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Systems Theory and Public Relations

Every Organization Is Part Of A System With Three Components.

By Thomas J. Roach

Systems theory is a way of looking at organizations. We can use it when we create business systems, and we can also use it to analyze them and diagnose their problems. According to systems theory, every organization is part of a system with three components: the organization, its publics and its goals. The ultimate organizational goal is survival.

Social Environment

Systems theory essentially works from the premise that publics, like customers, employees and neighbors, all form a kind of social environment for the organization. Like the physical environment, the social environment is always changing. Organizations that adjust to the changes survive and prosper, and organizations that do not adjust do not survive.

The company mission statement should identify organizational identity and goals, and this should guide all adjustments. When organizations adjust, they have to make only adjustments that are consistent with their identity and goals. To over adjust could be as fatal as not adjusting at all.

The reason system theory is of particular concern in public relations is that adjustments require feedback. If a system receives no feedback from its publics, then it cannot make wise adjustments.

Therefore, it is incumbent on public relations departments to not just send messages to publics, but to create processes and perform research to insure that messages from publics are coming into the organization, and that organizational leadership is considering the feedback when steering the company into the future.

To a public relations professional there is no public, only publics. Identifying and distinguishing between publics are necessary first steps in the application of system theory and for all public relations activities. Articles in employee publications, web page designs, shareholder communication, product advertising, even signage, everything a company communicates has an audience or audiences.

The more specific the definition of the audience or public, the more effective the communication. There are four broad public categories for all businesses: shareholders, employees, customers and community members. Businesses make a profound decision when they choose how they will communicate to these four public groups.

One Public

Sometimes organizations let one public dominate their communication efforts. If a marketing perspective filters how publics are viewed, then the customer public is over emphasized. Customers will benefit from the majority of communication resources, and the employee public will be seen more as a vehicle for sending messages to customers than as an audience deserving of its own meaningful interaction.

With similar results large publicly owned corporations may over-focus on the investor public. This can result in a mission statement that is written to impress investors but fails to provide direction for managers and employees.

In recent years more and more companies have made employees their main communication focus, but this is still not common, and with the possible exception of politicians, no one is guilty of paying too much attention to the community.

Public relations professionals understand that all four public groups need attention. They all need to be monitored through surveys and focus groups when possible, and through live interaction with company leadership always.

No doubt changing pressures in the business environment cause organizations to emphasize one public over another. But public relations practitioners are like doctors. They may be called in to treat one problem, but if they see another threat to the health of the organization, they have a professional responsibility to treat that as well. Business leaders are typically skeptical of community publics, and after years of dealing with unions, MSHA regulations and lawsuits, many are not looking for ways to open up communication with employees either. However, whether or not they want to see the big picture, public relations professionals have a responsibility to show them all the pieces of the business system.

Systems theory is a good lens through which to see the full range of communication needs. Awareness of all publics, focus on the mission statement and eliciting feedback before communicating is a formula for profitability and survival.