Leveraging gatekeepers to achieve strategic PR objectives

The word ‘gatekeeper’ in the discourse of Public Relations generally refers to the media. While this may be true in certain circumstances, in my sojourn in the practice spanning internal communications, community relations, government relations, media relations and crisis management, gatekeeping transcends the media.

A gatekeeper, according to Wikipedia, is anyone who blocks the way between you and the key decision-maker within a target organisation. The major job of a gatekeeper is to screen unwanted or irrelevant information or persons from reaching the boss.

Now, how do you help the gatekeeper appreciate the significance of your task or a particular function in order to be granted access to the principal? No matter how important your information is to the firm, unless the gatekeeper understands it, it is likely to get stuck in transit.

Communication practitioners must learn to collaborate with the gatekeeper to enhance their functions and be better positioned to achieve set strategic business objectives.

Here are suggestions to help your effective engagement with the gatekeeper:

Internal communications gatekeepers: Employees are the soul of any organisation. The existence of a structured internal communications strategy helps to keep them informed, engaged and productive. While the job of internal communications is driven by the communications team, there are gatekeepers in the process of execution. The most critical and perhaps the salient of them are the executive assistants to the Chief Executive Officer and the C-Level executives.

The success of your employee engagement initiative is usually a function of how well you manage the C-Level executives through these gatekeepers. Every executive has his/her routine outlined for the year based on goals and targets. You are at best a subset of the whole they operate in. This, however, does not undermine the value of your role or the impact of your job to the organisation. Presenting or pitching your internal engagement initiatives to the executive requires engaging gatekeepers who manage the calendars. Getting a slot in the executive’s calendar requires making a mini pitch to the gatekeepers, so they can understand why it is important to give you a slot to meet their lead. As a communications practitioner, your success begins from here.

The days are gone when gatekeepers were mere file and record keepers. The role has evolved. They now provide strategic support for the executive. Understanding this and having the skills to manage them with respect, dignity and courtesy is not a nice-to-have, but a must-have, in the discharge of your duties as a communications practitioner. If properly managed, you can get them to understand the strategic impact of your role and initiatives to the organisation. They will then be forced to give you priority access in the executive’s calendar. Greater access, naturally, means that you will get faster sign-offs on your communications and engagement plans.

Subject matter expert gatekeepers: One of the critical things we must understand about our role is that we are business partners to the CEO, the directors and indeed the entire organisation. This makes our role strategic and valuable in advising the business. While this is a fact, we must also reckon that we are not a jack of all trades. In other words, we are not subject matter experts in all aspects of the organisation. Depending on the nature of the business, it would have various departments and functions that may include but not limited to Supply Chain, Human Resources, Marketing, Sales, Finance, Information Technology, Research, and Manufacturing. Though you are skilful in what you do and your competence is not in doubt, you must acknowledge that the personnel in these various functions are subject matter experts. At intervals, you will cross paths with them, especially during crisis management and more.

Every crisis is traceable to an aspect of the business operations – it could be in Manufacturing, Sales, Marketing or HR. Irrespective of where the crisis is coming from, you must defer with someone as the owner of the crisis to understand the issues, analyse the situation and proffer solutions. As much as you are the chief crisis manager for the business, you do not have all the knowledge required to solve all the issues. Therefore, to manage any given situation successfully, you need the support of relevant experts. By partnering with them to understand the issue, you will be better able to determine the appropriate response, messaging, stakeholders and execution of the strategy, both internally and externally.

Government relations gatekeepers: In our clime, this terrain is as fluid as a flowing river. You cannot step on the same water twice. The dynamics and intrigues of shaping policies and policymakers in favour of your organisation and industry have a lot to do with how well you manage the gatekeepers in government. Granted, your targets in stakeholders mapping are the heads of the executives and legislative arm of government at different tiers – President, Governor, Senate President, House of Representatives Speaker and ministers – but you will have to deal with their support staff. In the broad strategic mapping, your interest is in the principals. But the reality of execution is that you will be dealing with the handlers of these heads of governments – the special advisers, chief of staff, heads of parastatals, directorates, media aides and more. You cannot have frequent meetings with the President or the governors, at best you meet them occasionally to give insights and direction on policies and the focus of the government. The daily operations that determine the policies in the long run and their impact on businesses is a function of how well you engage the gatekeepers by following through on actions and to-dos. These gatekeepers walk the talk to bring policies to life. Your job as a practitioner is to understand how to work with them to deliver results and value to your industry and organisation.

Community relations gatekeepers: Our job as PR professionals is to help establish goodwill between our organisations and their publics. A major stakeholder of these publics is the community we operate in. Each environment is unique and requires us to put things in context and perspective. This includes acknowledging and according our traditional institutions the respect due to them. The traditional rulers are the symbol of authority, integrity and reputation that we must work with to ensure the success of our organisation’s operations in the communities.

In working with these institutions, we must respect and obey the local laws and traditions of the communities. How well we manage this will define and determine the success of our operations. We must also come to terms with the reality that we must work with the handlers of the traditional rulers to get insights into the ways of life of the community, their values, their views on issues, their needs, challenges, and approach to issues to enable us co-create sustainable solutions that guarantee peace and foster harmony for the common good of all stakeholders.

Media gatekeepers: These are perhaps the most relatable gatekeepers in our clime in PR practice. I call them friends and families, as I have come to know and experience them. The first thing about these our friends and family that I found undisputed is their knowledge, depth and grasp of issues. Do they sometimes look unassuming? Yes, they do. Do they sometimes take opposing views to that of your company? Yes, they do. However, you will be so wrong to use this as a basis to define who they are and what they stand for.

I have come to the realisation that in this practice, the relationship with the media is symbiotic and indispensable. I like to compare the relationship and value-adding benefits of the media to communications professionals as that between a meal of white rice and sauce. One is incomplete without the other. Both complement each other to achieve and have the desired satisfaction mutually. Show me a successful PR practitioner or a brand, and I will show you how the media supported either the person or the brand to become what it is.

You must be very discerning in managing these gatekeepers. Your relationship must be built on professionalism, if it must last and remain sustainable. Be mindful that just as you do not know it all, so do they not know it all as well. In every given circumstance, having the right conversations, with the right motive, tone and settings is what brings the best out of both parties.

You must see the media as a necessary partner in the line of duty to help you achieve your objectives. Do not have a plastic and misguided relationship with them. Instead let your relationship be humane, professional and value-adding, so that it may stand the test of time. As the practitioner, you have the content that they need to fill their news channels. They, on the other hand, have the channels. Your content is of no use if not exposed where the target audience can access it. Similarly, the channels are of no use if they don’t have the right content for their audience. Undoubtedly, both parties need each other to succeed.

Therefore, we must accept the reality that the media as gatekeepers can be a great source of support. Where there is a difference in viewpoint on any given subject, it should be seen an opportunity to build bridges of understanding for the good of the brands, the practitioners and the media as a whole.

In summing up this subject on gatekeepers, we know that we should or can leverage them to achieve our strategic objectives for our brands and organisations. We must also acknowledge that there is very little we can achieve alone irrespective of our position, designation and knowledge of our practice.

To succeed, we need gatekeepers. They can add value to our operations and brand, irrespective of their sizes and operations. There are more gatekeepers out there, depending on the field you play in and the nature of your operations.

This piece is simply an attempt to give insight into how to manage gatekeepers for the benefit of our industry and the entire business community.

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