Ron Smith's Teaching Notes on ...

Systems Theory & Public Relations


Updated Spring 2016 as a supplement to Professor Smith's textbooks
Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and Francis).


Systems theory is a useful way for public relations practitioners to understand the relationship between an organization and its publics and the role of public relations within an organization.



A system 
is a set of interacting units 
that endures through time 
within an established boundary 
by responding and adjusting 
to change pressures from the environment 
to achieve and maintain goal states

     (Cutlip & Center, Effective Public Relations)


Environmental Change
- information
- action
- relationships

General Systems Theory was articulated in 1968 Ludwig von Bertalanffy, first applying it to biology but later to the social sciences. Kurt Lewin adapted the theory further into applied psychology.



Systems Concept of Management

(organizational theory) 

System = organized set of interacting parts (subsystems)
Each subsystem affects other subsystems awa total organization


Common subsystems w/in most organizations
Management subsystem (oversight, control, policy, decision-making)

- Boundary subsystems (i.e. public relations, supporting both management & organizational subsystems)

- Production subsystems (manufacturing, service)

- Disposal subsystems (distribution, sales, service delivery)

- Maintenance subsystems (personnel, development)

- Adaptive subsystems (research, planning)


Organizations typically develop a formal communication/public relations subsystem when they realize increasing impact (consequence) between organization and its publics



Four Eements of Systems Theory

Input = Incoming information identifying problem (loss of equilibrium with interpenetrating systems within the environment)

Throughput = Processing of information

Output = Response from organization; outgoing messages to restore equilibrium; creates new equilibrium. Proactive or reactive

Feedback = Response from environment; indication if problem has been solved. The concept of feedback is linked to cybernetics: Communication that helps a source control a receiver's behavior. This can be understood through the analogy of a furnace thermostat
- rooted in environmental effects
- initiated by decision-making about the environment (setting the room temperature)
- responsive to environment (changing the setting based on inside or outside temperatures)



Open v/ Closed Systems


Closed Systems

- hard/fixed/impermeable boundaries

- can't exchange matter, energy or information w/ environments

- organizations seek little interaction or accommodation with environment


Open Systems

- permeable boundaries

- can/do exchange via inputs & throughputs

- organization attempts interaction and accomodation with environment


Continuum (not either/or)

     For additional information, see Grunig, Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management)


Closed v/ Open

Internal orientation  /  External orientation

Self-contained  /  Part of wide environment

Self-sufficient  /  Dependent on environment

Internal accountability  /  Public accountability

Functional communication  /  Persuasive communication

Efficient  /  Innovation

Elitist  /  Egalitarian

Conservative  /  Adaptive

Centralized  /  Autonomous

Self-interest  /  Responsibility

Power  /  Conflict resolution

Seek control  /  Seek understanding

People as customers  /  People as publics

Authoritarian management  /  Interpersonal management

Workers do as told  /  Workers cooperate toward goal

Stable environment  /  Turbulent environment

Simple expectations  /  Expanding expectations

Few boundary spanners  /   Increasing boundary spanners



Systems Theory Applied to Public Relations


Many public relations problems arise because of close systems. This is rooted in the following decisions made by an organization or in actions taken or not taken:

- do not adapt or seek to adapt within their environment

- do not hold themselves accountable to their publics and stakeholders

- do not engage in transparent and/or timely communication

- do not focus on customers and other publics


Public relations helps achieve a balance (homeostasis) between the organization and its environment in two ways:

- by maintaining interdependence among the organization and its publics

- by monitoring the environment and alerting the organization of the need to adapt (proactive) or respond (reactive)