Plank Legends & Leaders: Betsy Plank

Betsy A Plank, First Chair of The Plank Center, has attained national and international stature in the field of public relations. This University of Alabama alumni is often referred to as The First Lady of Public Relations by becoming the first woman to head a division of Illinois Bell, now Ameritech and the first woman to preside over the Public Relation Society of America.

Plank also became a founding member of the Public Relations Society of America’s College of Fellows along with being the only person to receive three of the societies top awards. The Gold Anvil awarded to the nation’s outstanding professional, the Lund Award for civic and community service and the Jackson Award for exemplary service.

She also was awarded the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arthur W Page Society. Being a longtime supporter and advocate for public relations education Plank co-chaired the first national commission to develop guidelines for the undergraduate public relations curriculum. She also went on to found and co-chair the Champions for the Public Relations Students Society of America which has named its annual scholarships for her.

Plank has given back to the University of Alabama by associating her reputation with its mission, and through other scholarships and other contributions that have long since benefitted the students and faculty. The university showed their deepest gratitude by awarding her with its highest award, the Algernon Sidney Sullivan Award of Character and Service to Humanity.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> Of course basic leadership those molded in character and that’s formed by and shaped by family and friends, and teachers and mentors and all kinds of people who are helping in your initial human experience and of course that’s true regardless of the profession. What I think is unique to public relations as far as leadership is concerned is that those who are leaders recognize that public relations is grounded in democracy, in the democratic process where everyone has an opportunity to speak, to be heard and to debate even though it may get a little impotent and raucous at times.

And to reach some kind of compromise or understanding. And so, I think that is what fundamentally characterizes public relations. Beyond that, I think leadership in public relations obviously is up to the individual who practices it to perform in an ethical manner and to persuade the clients that he or she serves to do the likewise and to remind them of that.

So that public relations has a unique opportunity to be a carbon process of building relationships, particularly between organizations and their constituencies and that’s what characterizes us and makes us different from most other professions.

What are the three or four most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> I think excellent leaders in public relations have first of all that kind of understanding that they are part of a respected tradition of the democratic process.

Secondly, I think they have a desire to bring people and organizations and their constituencies together. And help them respect one another, even though they may not agree on some basic issues. I also think that a public relations leader is characterized by being a good listener as well as a writer, as well as a speaker, and as well as a persuader.

So, listening is very much part of the work in a public relations leader. And beyond that, and beyond one’s professional responsibilities. I see great leaders in public relations as people who understand that they have a commitment beyond their practice to society at large. As I want to say, you can seldom scratch a civic, or cultural, or non-profit enterprise, and that you won’t find public relations people on the board or on the volunteer roster.

And I think that doesn’t happen by accident. They, public relations people, have a desire to be part of the fabric of a community. And so, they were very much involved with that community over and beyond their daily desk.

As a recognized leader in the field, what factors most contributed to your personal success? 

>> Well first of all, and without equivocation, it was Providence. And Providence has been on my shoulder all my career life.

In fact, it was Providence which introduced me to something called public relations, which I never heard of, in the 40s when I discovered the field. And indeed yes it has been on my shoulder ever since. Along with some amazing mentors and I’m eternally grateful to them. So, I’ve had many opportunities for to take some leadership initiatives in the field.

And I’m congenitally programmed to say yes to those kinds of opportunities. So, I think those are probably the things that have helped to shape my own experience in the field.

>> Skills & Values: They do have some distinctions, they do share some of the fundamentals of the definition of a profession but as I did touch on earlier, I think that because we are concerned about relationships, that distinguishes us from most of the other professions.

The doctors, for example, are concerned about a healthy lifestyle and keeping people well. Lawyers are concerned about keeping the justice system fair and equitable. We are concerned with the relationships between human beings, between organizations and institutions. And that’s the kind of thing that gives us a unique spin in the world of professions.

Do the requirements of PR leadership vary by type of organization, i.e., corporate vs. agency vs. nonprofit?

>> Well the answer to that, my answer to that is a bit yes, and a bit no. I’ve had the opportunity to work in the nonprofit sector, in the agency sector, and in the corporate sector. And what I see or what I have seen in each of those arenas, is that they share some common objectives, but their vocabularies may be different.

But nevertheless, for example, a corporation speaks of customers. The corporation I worked for was the old Bell System, which was the giant in telecommunications for so long. And its customers were telecommunications users. On the other hand, in the Red Cross, one of my employers at one time, its customers are, for example, people who have suffered in disasters, or the contributors who helped the Red Cross perform that kind of service.

On the agency side of the house, the agency itself is in the business of public relations. And I found that distinguishing the agency practice, because, for example, all of my colleagues were public relations people. On the corporate side of the house, most of my colleagues were involved with delivering telecommunications service.

There were people in operations, they were in law, in marketing. All kinds of other people that it takes to structure a large organization in the business world. So when I went to work in the morning, in the agency, I knew that our business was going to be public relations.

And that I would have an opportunity to rub shoulders and talk public relations all day long. And that came with the territory. On the other hand, when I went to work on the corporate side of the house, I knew that my business was telecommunications. And I still have a hard hat that I’m very proud of, that helped me get down into manholes, or perhaps we call them person holes today, I don’t know, in Chicago city streets to make sure that all the cable was still in order.

So those are the kinds of differences that I see. But I think basically, the practice of public relations is essentially the same wherever you are.

What can a new PR professional do to begin to develop the kinds of leadership characteristics and skills that you described?  

>> Well, let’s assume that the new professional today has fundamentally an education in public relations, because I think that is increasingly a requirement to come into the field.

Once into the field, once having that foothold, I think that the best thing that a young professional can do is to seek out and to nurture mentors. Whether they are mentors in public relations or mentors in the business in which that new employee is working for. I think, too, that they ought to continue their habit of education.

The academic education is only the first rung on the ladder as far as education for public relations is concerned. And you supplement that, perhaps you go back for a graduate degree or perhaps you attend seminars, you make connections with professional societies which offer conferences and enable you to rub shoulders with some of the older, more experienced professionals.

And then, of course, my favorite piece of advice for young people joining the profession, is that they become constant leaders. I’m not so sure that that happens as much as it should today, but I hope that they lead and learn to love information. And learn to seek out research, and learn to have a broad spectrum of interests that can be nurtured through reading.

So, those are the kinds of things that from the practical viewpoint, can give them an opportunity to make connections with people and organizations which will be important to their client company. But beyond that, the most important thing is that they become eternal students.

What can university educators do to help PR students develop important leadership skills and values?

>> Well, they’re already doing some of, they’re saints that walk on water as far as I’m concerned, most of them.

And I think they are overworked and God bless them, they seem to welcome that. And they are devoted to the students that they teach. I hope that there is, they can make more room in that double duty schedule to encourage internships, which are the name of the game, as far as the future employment market is concerned.

That’s the first thing that’s looked for. They assume that they’ve had a good education. But they want to see if they’ve had work experience. If they’ve had to earn their daily bread, whether that’s working at McDonald’s or more importantly, having an internship opportunity with an agency, or with a corporation, or with a non-profit.

So I think that that’s probably the most important contribution that an educator can make beyond the classroom. The other thing that I think that educators can do more than they are doing, at this time, and many are doing a lot in this area, is to see that their students have role models.

And role models, not only who are younger and just out in the profession. Alumni who have come back to tell about their experiences with the students of today, but also some leaders in the field. Most of whom, I think, are very eager and responsive to invitations for the classroom experience.

And they don’t get asked often enough. I probably will live to regret that when my colleagues hear me say it. But nevertheless, I think that for the most part, people who are leaders enjoy the opportunity for an encounter with students and would say “yes” very frequently through indications which an enterprising educator would make for them.

I also think that educators need to, need to let students know about some of the giants were no longer with us. Yes, they do read their names in textbooks many times but the textbook really doesn’t get the flavor always or the personality or the reasons why someone has achieved a leadership reputation.

So the educators can broker that kind of information and respect among students.

Do you think that leadership can be taught? Or is it inherited, or something else?

>> I think we all learned about leadership. I mean we are, let’s say a blank slate when we’re born and as I said earlier, I think we obviously are shaped by parents, and friends, and teachers, and mentors and everything that we encounter in the human experience.

But I also think that there are some initiatives that we can take If we aspire to leadership, one initiative is to simply say yes to every opportunity, regardless of whether or not in intrudes on one’s personal life. I come from a generation of beliefs that if you were in love with what you do than you risk becoming a workaholic.

And that’s not a bad thing when you love it. So I do think that there are ways to shape leadership to say, to join a professional organization so that you can have encounters with peers and with clients who are in those organizations who have much to exchange and much to tell you about the practice.

So yes, I think there are some ways to develop leadership and I hope that we have more aspirants for that.

What’s the one best book on leadership you would recommend to young professionals?

>> I think the founder father of public relations, and I’m very prejudiced and very adamant about this, is a man named Alexander Hamilton. One of our founding fathers who helped to persuade 13 very obstreperous colonies.

Each with their own thoughts about what their vested interests were to join together and come together as the United States. And pray that Mr. Hamilton had some help from Mr. Madison, etc. But primarily that was an achievement of Alexander Hamilton. So that I feel very strongly that some of the best books to read that gives you, that would give a student or anyone an opportunity to appreciate the foundation of public relations, as a democratic institution, and a democratic profession lies in reading some things about those remarkable founding fathers Mr. Hamilton.

There are recent books out on George Washington, on John Adams. That’s all a very exciting history to read. Not only to appreciate our country and our republic, but the fundamental role that public relations, although it wasn’t called that at the time, but public relations played in establishing all those relationships and compromises and discussions and debates that were fundamental to the founding of this republic.

So I commend that library of books, recent books, that have been written about the Hamiltons, Adams and George Washingtons, and so they’re at the top of my list.

What’s your best advice about a career in PR to students who are just entering the work world?

>> Well, I would assume, first of all, that those students are committed to the field. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be investing all their time and money in such study.

The advice varies depending on whether we’re talking about their entry level steps in the profession or their long term pattern and goals for it. As far as entry level is concerned, I’m not sure that they should care all that much about targeting a particular company, a particular agency, a particular non-profit.

I think they ought to accept what opportunities there are and learn from whatever opportunities there are at that given moment in time because they can always move to another arena if they wish to do so. Fortunately, they have some time ahead of them so that they can bring the smarts that they achieve if they’re working for a local non-profit.

They can bring those into the agency field or into the corporate world. So they shouldn’t worry too much about, about the first one on that ladder because they can learn a lot. In fact, I’m a great champion for a first job being in the nonprofit field because most nonprofits can’t afford to have lots of people on their public relations staff.

So as a result, the young person coming into that position has an opportunity to do many, many jobs. And many, many activities and functions that we probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to encounter. In the corporate world, which is more liberally staffed with public relations people and keep people in their slots for a year, for a cup, one year, two years.

So I think that the nonprofit is a great learning experience. But bottom line I’m saying, as a student, I don’t think you should be too concerned that the first job you have is going to be the last job you have, because you can learn along the way.

Secondly, I would think that the best, some of the best advice I might give would be to tell them to join professional organizations. So if they can make connections and contacts. After all, they provide an opportunity for you to meet and work with senior professionals. And I have a footnote that I won’t resist.

When I was in a hiring mode some years ago, I would get frequent calls from colleagues who would say, Jean, we have a job open at such-and-such company for some public relations beginner and do you know of anybody? Do you know of any young person who was smart and has a lot of promise in the field?

And I was no magic source of knowing all the wonderful young people who were out there. But I did know some that I had encountered in the local chapter of the Public Relations Society or the Publicity Club or some professional group. So I could say, yeah I’ve been working with so-and-so, and he or she seems like a very bright young person, so that became a recommendation.

But I would never have known them if they hadn’t made those kinds of connections on the professional turf. So I think that’s very smart business to make those kinds of connections as well as a learning opportunity that you have when you are with professional organizations. And finally, I will not resist coming back to Bella Jennings saying, young people, keep reading.

You are supposed to be a source of information, to your client, to your boss, regardless. Your boss thinks that you should know something about what the issues are that are facing the community, what risks you think there are out there with protest groups. Do you know anybody in this organization that we can contact and so forth?

So you have to be a good student of society-at-large in order to increase your value to your employer. So, the more information that you can gather through whatever means. I love books but I know that there are all kinds of sources on the internet and all kinds of sources in the kinds of personal encounters that you have.

Whatever you do, being on the TV thus far is what’s the latest intelligence is about the community, the state, the nation for that matter.

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