The public relations field is divided into sectors. Practitioners’ careers lead them to become experts in a specialized niche, whether that may be something like crisis communications or public affairs. The website of the Public Relations Society of America does a great job listing these areas of specialization.
Some students discover a passion for one of these sectors and start specializing as early as their undergraduate careers. But what about the students who are still unsure? Do they really need to specialize so early?
I’ve attended seminars emphasizing the “need” for a specialization prior to an entry-level job, and I’ve spoken with several practitioners and recruiters who prefer more broadly qualified candidates. So the question remains: Should undergraduate students specialize or not?
A need for specialization
Some specific areas benefit from early specialization. Mike Fulton, president of the Washington, D.C., office of Arnold Agency, pointed out sectors of the industry that are evolving and require experts, several of whom find their focus early in their careers.
“If you’re passionate about a very high-demand area of communications like video, graphics or social media, then it might be okay to commit in undergrad to that arena,” Fulton said. “Those areas are really hot right now. The opportunity for digital, graphics and social media practitioners is off the charts.”
As Fulton mentioned, specialization should not be done without passion. Melinda Adams, human resources manager for multiple Ketchum offices, looks for candidates’ passion within the field.
“I love it when I see a bit of direction or passion for something,” Adams said. “Diversity is always a great thing, but when it comes down to it, I want to see some sort of focus.”
Adams also said that a focus not only helps the candidate, but it also helps the human resources department: “In Ketchum’s D.C. office, we have multiple practices. If someone has really focused on the brand side, it’s easier for me to understand that this candidate will fit in to the brand practice. I wouldn’t want to place someone who loves brand management in public affairs; they would just be bored.”
Adams recommended trying several internships to discover one’s passion for a potential area of specialization.
“It’s easier for someone to focus on a subject that interests them intellectually,” Adams said. “Think: What do I read in the morning? Do I go to People.com or The Washington Post? That’s one way you can tell where your interests are going to lie.”
However, there’s no rush
Although specialized applicants are great candidates for certain jobs, Fulton emphasized the need for a basic foundation first.
“There’s a lot to be said for being well-rounded and having diverse experiences before you commit to one area,” Fulton said. “It’s important to have someone who is knowledgeable about the basics and a really solid writer, who also has an understanding of research and evaluation methods, the media and the business side of things.”
In addition to these fundamental skills, experience remains important regardless of a specialization.
“I think internships speak volumes about the experiences of candidates, and we do look at that very closely on résumés,” Fulton said. “We’re also looking more at the experiential opportunities that journalism schools have with real clients.”
Fulton discussed opportunities for gaining valuable experience and securing constructive feedback through capstone classes working with live clients or on-campus organizations. Some schools operate actual agencies that work with a range of clients to offer on-the-job training. Some of these may not offer the chance to focus on one sector, but they do provide real-world familiarity with the industry that will be beneficial in any entry-level job. So don’t worry, there’s no rush for early specialization.
“A well-rounded undergrad education is much more valuable than specializing, in my opinion,” Fulton said. “There are ample opportunities for specialization as one pursues a graduate degree, agency training or certificate programs.”