Gatekeeper or Peacekeeper: The Decision-Making Authority of Public Relations Practitioners

Publication Date: 2011 Winter

Source: SO03 Public Relations Journal
Product Code: 6D-050104
Organization/Author/Firm: Amanda Ruth-McSwain, Ph.D.
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The significant role of gatekeepers within organizations has been the subject of investigation for many years. In fact, Hammersley and Atkinson (1995) suggest that there is no other person more crucial to the communication processes of organizations than the formal gatekeeper; in a sense, gatekeeping provides key people within organizations the ability to permit or forbid access to organizational information. In addition, organizational gatekeepers are those key individuals in an organization who are both strongly connected to internal audiences as well as external audiences, and who are capable of translating organizational information across communication boundaries (Tushman & Katz, 1980). Often situated between those internal and external publics, the public relations practitioner serves as the gatekeeper of organizational information in communicating with various publics, including the mass media. As a result, the communication decisions of public relations practitioners can greatly impact an organization, making it important to understand the gatekeeping process of organizations and the role that public relations practitioners play in that process.

Reber and Berger (2006) propose that “public relations scholarship is rife with calls to find a way for practitioners to ascend to organizational decision making circles (i.e., the dominant coalition)” (pg. 1). Additionally, although existing literature in public relations has investigated the organizational roles of public relations practitioners relative to decision making (i.e. Broom & Smith, 1978; Ferguson, 1979; Broom, 1982; Johnson & Acharya, 1982; Dozier, 1984; Grunig & Grunig, 1986), there is limited research on the decision-making authority of public relations practitioners in communicating with the media, specifically. Based on the supporting literature, the present study intended to explore Reber and Berger’s call by investigating the role of the public relations practitioner through the following research question: How much of a gatekeeping role do public relations practitioners play in their organizations’ communication with the news media?

Two qualitative data collection methods were used to achieve the purpose of the present study: interviews and online focus groups using a snowball sample of public relations practitioners. Twelve semi-structured interviews, varying in length from 30 to 55 minutes, were conducted over the telephone and tape-recorded. Following the interviews, three online focus groups were conducted, thus providing the researcher with the ability to extract information that could not be obtained through the one-on-one interviews (Morgan, 1997).

Results suggested that two primary themes were present in the data collected. The first theme identified different roles of public relations professionals related to issues of decision-making power and authority. The second theme suggested that regardless of the degree of decision-making power that the public relations practitioner possessed in the gatekeeping process, they remain a contributor or at least an influence on the decision-making process; however, that influences varied greatly depending on the type of organization in which the PR professional works. The most significant finding, that revealed this significant dichotomy between the gatekeeping roles of public relations professionals based on the type of organization they represented, creates various implications for future research and practice.