mary_welch_webDr Mary Welch is a Senior Lecturer in Communication Management in Lancashire Business School, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK

A generalist versus specialist debate is rumbling in academic circles.

One camp believes that public relations and communication management (PR&CM) education can equip professionals with a generic set of knowledge and skills to see them through any communication challenge. A perfectly reasonable argument in some ways, since fundamentals like good writing skills and knowledge of persuasion theory are essential to effective communication practice in any context.

The other camp believes general PR&CM knowledge is not enough. They want general knowledge to be supplemented with specialist in-depth insight to enable professionals to effectively contribute to specialist areas of communication practice like internal communication.

Perhaps it’s time to think about developing T-shaped internal communication professionals? T-shaped professionals combine broad knowledge and skills with in-depth specialist knowledge of a discipline.

I was a practitioner for fifteen years before becoming an academic in 2001 and found employee communication one of the most interesting and challenging areas of practice. Now, I’m interested in internal communication research and education. I conducted a surprisingly disappointing search of the academic literature for guidance on specific knowledge areas to assist internal communicators. The most useful practitioner framework I found had been developed back in 2004, was mainly skills-focused, and didn’t include vital current issues such as employee engagement. 

There are scores of theories and concepts of special relevance to internal communication. So, I surveyed communication professionals to gauge interest in specific areas of internal communication knowledge. Participants came from the UK and other parts of Europe (87 participants) and included consultancy and in-house communicators.

The top ten topics of interest were:

  • Internal communication strategy and objectives
  • Employee engagement
  • Leadership communication
  • Organisational culture
  • Internal communication evaluation
  • Change communication
  • Organisational behaviour
  • Internal communication audits
  • Employee internal communication needs
  • Internal communication research

Some of these knowledge areas feature in the Commission for Public Relations 2012 general PR&CM education framework. However, three of the top ten key communication knowledge areas are not covered in that framework. Employee engagement; leadership communication; and, employee internal communication needs are absent.

Generalists may have awareness of these topics, but general awareness is far-removed from thorough, in-depth knowledge.

Think for a moment. Would you ask your family doctor to perform your brain surgery? Probably not. Specialist medical needs signal time to call in a specialist medical professional.

Likewise, specialist communication demands require specialist communication professionals. So, why would we expect general PR practitioners to effectively manage the challenges and complexities of internal communication?

Practitioners need to access specialist continuing education as their careers develop, so they can add in-depth specialist T-column knowledge to their broad T-bar general communication knowledge.

If we are developing the next generation of internal communicators to be specialist T-shaped surgeons of PR&CM, what specialist knowledge do you think they need to best inform their internal communication strategies and tactics and make effective contributions to employee engagement?

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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6 thoughts on “It’s Time for T-Shaped Internal Communication Professionals

  1. Bruce Berger and the IPR are really keen for these research conversations to encourage discussion and debate, so it’s great to see your comments and suggestions about key knowledge and skills, much appreciated.

    Thanks for your comments Rachel. You make a good point about repeating the research in the future to gauge trends, I’ll certainly do that. And it would be useful to widen the study to include professionals across the globe.

    Rick and Janice make interesting points about generalist and specialist career development. And both emphasise the importance of communicators maintaining a broad understanding of their role and their organisation.

    Thanks for sharing the link to your IC competency framework Liam. That framework defines competencies as a mix of skills, knowledge and experience. All three of these elements are vitally important, but as a researcher and course leader for the University of Central Lancashire’s MSc in Internal Communication Management (, I’m particularly concerned with the specifics of the knowledge element. I’m interested in specific knowledge to help communicators be more effective internal communication officers, executives, managers and chiefs.

    Sean’s advice that internal communicators need to move beyond a tactical focus rings true with me. Acquiring in-depth knowledge of theories and concepts which underpin the communication process is crucial to building a strategic approach to internal communication. So I agree with Sean’s clarion call: Bring on the T-shapes!

    The question of what specialist knowledge people can acquire to help them perform their IC roles better at basic, intermediate and advanced levels is an interesting one. Further information on the research mentioned in my post is to be published in Public Relations Review (available via subscription), and a preview is available at:

    Thanks again for your insightful conversation contributions.


    Dr Mary Welch, Senior Lecturer in Communication Management
    Course Leader: MA Strategic Communication
    Course Leader: MSc Internal Communication Management
    Division of Communication, Marketing and Public Relations
    Lancashire Business School – University of Central Lancashire – UK

  2. Dr. Mary – I’d agree that more PR (corporate communication) people need internal communication bone fides, but I believe it’s not in the tactical sense. We need to be the organizational experts in the process of communication. How it works in organizations, how and why people respond the way they do to it, how they see their roles.

    The sense I get is that PRs are overwhelmed with demands, and internal comms is too easily relegated to “SOS” — send out…stuff. The internal client wants a message out and the lumbered PR gets it out, without regard to impact, context or other issues. External PRs get paid better than internal. Media coverage and social media are sexier and more in-demand than the employee comms audit, focus group, audience-focused internal side. Worse is, we know we’re giving it short shrift. Executive leaders think if it’s out, it’s known, so the IC is tactical, then reviled for being too tactical. Still, the rewards of convincing your boss that getting internal right will likely breed more sustainable improvements in our business are great.

    Let’s face it, Herb Kelleher was right: “if we take care of our employees, they’ll take care of our customers, and we won’t have to worry about our shareholders.” More PRs should know more about internal and how to improve it. So, in the end, I approve! Bring on the T-shapes!

  3. In my experience (both as a communications practitioner and someone who has hired for communication positions), it is far easier to move a generalist to a specialist position than to move a specialist to a generalist.

    Having a broad-base of knowledge and core fundamentals is crucial for later success as a specialist.

    I would also add that the “T-shape” should include other softer skills that are only acquired with increasing responsibility and seniority – this would include skills around management capacity, project management, influence and persuasion of management, and have an overall understanding of finance, IT, HR and other corporate DNA that helps round out a communicator’s vantage point.

  4. This is quite thought provoking and I tend to think that Rick is right.

    The problem with the medical analogy is that the world of medicine is not organised in the same way as a corporate. I would not ask a brain surgeon, no matter how skilled, to look after my family’s overall health. I expect my general practitioner to call in specialists whenever they need them but the rest of the time need someone who understand my family, it’s long-term history and the challenges we have.

    In the past we’ve allowed communications professionals to develop into senior roles with far too narrow experience – too many PR Directors are purely media handlers or financial PR’s. If anything.

    You might also be interested in the skills framework that Melcrum published in 2007 based on a survey of 860 practitioners world wide. I think the work is still available – there is a summary published on I’d be happy to lend you a copy if you can’t turn it anywhere…


  5. Hi Mary…

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on an argument that’s probably been going on since before Arthur W. Page…and will probably continue long after we’re long gone.

    While I understand the idea of T-shaped professional, from a corporate standpoint, I tell every student who asks me for career advice to remain a generalist for as long as they possibly can. The reason: while most PR students I speak with have a “speciality” they are really interested in, they also see themselves as being a CCO someday. I know very few CCO’s who don’t have a broad, general background in PR backed up by a variety of assignments across the entire spectrum of our profession.

    We’re they specialists at one time? In some cases, yes. But they realized that to achieve the senior most communication position in their organization, they needed a broad range of experiences to even be considered for that top job. So, to use your medical analogy, they purposely went from being a brain surgeon to a general practitioner.

    And while it could be argued that those individuals may always have a particular speciality to fall back on, I believe the nature of our work is changing so rapidly that two or three years away from the day-to-day practice of speciality is enough time to suggest that a person no longer be considered a “specialist” with unique knowledge in a particular area.

    I’m absolutely with you when someone, either at the undergraduate level, or later in a career, decides that a speciality…internal communication, or media relations, or social media, or whatever…is where they want to be from a career standpoint. The T-shaped specialist makes perfect sense…and, in fact, is critical. Too many specialists today have a narrow understanding of their role , not to mention their organization and its challenges. And as a result, they are of little value when it comes to discussion corporate strategies.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Rick White
    Vice President-Corporate Communication
    Wisconsin Energy Corp.


    IPR Trustee.

  6. Great article Mary and couldn’t agree more re: the need for specialist communication professionals.

    The top ten topics of interest aren’t surprising and I think they demonstrate the breadth of understanding that IC pros are expected to have. It would be interesting to repeat the exercise in 3-5 years’ time and gauge whether the answers are different.

    Specialist knowledge requirements for the future absolutely need to include employee engagement. It’s intrinsically linked to business success and therefore should be a key focus for IC professionals.

    Commercial awareness is an area that I know IC pros are keen to develop further and I would like to see more emphasis on this in future alongside organisational culture and organisational behaviour.

    As part of the ‘demonstrating gravitas’ conversations that regularly occur, I believe internal communication professionals need to understand what actually drives their business and be able to talk the language of their company.

    Thanks for sharing Mary,


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