Gatekeeping theory is the idea that there are people who regulate the flow of information; these people are known as gatekeepers. Gatekeeping theory first developed in the 1940s and gatekeepers of news media. Gatekeepers are the people who decides what stories will be published, a very powerful responsibility especially in news media organizations. When one considers the theories that suggest that news and media tell people what to think in conjunction with gatekeeping theory, one could conclude that gatekeepers can control to some degree what people think. For this reason there are huge ethical considerations that come with being a gatekeeper, the biggest and most obvious one being bias. As consumers of media we hope that the gatekeepers of our news media are as unbiased as possible when determining newsworthiness. As gatekeeping theory expanded in the 1970s it was adopted by organizations other than news media and began to include those who had influence on the framing of information rather than just whether or not the information would be shared.
PR Pros as Gatekeepers
As public relations practitioners gatekeeping theory is extremely relevant to what we do in numerous ways. It is the responsibility of PR practitioner to be gatekeepers of informations for their organizations. PR people decide what’s deserves tweets, media releases for, public announcements. They also shoulder the burden of what information should not be made public and towing the line between being ethically transparent as organizations without being allowing the organization to be an open books. PR practitioners also decide how information should framed. The apologies we so often hear and see in the media after an organization has been involved in a controversy were most likely carefully crafted by public relations professionals. Being a gatekeeper is a tremendous responsibility that can come with heavy burdens. For example, when organizations are caught lying or information is mistakenly leaked, PR practitioners are held responsible as the people who are supposed to be in control of the flow of information. All statements made by organizations should first flow through it’s gatekeepers, public relations practitioners.
In addition to be gatekeepers themselves public relations practitioners must also serve as connections to media gatekeepers. There is often information that organization want to not only make public but to broadcast. In these situations PR practitioners serve as gatekeepers for their organizations but then must also appeal to media gatekeepers to reach wider audiences. The most clear example is when PR practitioners write media releases. Media releases are direct appeals to media gatekeepers to include their information in the news.
Looking at public relations practice through the lens of gatekeeping theory offers a clear analogy for how public relations professionals are responsible for the flow of public information for the organizations they represent.