications but unequivocally prefer the term "specialist". Because that is what we are - we are specialists who have spent many years of study and working as comms officers to hone our skills. And there are few comms professionals I come across who don't complain that everyone believes they are a comms expert. So we lose the term, or at least the connotative value, of specialist, at our peril.
That said, I am equally resolute that today we have to be generalists in order to deliver a truly integrated comms function. At Warwickshire County Council it is one of the four principles underpinning the way we go about delivering marketing and communications.
We state that:
The various disciplines of communications are treated as a whole, rather than individual elements.
The hallmark of excellent communications is a seamless alignment of brand elements - from the messages we share and the impact of those messages, our visual identity, the channels we use and our customer service. It applies to internal and external communications, on and off line.
This 360 degree approach means that strategic communications, strategic engagement, media and campaigns and internal communications, the pillars of the Government's Communications Service communications operating model, (and here at WCC we add design and print); are integrated and aligned.
We always look to recruit people into the team who have a broad mix of skills and experience across the various disciplines of marketing and communications so that they are able to step in to a generalist role. Our comms officers are tasked to work on a portfolio of work and develop specialist knowledge within specific areas but are equally expected to contribute across the team to all other areas of work. The only exception to this is design and print where the skill set is clearly different.
I guess this means that ultimately, I come out as a proponent of generalist specialists - multi skilled professionals who are able to deliver a consistent, cohesive and convincing set of messages and campaigns which deliver the organisation's goals.”
Jayne Surman is communications and marketing manager at Warwickshire County Council
“It’s all in the mix. Obvious answer maybe, but for me getting the mix right is essential for any high performing team. In an ideal world my preference would be for someone who is able to contribute ideas, thinking and experience to the wider team, is willing to learn from others (in the team and beyond) and has relevant experience of at least one specialism. In the real world I have seen specialists who have had huge experience and knowledge but been rigid in their approach and narrow in their thinking. Equally I have worked with generalists who have taken Jack of all trades and master of none to a whole new level! So there’s no perfect answer. It depends on the individual and what your team needs to get the overall mix right. I suppose that’s why the debate goes on!”
Victoria Ford, Director at Perago-Wales
Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of creative communicators ltd
image by Tullio Saba