I recently finished Thomas Friedman's best-selling book The World Is Flat. In one chapter, Friedman suggests that as globalization continues, jobs will migrate from Western countries to developing countries. For example, many American accountants already outsource their work to Indian firms.
Friedman suggests that for many, the only way to prevent this will be for people to become "untouchables" â€" people whose jobs are not at risk of being outsourced in the near term. He suggests several types of untouchables:
- Special workers - workers whose extraordinary skill and talent make them irreplaceable
- Specialized workers - those with specialized knowledge
- Anchored workers - those whose physical location is important
- Really adaptable workers - those who continually evolve
Friedman views this as part of an ongoing and largely positive process of globalization (consistent with his approach in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, an earlier best-seller of his). Many people disagree, saying that rather than a positive trend it is just multinational companies taking advantage of cheap labour sources overseas. However, regardless of your personal view of how desirable this is, it's difficult to argue that it's happening.
This got me to wondering: How might Thomas Friedman's affect the public relations industry? How can we become untouchable, and which parts of our industry might be outsourced?
Looking at the four types of untouchables that Friedman suggests, most protection for PR professionals is likely to come from numbers three and four â€" anchored and really adaptable.
Only a few people will ever succeed in becoming a 'special' worker and many skills within the profession can be replicated with comprehensive training.
However, PR pros do have two opportunities:
- Anchoring: A great deal of our usefulness comes from local knowledge, whether it's cultural, environmental (political, media landscape etc) or relationship-based.
I think it would be very hard and not that feasible to replicate the knowledge needed to develop a practical, relevant communications strategy from thousands of miles away, or to replicate the relationships involved in government relations.
Along the same lines, event planning is unlikely to move overseas. While it's certainly possible to develop an event plan and make arrangements from afar, the site visit plays an important role in the planning process. This might be somewhat mitigated by the potential to view photographs of a venue, but someone still has to take those.
- Really Adaptable: The field of communications is growing rapidly. By that I mean that, while traditional approaches are still critically important, the field is rapidly expanding into non-traditional online approaches. Staying on the forefront of these changes raises the chance of you making yourself untouchable.
It does occur to me, though, that some parts of the communications field do have the potential to be outsourced. That doesn't mean this will happen, that I would like it to happen or that people couldn't make themselves untouchable, of course, but it made me stop and think:
- Writing: Given the prevalence of English as the language of business, it's perfectly possible that writing jobs could move overseas. Given the right background information, people could certainly write news releases, correspondence and speeches (to an extent) from across the pond.
- Web development: Web development is a highly skilled occupation, for sure (as is writing in the last example). However, we've already seen the Indian software development industry boom. Why not web development?
- Media monitoring: I don't think all media monitoring could move overseas (good luck finding the Peterborough Examiner in India), but monitoring of online sources and major newspapers, TV channels, etc., could.
As the link in the last paragraph showed, though, most local outlets publish online now. Overseas workers could flag when local outlets publish stories online so local PR pros could check out the hard copies, where story placement is still important.
- Proofreading and editing: As with writing, while this is skilled work, I could see it moving overseas.
These are just my thoughts on the implications of Friedman's book. Am I on the mark? Might we see some of these tasks be outsourced in the next few years and might any others move? How else could we future-proof ourselves against this?
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