Organizational roles are abstract maps summarizing the most salient features of the daily activities of organizational members. Katz & Kahn (1978) considered roles central to the structure of organizations; organizations can be regarded as open systems of interrelated roles. Roles are defined as “recurring actions of an individual, appropriately interrelated with the repetitive activities of others so as to yield a predictable outcome” (Katz & Kahn 1978, 189).
In public relations, practitioners perform a wide range of activities. Despite such diverse activities, researchers have discovered systematic patterns in the roles that practitioners play. Enactment of various roles has important consequences for practitioners and the practice of public relations. Indeed, practitioner roles are among the most studied areas in public relations research.
Conceptual And Observed Roles
Glen Broom began studying roles of practitioners in the 1970s (Broom 1982). Drawing on the relevant literature, Broom conceptualized four practitioner roles that he later tested using experimental and survey designs. The “expert prescriber” was conceptualized as the organization’s acknowledged expert on public relations. Expert prescribers make recommendations to those who run the organization with the expectation that top managers in organizations will comply. The “communication facilitator” was conceptualized as a “go-between.” Practitioners enacting this role are involved in monitoring and enhancing the flow of information between publics and decision-makers inside organizations. The “problem-solving process facilitator” was conceptualized as an assistant to top management, helping senior decision-makers systematically analyze and solve public relations problems for organizations. The “communication technician” was conceptualized as a provider of technical communication services, generating various collateral materials to implement public relations programs. Practitioners enacting this role serve as journalists-in-residence, hired for their journalistic skills and expertise.
In a study of US practitioners, Broom found that the roles of expert prescriber, communication facilitator, and problem-solving process facilitator were highly correlated. Although conceptual distinctions could be made between these roles, practitioners enacting one of these roles were very likely to enact the other two roles as well. The communication technician role, however, was not correlated with the other three.
Broom’s finding prompted Dozier to conduct exploratory factor analysis on three practitioner surveys. Broom’s initial findings were replicated. This led to an inductive reconceptualization of practitioner roles. The “communication manager” makes communication policies and is held accountable for the success or failure of those decisions. Such practitioners facilitate the flow of information between the public and senior managers and keep top decision-makers in organizations appraised of public reactions to their organizations. The “communication technician” role remains as originally conceptualized by Broom.
Decades later, further research distinguished between the strategic and administrative manager roles. The “strategic manager role” consists of conducting evaluation research, using research to segment publics, and performing environmental scanning. The “administrative manager role” involves setting goals and objectives for public relations programs, preparing departmental budgets, and managing organizational responses to public relations problems (Grunig et al. 2002).
All practitioners conduct various role activities to some degree. For some analytic purposes, practitioner roles can be operationalized in terms of predominant role. A practitioner’s predominant role is the role set that he or she enacts most frequently. Thus, practitioners who enact manager role activities with greater frequency than technician role activities are enacting the manager role predominantly.
In addition to Broom’s 24-item set of practitioner role measures, other scholars have used alternative measurement strategies. Ferguson (1979) developed a 45-item set that measured practitioner perceptions of the appropriateness of various public relations activities. As such, Ferguson’s measures can be viewed as the role received by the practitioner from others in the organization, as well as from other practitioners outside the organization. Berkowitz & Hristodoulakis (1999) developed a 13-item set to measure norms or ideals that apply to the roles of practitioners. Wright (1995) conducted a study of senior-level practitioners and suggested a third major role of communication executive. “Communication executives” hold the rank of corporate senior vice president, reporting directly to the chief executive officer. Toth et al. (1998) identified an “agency profile role,” which seemed to fit the duties of practitioners working for public relations firms.
Antecedents And Consequences Of Roles
Prior research showed that professional experience in public relations is a positive indicator of manager role enactment (Broom 1982; Dozier & Broom 1995). Women tend to have fewer years of professional experience and fewer years of employment with their current employer. Thus, women are less likely than men to enact the manager role predominantly. Level of formal education has only a weak positive relationship with manager role enactment (Dozier & Broom 1995).
Those enacting the manager role predominantly are more likely to use programmatic research to scan the organization’s environment and evaluate the impact of public relations programs, when compared to those enacting the technician role predominantly. Manager role enactment is associated with greater participation in strategic decision-making (Dozier & Broom 1995). Such participation is important to the practice, because proactive “best practices” dictate that practitioners must counsel organizational decision-makers about the public relations implications of various strategic choices before decisions are made. Too often, decision-makers seek public relations help under crisis conditions, after poor choices have been implemented without proper counsel.
Practitioners enacting the manager role predominantly earn higher salaries than practitioners enacting the technician role predominantly. This is true, even after controlling for the professional experience of the practitioner. Job satisfaction, however, is more elusive. Practitioners who participate in strategic decision-making report higher levels of job satisfaction. However, job satisfaction may be affected by the practitioner’s desire to pursue the creative, artistic aspects of public relations, activities associated with the technician role (Dozier & Gottesman 1982).
Criticisms Of Roles
Creedon (1991) provided the first comprehensive critique of roles research from a feminist perspective. Toth & Grunig (1993), Hon (1995), and Toth et al. (1998) further elaborated this criticism. The feminist critique is important. In the United States, women make up over 61 percent of the public relations labor force (US Department of Labor, 2006). As a female-majority occupation, gender issues in public relations are important.
The critique includes five elements. First, argued the critics, Broom’s quantitative measures of roles miss too much texture and nuance of role enactment. Second, the gender of the researcher arguably influences the kind of research questions asked and the methods used to answer those questions. Third, roles research places too much normative value on the manager role while seeming to denigrate the technical aspects of public relations (frequently enacted by women practitioners). Fourth, suggested strategies for overcoming gender discrimination (based on roles) ask women to change their behavior (e.g., enact the manager role more frequently), while leaving the discriminatory ideology of organizations intact. Fifth, the open systems framework for theorizing about practitioner roles provides normative justification for the unequal distribution of power in organizations and society.
Organizational Level Of Analysis
Most prior research on the roles of practitioners focused on the actual enactment of roles by individual practitioners. Although this research has contributed much to the theory and practice of public relations, the individual level of analysis is problematic for several reasons. First, women enact the technician role predominantly with much greater frequency than men (Dozier & Broom 1995). Relative to women, men tend to enact the manager role predominantly. Second, people attracted to public relations for creative, artistic opportunities may find greater job satisfaction in the production of messages than in strategic planning. Since enactment of the manager role is linked to such desired outcomes as greater participation in strategic planning and higher salaries, enactment of the technician role predominantly seems undesirable. However, the seeming hierarchy of practitioner roles (manager over technician) is an artifact of the level of analysis; the hierarchy disappears when the analysis is shifted to the organizational level.
In the Excellence Project (Grunig 1992; Grunig et al. 2002), the most important predictor of excellence in public relations was the knowledge base to enact the strategic manager role and to engage in two-way communication with publics. Moreover, the knowledge base was operationalized as an attribute of the public relations department, not individual practitioners.
Through the multivariate analysis of the factors associated with overall excellence, Grunig et al. (2002) found that the organizations with the excellent public relations also had high expertise in the technical aspects of the practice. This led Dozier & Broom (2006) to theorize that expertise to enact the strategic manager role at the department level led to successful public relations programs over time. This, in turn, empowered the public relations department to capture more resources to enhance the technical expertise of the department.
Excellent public relations departments have a mix of practitioners; some play the manager role predominantly while others play the technician role predominantly. Some seek to participate in the strategic planning of the organization while others use their creative, artistic talents to implement communication programs. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an excellent public relations department without the full range of expertise. Less-than-excellent public relations departments do not have the requisite strategic management expertise to know what to do with the creative, artistic talent that exists within the department.
Normatively, this shift to the organizational level of analysis suggests dual career tracks for both creative, artistic practitioners and for strategic planners. Both types of roles should be rewarded, because both contribute to the excellence of the public relations department.
- Berkowitz, D., & Hristodoulakis, I. (1999). Practitioner roles, public relations education, and professional socialization: An exploratory study. Journal of Public Relations Research, 11(1), 91–103.
- Broom, G. M. (1982). A comparison of sex roles in public relations. Public Relations Review, 8(3), 17–22.
- Creedon, P. J. (1991). Public relations and “women’s work”: Toward a feminist analysis of public relations roles. In J. E. Grunig & L. A. Grunig (eds.), Public relations research annual Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 67–84.
- Dozier, D. M., & Broom, G. M. (1995). Evolution of the manager role in public relations practice. Journal of Public Relations Research, 7(1), 3–26.
- Dozier, D. M., & Broom, G. M. (2006). The centrality of practitioner roles in public relations theory. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazleton (eds.), Public relations theory II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 137–170.
- Dozier, D. M., & Gottesman, M. (1982). Subjective dimensions of organizational roles among public relations practitioners. Paper presented at the meeting of the Public Relations Division, Association for Education in Journalism, Athens, OH (July).
- Ferguson, M. A. (1979). Role norms, implicit relationship attributions and organizational communication: A study of public relations practitioners. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin.
- Grunig, J. E. (ed.) (1992). Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (2002). Excellent public relations and effective organizations: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Hon, L. C. (1995). Toward a feminist theory of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 7(1), 27–88.
- Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1978). The social psychology of organizations, rev. edn. New York: John Wiley.
- Toth, E. L., & Grunig, L. A. (1993). The missing story of women in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 5(3), 153–175.
- Toth, E. L., Serini, S. S., Wright, D. K., & Emig, A. G. (1998). Trends in public relations roles: 1990– 1995. Public Relations Review, 24(2), 145–163.
- US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2006). Employment and Earnings. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.
- Wright, D. K. (1995). The role of corporate public relations executives in the future of employee communications. Public Relations Review, 21(3), 181–198.