Betsy Plank, known as a PR pioneer, a champion of PR education and the profession’s First Lady, achieved expert stature in positions not reached by previous women. Following 13 years at Daniel J. Edelman and Associates, Inc., Plank joined the Bell system in 1973 as Director of Public Relations Planning at AT&T, and then became the first woman to direct external affairs at Illinois Bell.
Plank is the recipient of most of the top awards in the field of Public Relations, including the Public Relations Society of America’s Gold Anvil (1977), Lund (1989) and the inaugural Jackson Award (2001); in 2002, she was honored by the Arthur W. Page Society’s first Lifetime Achievement Award and the Public Relations Institute’s Hamilton Award. In 2005, the Trustees of the University of Alabama established the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. The Center’s mission is to develop research, scholarships, and forums that advance the ethical practice of public relations.
Interviewer: Okay Betsy what inspired you, caused you, to begin your career in public relations in the first place?
Betsy Plank: Well I was hungry and I needed a job. And I was new to Chicago and I came out of a radio in Pittsburgh and I came out here and it was difficult to find a job in radio because radio was running scared of television. And it was one experimental television station in town and people were lined up for blocks to get in and there wasn’t a chance for me, an outsider, and so I got pretty desperate about what to do. I had some writing skills. I had done production and I could write for The Voice, which turned out to be a great advantage and so I met a woman who became my first and greatest mentor. She simply took a liking to me. She headed up the mid-west Advertising Council office and her name was Duffy Swartz, and of course everyone knows the Advertising Council is really the public relations arm of the advertising industry and it had come out of WWI. And so she took a liking to me and took my measure and decided that I had some writing skills and said there was an agency in town that handled all the major nonprofit campaigns; the Red Cross which was the organization in the city at the time, and the Community Chest, which ultimately became the United Way, the March of Dimes, and the Girl Scouts and hospital campaigns, etc. So she said we have a part time not a part time a short term job for radio and television public relations for the upcoming Red Cross campaign. She said would you go over and get the job. I said I don’t know anything about public relations. I had never heard the term before. You understand this was 1947 really an ancient vintage and so she said in her laconic style, “That’s alright, you just go over and get the job.” So I went over and she said when you come back and I’ll tell you what to do. So I went over and they must have been desperate with the campaign that was upcoming so they hired me, and I went back to Duffy and I said well I got the job, now what do I do. And she told me what to do. So that was my introduction to public relations from that edge of the business and I stayed with the firm (Red Cross) after the campaign was over. I went back to Duffy and said they asked to stay on full time. And she said but of course. That was her style. And she mentored me for about 15 or 20 years and I was not the only person that she had mentored. She was a remarkable woman who was an executive at a time when very few women claimed that kind of position. And she was she knew everybody and everybody knew her and respected her and there are many of us who owe our careers to that splendid, splendid woman and she got me on the edges of public relations.
Interviewer: When did you join the Edelman firm?
Betsy Plank: I joined the Eldeman firm in 1960/61 and I was with the Edelman firm for 13 years. And it was 13 very exciting years because Dan Edelman was a very exciting and demanding and brilliant professional with whom to work. And I eventually became his second executive vice president because at the time Dan did not care too much for the business side of business. He loved public relations particularly in its marketing aspects and had been tremendously successful in that area and he enjoyed it and that’s where he wanted to be. So that was my baptism into management, personnel, finance and all of the activities.
Interviewer: What caused you to leave that position?
Betsy Plank: Well first of all I think I had always worked for agencies. I worked for agencies since I entered the field in 1947 and congenitally I am programmed to say yes to every opportunity first of all, that’s my style, I had said to myself and I remember well that one day the vice president for AT&T, Paul Lund, took me to lunch and after we got through some professional business he propositioned me to come join AT&T and Paul was a great salesman difficult to say no to. And had and there seemed to be a great deal of excitement being generated around the Bell systems in those early years of the 70s. And so I thought it would be wonderful to be on the corporate side of the house. And we had some conversations that went on both in Chicago and in New York and so I decided to jump ship from the agency world to the corporate world and come full circle and experience both fields.
Interviewer: That was one of Paul Lund’s most brilliant moves to me and also I think the fact that you were willing to do that speaks a lot to yourself. I feel that it turned out to be a positive experience from your standpoint.
Betsy Plank: Oh indeed and it was a totally different aspect of the practice of public relations for me. I had, in working in the Edelman firm and previous agencies, I had some wonderful clients. I still look back with great joy and affection for clients like Oscar Myer and Armour and especially Play Skool Toys and Burgess Battery and especially the nonprofit group. I still have a great affection for the Red Cross and I shall be a Girl Scout until I leave this planet. But I had never been on the inside of a company. I had always been on the outside even counseling or performing whatever function they had retained us to perform and it’s quite a different thing to be inside of the company and be part of its corporate culture or try to catch up and be part of its corporate culture and the difference. It’s interesting that you pose the question. What if and when I talk to student they often don’t think of this. In my experience I found that for example the Bell systems function in life was to deliver telephone communication service to the wide population almost all the population of the country and beyond. And that was its reason for being. And public relations played a role in that. And happily it was a very distinctive and important role but it was not the main business of the Bell systems. Where as I had gone through how many years, 20 plus years working for agencies where the business that I was in was public relations so that everyone concerned, for example in the Edelman organization, woke up in the morning and thought about the practice of public relations and how they could serve their clients best, but nevertheless, at heart, the business that we were in was public relations, quite different when you are within a corporate organization and it’s business is not public relations. Its business is to produce a product or a service and to deliver it responsibly.
Interviewer: It’s a very good distinction between the two different worlds. What were some of the accomplishments that you achieved over the years that you are most proud of as far as the public relations world goes.
Betsy Plank: Oh my, well I was very as it turned out I was very proud to be part of the turbulent times in the late 70s and the early 80s when, in its infinite wisdom, the United States government broke up the Bell systems. It was a particular challenge from the point of view of the public relations practitioner because you were dealing with a culture and a commitment by a million people to service them with delivery of the telecommunications from its most sophisticated.. the Bell Laboratories.. to the to the person on the line who was delivery, repair and installation service. You know going out at 4 o’clock in the morning little old ladies got to repair their phones. That culture, and I need not tell you it was such that people had joined it the minute they had graduated from high school or college and it was lifetime commitment. So when it was inevitable that that culture was going to be fractured by government order or court order then you had to find some, you had to find some new loyalties or build some new loyalties and help people understand and accept the inevitable. And to transfer their loyalties to other corporations to other entities that were formed after the Bell system was broken up. And that whole challenge in terms of human relationships was a remarkable experience of which to be a part and I’m very privileged. I’m sorry that it had to happen. But when you stop and think about public relations and its fundamental charge and fundamental responsibility is to face, meet and resolve problems. And certainly this was a problem of mega proportions and to be to be a part of it, to happen to be a part of it, was a great privilege and I’m very proud to be in the company of some wonderful professionals who handled it with great skill.
Interviewer: Betsy, your career has been very very successful from the time that you actually started working with a nonprofit group through your experience with the Bell system. What personal qualities do you have that you feel enabled you to achieve the kind of success that you did? What were the abilities in your case really helped make a difference in your ability to influence others?
Betsy Plank: Well, I suppose one has to confess to being a workaholic. That’s for starters. And it’s a very, that’s a Sirens song, because it has its disadvantages as well. But falling in love with work and staying at it until the problem is solved brings, I think, another either virtue or fault. I grew up liking puzzles. And I’ve always thought that public relations people, aside from being workaholics and in love with what they do, are people who really like problem solving and its many guises. And it’s interesting, you were talking earlier about some of the client experiences I had. That was one of the joys of working in the original Play Skool Toys because you had to learn a lot about preschool behavior and preschool development with some of the geniuses of the times, Bruno Bettleheim and others and some at Yale University before much had been known about preschoolers. Or much had been thought about them and how their work is their play or their play is their work. And I learned that about people who like puzzles. And I think ultimately that interest in puzzles would translate as it grows into problem solving has been very useful. It’s the challenge you know that serves you well.
Interviewer: I think that’s on the positive side I haven’t thought of that immediately. But you are a skilled writer and a very fast writer very articulate both as a writer and as a speaker. Where did you acquire those, or where did you acquire those types of skills that really helped you really advance in different [inaudible] and positions in a very positive nature?
Betsy Plank: I think I had mentioned earlier that I worked in radio, which had all kinds of disciplines as far as writing is concerned. Prior to that time I had through school been a writer but mostly for friends, for College magazines and that kind of thing so that my experience in radio was the first time I was ever challenged to write for The Voice. And as I said it had served me very well including the fact that I can remember well that I wrote the house commercials for BY Furniture Store and in a minute commercial you had to mention BY Furniture Store at least 12 times and that’s a challenge and a trick I’ve never forgotten. But that was very a very healthy and very new. I mean you’re talking late 40s and writing for The Voice was really quite rare. Even today there are not that many schools in terms of education for public relations which offer courses in speech writing. And let me tell you that speech writing is the keys to the kingdom and certainly in the corporate world. Because you do have to you do have to understand the issues that an executive particularly the CEOs want to convey. You have to be able to listen to their voice styles, learn how they think so that a speech for you is quite different than a speech for someone else. So that’s a very valuable skill today in public relations. So I have appreciated the fact I’m a great believer in providence that probably is something else that is characterized with my career in public relations because unlike textbook wisdom. I never really had a plan and I think it is obvious from some of the recital here. I did not know or understand or had heard of public relations. And yet I was prepared for it at its moment in time in post WWII and I do think that sometimes that you’re too hard and fast about planning it can get in the way of some very exciting times.
Interviewer: I want to convey for the minute to your views of public relations education but before we leave the talents and criteria that the public relations person should have would to be effective, what characteristics do you see in others that are sort of self defeating types of things that people do either by representing public relations or representing themselves that really kind of really put themselves down? For example maybe not being a good listener. Are there things like that that you ever cringe when somebody says or does something?
Betsy Plank: Well I think you touched on a very critical area of the business of listening that’s part of our business. Not simply to listen to our clients whether they are clients within an organization or company or clients that are outside and served by an agency. Because if we are to be truly involved in terms of building strong and trustworthy relationships with the publics that a company wishes to serve or with whom a company wishes to relate then we’ve got to be the ear, We’ve got to listen, because the whole business of one-way communication, of course, which was our stock and trade in our early years, just you know simply won’t do. And we have to be able to listen to those audiences and listen to what their different needs and their reactions and their opinions, and their values are and translate those for the company or the client that we serve. And actually be a champion for those particular audiences and their viewpoints. Not necessarily that the client has to buy in and accept those views. But the client must respect and appreciate those views. So that we are that broker between those audiences and the companies they be for profit not for profit whatever organizations that we serve, so that to get to your original question, if someone is not a good listener, an astute listener, then I fail to see how he or she can be very successful in this business. In fact, to not be a good listener is to be arrogant in our particular world. I also think that surely there can be none in our population now who believe that they can they have such influence that they can make or break a story. That was part of our early history as well. That too was another kind of arrogance in the practice so and then I see people and I’m sure that we can’t escape this conversation without talking about trust and ethics and honest behavior because if those characteristics are not part of the work and world of what we do and our actions and what we insist on from the organizations that we serve. Then we are not true public relations people. And not true corporate communications people whatever name or guise we umbrella under which we stand. But if we are not people of ethical personal behavior then I don’t see how we can suddenly be the champions for ethical behavior in the marketplace.
Interviewer: Betsy, you, in a remarkable, way kind of launched half a dozen subjects all at one time. I have to kind of back up and take them one at a time. But I want to come and talk about ethics in business and that sort of thing in a little bit. But I want to go back to the education thing. You are a champion for public relations education without parallel. You have launched more public relations initiatives in the field of education than any other single person I know. I wonder if you could talk about that for a little bit and if you could tell me what you just kind of start with what you think constitutes a good education in public relations?
Betsy Plank: Well fundamentally I think a good education in public relations is grounded in the liberal arts. We are we are ultimately dealing with the stuff of human behavior, of culture and normally that is defined in education as the arts and sciences, liberal arts. And if we and so that must be the groundwork for any student that’s preparing for the field of public relations. And indeed that’s not a lonely opinion. Ever since the first people in the mid 70s were courageous enough to start defining the curriculum for a new fledgling profession called public relations. And they were two huge giants. Harold Bateman and Scott Cutlip along with a few hangers on like myself. That has always been the given. That you must have a foundation in the liberal arts and the arts and sciences because you must understand the culture in which you are to practice. And then the basic skill with which we must be equipped is the skill of writing in all of its many guises now whether it’s for print or for The Voice or it has, you know, all new dimensions today but the use of words with which we would communicate ideas and opinions so that writing is a basic skill. Then as education has grown in public relations we ask that a student have some command of research, that they know how to plan to address a particular objective or a problem and to plan for its solution. That then they are capable of putting those plans into action and then the fourth requirement which is getting more and more attention these days at long last thanks to such organizations as the Institute for Public Relations. We must be able to evaluate and measure our effectiveness after the plan has been completed. And the action has been taken. So the students have to have those kinds of models in a classroom with which to deal and obviously they bring various experiences that have happened out there be they for service or for a product or whatever the problem has been. Whether it’s a problem in crises management or all the variety of problems that we may face in public relations so that that becomes part of the curriculum of the undergraduate student. And understand that the pressure on the other side of course is the fact that normally you are talking about maybe 120 or 124 semester hours that a student has to take where we’ve asked the student to have a broad spectrum of liberal arts then we’ve asked them to get into some specialties that have to do with writing and analysis of both problems and ability to solve problems and to measure the degree to which they were solved well. So pretty soon they’ve used up all of their credit hours that are available in a four-year college situation. So that more and more we are saying to students and it is happening in other disciplines as well, you ought to get a master’s degree. You’ve got to take another two years of college. Well that is not the best news the parents ever heard, nor is it the best news that the student who has labored hard for four years has ever heard either. So that much as this kind of a compromise is being reached. Students are going through their basic education for public relations in their undergraduate years. Many of them are going out and getting entry-level jobs and moving up if they are capable and circumstances are hospitable. Moving up into middle management hopefully in a corporation or an agency that will encourage them to go back and get continuing education and will help to fund a master’s degree which many of them take at night or extended weekends or whatever the pattern is. They will get a master’s degree in public relations or perhaps in the business sciences. Or some other area which will serve them well at their desks. The Ph.D. piece of it is generally and that’s a whole other issue in education today, a Ph.D. is generally for those who wish to pursue a career in teaching. And that’s where the Ph.D. is needed and required. Unfortunately the pipelines with Ph.D. candidates are not very full in public relations or not full enough, let me say. You have today such a demand for a career in public relations that it is probably one of the hottest disciplines you find on college campuses at this particular time. Certainly it long ago surpassed journalism. It has some competition from advertising and some from telecommunications but generally speaking we began in the last generation or particularly in communications discovered that public relations as a career choice was taking off like a rocket. So I won’t get into some of the problems that we have with academic administrations today about whose teaching public relations but suffice it to say that we do not have enough young people who are aspiring to get that Ph.D. in a public relations or allied field so that they can teach the discipline. And it’s a very promising career field for a smart, bright young person and I hope that many are inspired to take it on as their lifetime goal.
Interviewer: I'm tempted to ask you about a sensitive, one of the problems that many people are active in the profession feel that the problem with the education of people teaching is they never have had any practical experience and that before one should get a Ph.D. or be a teacher recognizes this, that they ought to spend some time at a job some place actually trying to do what it is they are teaching. It is criticism I can’t believe that this is the first that you may have spoke on it.
Betsy Plank: Of course not, let me say that there are very few educators whom I know and I know a lot of educators who haven’t had some experience in the practice so that I’m really saying to my peers and colleagues you just don’t know. You are making an assumption that the educator that you met at this conference or the educator that you met when you were in the classroom delivering a lecture has never seen the inside of an agency or the inside of a corporation, you’re mistaken, because most of them have had some kind of experience in the field. And you know we can we can match names about it. It’s just that we don’t know their backgrounds as much as we should know. Now part of that is their problem, they haven’t let us know that they do have that kind of experience. And indeed I do agree that I would hope that any young person aspiring to a Ph.D. and a teaching career would also recognize that he or she has got to get some practical experience hands on experience in the world of the practice. Because of all disciplines public relations is more like medicine. You can’t do it all without ever encountering a human being. And because that’s what we’re all about the human encounter. That reaches into some other problems that I have with the current field but my point is yes I agree that teachers, educators should have experience in the field. And to the extent that some don’t, they ought to.
Interviewer: Do you think [tape turned over] is public relations people, in your judgment, have a certain persona like lawyers, seem to be like lawyers and doctors seem to be and financial accountants are sort of like type of people. In your opinion, do public relations. Can you describe a certain characteristic or persona of how you recognize a public relations person. The kind of characteristics that you come out of college from one of these programs that you have a little something that would be a little different than others.
Betsy Plank: Well I’m not sure that we wear an A, a B or a C on our foreheads or chest or anything like that but I think that there’s a certain style that generally speaking identifies or characterizes a public relations person. And let me put it this way, you often find public relations people in civic and community affairs that have nothing to do with their daily bread. There’s hardly a non- profit organization that you can scratch that doesn’t have some of its leadership invested in public relations people. If you are sitting around such a table for a non-profit organization with a board or a committee that is comprised of the lawyer, the businessman, the advertising man or woman, the ordinary citizen, you can usually tell who is the public relations person because first of all they are to get back to one of my original tenants they are they are problem solvers. They like to they will address the problem head on. And not dance around it or avoid it or table it for another discussion. They are inclined to let’s face up to it now. And in the same way I always see a public relations person as some one who is looking at how we can address it. What action can we take to resolve the problem? We can either talk it to death or meet again or whatever but what’s the action that we can take to resolve it. So I think that those characteristics usually will define a strong and effective public relations person as opposed to the characteristic action of a lawyer who will think and God bless the lawyers and God bless the accountants, but God bless the public relations people too because they are more likely to take some intelligent informed action about something. So, yes, I think there are some characteristics that are unique.
Interviewer: Those were along the lines that I was thinking. I was thinking about being bright and creative and having ideas that they don’t sit around and I think you covered that. It just seemed to me that when you say that there are a lot of people out there who usually the public relations have you thought about this or. And that’s a lot to me as far as a welcome thing. I’m going to switch to integrity and ethics and that sort of thing. I just wondered whether you, in your, general assessment on things as your career has spanned a period of time that the way you sense there is more integrity today or less or people are more honest or less honest or truthful or less truthful in your dealings with other people. Is there any sense of just whether you or what you think the trend is towards having more morals? Are we operating more integrity or less. I mean we don’t want to say that the Enron and[inaudible] and all this other stuff positive [inaudible] but in general society do you see that on the other side? What is your sense of what the people [inaudible] in our profession [inaudible] integrity and [inaudible].
Betsy Plank: Well being a congenital optimist. I’m inclined to think that the Enron thing had spurred more attention to ethical and trustworthy behavior than we have seen in several generations. Whether or not people are more trustworthy or more ethical than they were in the 50s or the 60s or the 70s or the 80s I don’t know. I’m not even sure that we have any dip stick that can tell us that. On the other hand I think the attention for and concern about ethical behavior is at such a point subject today that you are unethical or untrustworthy at your peril. And in public relations I would not presume to say what it is in business and in the other professions because I just don’t know, but I do think that it is getting that the concern about ethics and trustworthy behavior and how you define it because it’s very difficult to define. It is very doubtful that you can educate a person in my opinion to be ethical and trustworthy if they are not nurtured that way from the very beginning. There are ways to do it. But
Interviewer: Do you think that ethics can be taught or is that something you’ve got?
Betsy Plank: Well I think that what ethics is an examples of ethical behavior an examples of ethical challenges can be explored and can be taught because not all of us are aware of what those challenges can be and in what form they can come. So that that part of it can be taught. Whether or not you can teach what the innate response should be the innate ethical response should be is and elicit that kind of response. Not on paper or not just to put an answer to a test question. Only you can elicit that kind of response in another human being I don’t know. And I’m not sure that the experts in human behavior and the psychologists and so forth have ever have ever given us a definitive answer nor whether they are capable of giving us a definitive answer. So that says to me that we must care about the kind of ethical behavior and nurturing that we give people young people children from the very beginning and how we nurture that and give attention to it through their growing years. And if indeed they have not had that kind of advantage or that kind of experience then we say to them as a corporation for example if they work for that corporation. These are our standards and we expect you to abide by these standards as long as you intend to be part of this corporate family, so that we try to come at it from two different directions. One is behavioral and the other is a requirement, this is required behavior if you intend to stay on the payroll.
Interviewer: Do you think that if the statement such as credos and mission statements have any value or would they actually change people’s behavior. Johnson & Johnson’s credo so well known as a template for how you operate or behave in that company and other companies. Do you think that they do make the difference or they are not? Do you have an opinion about it?
Betsy Plank: I think that credos and statements of this is how we perform and these are our expectations for your performance in terms of trust and truth and ethics. I think there is most certainly a role for that. And all aspects of work life whether it’s government or profit or not for profit. But the flip side of that is that it has to be backed up by behavior and concern which is quite evident. I mean if these are simply credos that go into the bottom drawer or dress up the walls of the boardroom then they have obviously have accomplished very little. But they are essential if they are paired with practice and behavior. Because words are very powerful and they give meaning and influence to ideas so that I would think that an organization would be that is ethical and is trustworthy and that wants its employees to behave in that manner would be remiss or stupid not to put that not to put that into a credo or into something that people can refer to and believe in and say yes this is what we stand for. Because this is it’s like saying here’s a country without flags. That’s you simply don’t have that. You need a flag of that expresses the behavioral expectations of that particular organization.
Interviewer: Some companies have been telling me that like an officer the Olympics officer or managers training programs by employees.
Betsy Plank: I haven’t come that far.
Interviewer: I was wondering if you were doing the role of trying to help a company make its employees more ethical. Or that sounds like good ideas or would you just [inaudible] corporation just announced that one day that one strike and you are out. And that message filtered down to all the employees and that set the stage for behaviors.
Betsy Plank: That’s fantastic.
Interviewer: That behavior. Some of the people were fired right after that.
Betsy Plank: I love that CEO. I think there were three people that were fired in that particular situation. Gone. Wonderful absolutely wonderful. You can’t as far as appointing an ethics officer. I am reminded one of the principles of Mr. Page a man that we revere so very much in public relations profession is that the public relations representatives for the company are all of its employees. And I think that’s probably one of the wisest observations that has ever been made in our profession. In the same way if you seek to bracket ethics and trustworthy behavior and so forth and house it in a particular office with a particular person it seems to be at risk getting pigeon holed and not being a part of a total behavior of all the employees. So I’m speaking out of ignorance because I’ve never worked for a company that had a director of ethics or a vice presidents for ethics. I have always assumed that all of the leaders of any company with which I’ve been associated with are men and women of ethical behavior and personal trust and I’ve rarely been disappointed and I’ve lived a long time.
Interviewer: I want to switch I mean we can come back to this subject but one thing that I’ve neglected to talk to you about. I’m going to ask you what differences in the practice of public relations you may have noticed over the years from when you began and [inaudible] that is to the increase and emphasis on marketing in public relations. And your opinion about that because I thought you’d have a reaction to [inaudible] [tape changed here]
Betsy Plank: [inaudible] something that was done that is right on in terms of that kind of service and I but I never knew about it. And
Interviewer: Over the years, with your keen observation in the field of public relations have you noticed any kind of changes? Or is it basically the same or have there been changes or from your standpoint what does constitute public relations with a greater emphasis on research for example in crisis management [inaudible]. More important than investor relations. I mean what is your take on the overall field of public relations and what’s going on.
Betsy Plank: Well it’s obviously a profession a field which is evolving and a profession which is in the process of becoming more and more professional and if it doesn’t change or isn’t changing then something is dreadfully wrong with it. In my observation it has changed radically and rapidly. When I joined the field immediately after WWII we were facing a society that had a lot of pent up desires for consumer goods. It was a runway market and companies that were offering services and products couldn’t find enough people who could write that’s why they were raiding newspapers so much for people who could handle basic publicity product publicity which was pretty much what the field was all about from my observation in the late 40s and early 50s. And then and then you saw many companies begin to go public so there was a need for communication in financial public relations and that you knew was the grounds for what occurred in the 50s. Come the 60s you have the societal turbulence that we were facing every place from the campus to the street and all that we were beginning to encounter the need for crisis management. And learning more about corporate social responsibility than we ever had before. And then you know the society was changing into one that was very litigious and very regulated. So that relationships with regulators and legislators and so forth began to take a priority and overarching all of this became the development and technology which has had such an incredible impact on our business. It’s been frightening me since the late 70s but nevertheless it’s inevitable and pretty amazing in some of its affects. And the globalization of the practice as business has become globalized. That has had a tremendous impact on public relations so we keep being the creature of societal evolution and because we are dealing with the needs and relationships within that society. Anything that happens in our society via women’s issues or civil rights or gays and lesbians or whatever it is in terms of our social fabric it impacts the organizations which we serve. And therefore if we are going to be brokers of relationships with various segments of the society then you know we have to know something about what’s going on about there be ahead of that be ahead of that curve so that what I’ve seen in my how many years? Some fifty plus years more than I care to count. I have seen the focus go from marketing which is a more respectable term than product publicity from marketing and certainly that’s a more sophisticated definition of promoting product and service. That segment is still thriving and still important and still very much a part of the practice of public relations. But it’s by no means you know the full pie when you look at financial public relations and social responsibility and all the various segments of the practice. And then the evolution of marketing and to branding and all that kind of nomenclensure.
Interviewer: Well there are some may feel that public relations is a subset of marketing.
Betsy Plank: Oh well, I do not intend to get rough or nasty about this. I think it’s absurd. And everybody keeps public relations has become so successful and so inevitable in the life of organizations today that it keeps trying that other groups keep trying to co-op it. It’s true of advertising because advertising you know went through it’s own decline and public relations became the possibility of a cash cow to shore up their declining fortunes and at least that’s my short hand reading of it. I think the same thing is true of marketing looking at public relations as simply part of marketing is very myopic. Indeed marketing and public relations have much in common and much to gain between one another and on behalf of their clients but marketing does not define public relations.
Interviewer: I won’t disagree with that. I have a different perspective where most of these disciplines including advertising are subsets of public relations or deal with corporate communications. They are all subsets of something bigger which is human relations but public and the public include internal as well as external public relations but one of the things that you having expressing your own viewpoints here but the one of the things that has happened I think over the years and you are a big part of it is representative is the increasing number of talented women who have come into the field of public relations who have done extraordinary jobs. In fact the field has opened up to women. When I first came myself it was maybe 20 men to women. Now it’s about 60/40 or 70/30 women to men. That’s been a significant and a very positive change. I don’t know how you feel about or whether that’s a corporate but that’s a big, from my standpoint, a big change in a positive way. I have a different way of looking at it.
Betsy Plank: Well, first of all from my viewpoint public relations has always been a very hospitable field to public relations or to women comparatively speaking. Certainly that was true when I entered the field since agencies and corporations and non profits were facing a need to fill positions for which there had been basically no education. So, they were having to raid other career fields such as newspaper reporting, before even radio and so forth. And they really didn’t care what guise the packaging you know came in whether it was male or female or whatever. So in a way women got an earlier foothold in this profession than they had in other professions. It’s just had taken longer much much longer for women to make any progress in accounting or in the law or in medicine and how long it took in medicine, well anyway we’re not being that historical in this conversation. But so women always had a legitimacy in the contemporary practice and that’s very good. What bothers me about today the disparity today for example in the Public Relations Students Society of America, which is the love of my professional life. About 80 percent of those students are young women. Now that bothers me a great deal. I have been inclined to say along the way of a long career. It never it never bothered us when the population of men in the field was 80 percent. And the women were only 20 percent. Now however it bothers me because of a lot of perception. It bothers me because there is a perception out there that public relations within the academic environment is a soft discipline. That’s not true and I’ll fight that vigorously. But the perception nevertheless is there so that you find our many of our brightest and best young men who are going into science and math which are perceived as you know tough macho studies. Now perhaps that pendulum shall swing too because I can’t think of anything tougher or more macho than dealing with the impudence of human behavior. But I may not live long enough to see that admission come to the floor. In the meantime, the fact that our studies are being populated primarily by very bright conscientious and dedicated young women is a becomes a mixed blessing. If for example those fortunes were reversed today, there would be much human cry believe me there would be much human cry about saying well we must get more representation from the women because they constitute 50 or 55 percent of the population in the United States and so forth. So I say where is that concern for us when we see that the pendulum is tilting you know the other way. However we may both live long enough to see it swinging back because I think public relations as both a discipline and a practice has many charms and challenges which are going to appeal to the next generation. But it has been absolutely you are correct it has been receptive to women and women have indeed made great contributions to the field and had very successful careers in public relations. It’s interesting that even though our current population within the academic community has a deep tilt toward women. You don’t find that altogether reflected in the leadership in the profession out here. But things change slowly.
Interviewer: That was a very good and complete answer. What are the issues our public relations profession face today? In your judgment, is there an issue of being licensed or accredited. Is that in your mind a major issue or are there other things like that that public relations professionally ought to be trying to deal with and changing perception. I think you thought about public relations being perceived as a soft profession that is right on.
Betsy Plank: I am going to say it’s a soft profession.
Interviewer: The perception.
Betsy Plank: Soft discipline. Yeah whether it is a soft profession, well anyway that we’ll leave that. Ed Vernase and I always had a private battle every time he came to Chicago and he would make his customary speech on why we should have licensing in public relations. And I was one of the vocal opponents of the business of licensing for public relations and still am on the side that public relations is probably has its roots in the First Amendment and it’s a very slippery slope if we would succumb to licensing and become more or less like barbers and beauticians and anybody risk buying our way into the business. Accreditation I have a very mixed feelings about it. I do like tests. And I think that tests are I always thought tests were fun and I think they are a good thing to have to test one’s experience and one’s capacity to perform and so forth. But it all depends of course on as far as the accreditation and public relations is concerned. It all depends on who writes the test and then who grades the test. But that’s the nature of testing. I’m I think that to impose accreditation and testing on all those in the practice of public relations is a folly. The last campaign that Pat Jackson and I ever fought for together was to get the Public Relations Society of America to accept the fact that someone were anointed and named with a gold anvil which is the highest accolade that they that the PRSA can bestow that whether or not they were accredited they should be admitted to the college of fellows and happily that was one battle that we won. So that whether so that opened the door to the college of fellows, which I am a part of, and I respect the group very much indeed. Open the door to allow them to welcome people such as Ed Block who never became accredited but who richly deserved and earned and was honored by the Gold Anvil. And he’s into the college of fellows so I think that to be very rigid about accreditation and examination is the height of folly and bureaucratic nonsense. At the same time I think some means for accreditation should be in place and has great value for those who wish to take advantage of it.
Interviewer: What lead you to establish the Center for Public Relations at the University of Alabama?
Betsy Plank: I didn’t establish it. I had attended the University of Alabama is my alma mater. And I was one of its most avid and enthusiastic history political science majors and English lit major. And I learned very late in life that it had a wonderful College of Communication and Information Sciences that I had never encountered when I was on campus, which was you know back in the dark ages. Some way or other they encountered me. I don’t know where they found me or how they found me but the dean and one of his colleagues called one day and said they were going to be in Chicago and lets have dinner. And I said fine and that was the beginning of a long and productive love affair. Along the way and I had gotten over time had gotten involved very much with their public relations studies. For which I have a very high regard and then I think the dean wrote to me. Yes he wrote to me and said that he was proposing the idea of a Center for Leadership in Public Relations and was that all right with me. And I was shocked and delighted and you know and obviously very enthused. And very honored that he would propose such an idea and it was threaded through the board of trustees at the university and they saluted and so we now have a center which is devoted or its mission is focused on leadership in public relations. It has been originally there was some debate, some early on debate, that the center having in its name the word ethics and it still focuses on that kind of trustworthy behavior but we opted eventually for the word leadership to embrace all that in terms of both performance but ethical performance and trustworthy behavior. So we shall be and already have sponsored some research on that subject. This is the first year really of the operation of the center. We are sponsoring among the PRSSA chapters a campaign to public relations students who come recognized and become active advocates for ethical behavior on campus where so much that is questionable is going on in terms of cheating etc and being abetted by technology every day. We are we also offer some scholarships and some lectureships and so we are beginning we are feeling our way toward a very what we hope will be a very collegial outreach to other organizations both in academe and in the profession at large so that we can all move together toward advocacy for ethical and trustworthy behavior and be looking at what constitutes leadership and character in public relations with performance as well as its practitioners.
Interviewer: Do you have a sense of what you would consider to be successful or that they were achieving the aspirations that you just outlined. What would be something that would happen to make you feel very good about the fact that they are on their way to successfully moving in the direction towards creating a more ethical environment particularly among leadership in the profession [inaudible]?
Betsy Plank: Well the thing I hope for the most and the bell weather that I see for this is whether or not we can be whether or not we can help to encourage and promote some of our efforts in other academic institutions. We are not arrogant enough to think that we can do it all on our own. Nor are we selfish enough to think that we should do it all on our own. When we really want to be in concert in collegial concert with other academic institutions who are focusing on the leadership qualities which include trust, truth, ethical behavior in the practice of public relations. And I would hope that we would be very seminal in that mission and that ten years from now whether or not I’m still around there will be multiple centers or units within colleges and universities that will have similar missions and that we can cooperate with one another in accomplishing that presenting kind of a united front to the younger generation.
Interviewer: That is a terrific goal to have and I’m sure that that would be successful and the center will be successful. I’m just down near the end. I’m just going to ask you some quick questions. They are sort of personal type questions these aren’t personal certain way various people that I interview to get some kind of sense of who they are. You’ve already one of the things that you answered who were some of the people who had the biggest influence on your career or your life. You kind of touched on that. I wondered if there were other people that you might want to include because by saying that as far as mentors go you mentioned Duffy Swartz. Mentioned she was certainly that much more of a person. I just wondered if there were some people in particular that made an impact on you in a certain way that helped you get through your life. Made you better a public relations person in the process.
Betsy Plank: Well, I’ve I do believe a great deal in nurture so when I’m asked to. If that nurturing has been good and productive towards one’s adult career life. When asked I give a lot of credit to the patience and the example of one’s parents. And I have never known a finer public relations person in my life than my father who was an executive with a public utility and a civil engineer of some consequence who never quite understood public relations or what business I was in. But he was one of the fine one of the native practitioners of it and the kind of person that you would talk about ethics and trustworthy behavior, he was an exemplar. We come up through a lot of education and a lot of teaching and teachers and I already mentioned the one who pointed me in the direction of some strange craft called public relations was Duffy Swartz and I’ve been blessed along the way with many wonderful colleagues and mentors. Certainly I am extremely grateful to Dan Edelman for the years productive years I spent under his roof and with all that I learned and had to learn. When I was when I was with that firm certainly I feel the same way about them, about people in the Bell system such as Paul Lund and Jack Koten and Ed Block and many many people who exhibited the best in terms of practice and behavior and brilliance upon many occasions. And the professional side of my life I could not let this opportunity escape without mentioning people like Harold Bateman who was a remarkable leader in his time in the 60s and the 70s and who really is the person who helped me fall in love with education for public relations. I’ve had colleagues that I have been very proud to march with like David Ferguson and Pat Jackson and none of those names that I mentioned still populate this planet because I don’t want to risk mentioning anyone who’s still walking lively here for fear that I will omit someone and feel guilty and unhappy about that for weeks to come. One of the things that I think that is very characteristic of public relations people is their desire to be very supportive of one another. Very recently a colleague of ours had died. His name was Herbert Bane and Herb was a strong leader in the business and sat on many boards and did much in terms of civil rights and believed in the importance of trustworthy behavior and he was the one walking one day away from the Hilton Hotel and the sun was shining happily. We would have had been at a meeting there and he said to me in 1960 or 61. Why don’t you run for president of the Publicity Club of Chicago, which was a very big deal in that town. And I said you are absurd. No one, what they would never consider having a woman president of this important organization. No he said I’ll nominate you. We want you to get it. Well it happened. And you know he mastered-minded it all and sure enough that summer I was sitting on or the next summer I was sitting on the beach in Michigan City looking at the bylaws for the Publicity Club of Chicago because I was going to be president come fall. It was an amazing experience and the sky did not fall. And so subsequently I became president of other organizations down the line, primarily the Public Relations Society of America and again everyone along the way was extremely supportive. I am not aware that anyone ever gave me a hard time, ever stood in my way, ever challenged me because I was a woman. They simply were highly supportive of the whole venture and it was not something that anybody everybody took it in stride let’s put it that way. So I’ve been very very blessed with that kind of experience and support. And my sense is that that’s just simply the style of good public relations people to be supportive of one another.
Interviewer: Well you have a highly infectious personality that so many people that so you will never run into the kind of people are resisting what you do. You just involve people. If you hadn’t had a career in public relations what do you think you might have done or would you have liked to have done.
Betsy Plank: I don’t know that probably would have something to do with writing and probably with something to do with advocacy. One of the one of the things that I’m proudest of in my life is a result of an impulse. I’m a very impulsive kind of person and it gets me in lots of trouble sometimes and some times but it’s well worth the experience often. And it was the impulse to run the last leg of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. And I have a feeling because I was concerned about civil rights and I’m a native southerner and cared very much about that whole issue and it’s many facets. I probably would have been a writer and a troublemaker in some respect. And I think civil rights would have captured my interest in time. I could only march the last leg in ‘65 but I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was a part of that kind of historic event. But I rather suspect that if I hadn’t gone into public relations I would have gone into some kind of advocacy of that kind.
Interviewer: How would you like to be remembered?
Betsy Plank: I would like to be remembered as someone who championed the next generation of our profession.
Interviewer: Betsy that’s my last question. Not that I don’t have plenty more here but you’ve covered a lot. Is I am not sure if there something else you would like to say that you didn’t get a chance to say. This would be a good opportunity to get in some [inaudible] that you would like to express in the Penn State website that should be available for people for generations to come. [inaudible]I want to give you that opportunity.
Betsy Plank: Well I just hope you’ve asked me about the Center at the University of Alabama and of course it was preceded by the Page Center at Penn State and we are very fortunate to have that pioneer in Larry Foster who put it all together and who has made it happen and I would hope that being prejudice as I am about the next generation of students in particularly the organization that represents them the Public Relations Student Society of America. I see that among its 9,000 members are the next generation’s Allen Center and Howard Chase and Scott Caplup and Haley Nelson and Marilyn Laurie and Pat Jackson and Ann Barkelew and all the people who have lit up our professional skies in the past some place among those 9,000 students are the next generation’s group and I would hope that among all of this wonderful activities and missions that the Page Center at Penn State would also do much to outreach to that next generation and to help it become all that it can be and I’m sure that it will. So, you know, God bless that prophecy.
Interviewer: Well that’s a thoughtful of you to say that. [inaudible] some place along earlier and that was what I wanted to talk about Page principles and having the ability to create a waterfall that would never seep through students that are now being educated [inaudible] and [inaudible] practicing and you are instrumental in really helping. Let’s get started in doing something like [inaudible] this. [inaudible] and I really feel that somehow if people get some sense of guidance that there would be more opportunities for people to [inaudible] doing things and that’s so many just want to be out and get a job do whatever you know. Get a mission [inaudible] [tape ended]