Plank Legends & Leaders: Dr. Bruce Berger, Part II


Dr. Bruce K. Berger is a professor emeritus of Advertising & Public Relations in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. In addition to being the Founding Director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, he serves on the Center’s advisory board.

In this interview, Berger goes in-depth with his vision for leadership in PR and his own journey in both the professional and teaching realms.

DR. BRUCE K. BERGER: I was teaching at a small community college in Michigan. I love teaching, I always wanted to be a teacher.

My wife had a lot of school debts. We had two young boys. The money I made teaching couldn’t pay the bills, honestly. I did it for three years and I said, I have got to find something that pays a little bit more money. So I actually took a job as a speechwriter for a pharmaceutical company, the Upjohn company.

That led into a 21-year career in public relations; I never imagined it would. My intention was to save money for a few years, go back to school, get a Ph.D., and teach. But I was lead into public relations, and I had a great career that took me all around the world, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The reason I left the corporate world was that I had been in it for 21 years, I had achieved a lot. I was at a point age-wise, late 40s, where I thought, if you’re ever going to go back to school and get a Ph.D. to teach at a university, you need to do it now. So I left, as I said, at a fairly advanced age. I went back to school, got a Ph.D. at Kentucky, and began teaching at the University of Alabama.

Some of the accomplishments that I think I’m most proud of, and that frankly I enjoyed, were team related kinds of things that I did with others. For example, in the early 1980s, I became the Public Affairs manager for the Upjohn company in Brussels. My primary responsibility was to develop a Public Affairs Council for public relations Upjohn operates in 10 countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. I pulled that together and we soon became an effective team. Frankly, that was the introduction for me to diversity and the concept of diversity.

Nobody was talking about it 30 years ago, but there were ten people of different nationalities on that Public Affairs team. The accomplishments that we made together and how much we learned and understood from each other, made us realize very quickly that, hey, the ten of us can do a lot more, a lot better, than any one of us individually could within a country. I was very proud of that accomplishment, it was a great learning experience for me.

There was a similar experience later at Whirlpool, probably a decade later, when one of my assignments was to develop, implement, and evaluate the company’s first global strategic employee communication plan. The company had expanded into Europe, Latin America, and Asia. I was charged with doing this, so I put together another cross-cultural team of folks from eight countries. We had other teams that were working for us. Again, it was this global team, this cross-cultural team, that developed an incredibly successful employee communication program for the company.

So those are a couple of things that I’m most proud of because they involve working with different people on some tough issues. Those were difficult tasks, especially the global employee communication plan, and we all became great friends out of that. That group that worked on the global project, we’re all retired now, or mostly retired. We still have a reunion every third year somewhere around the world because we became very close friends in the process of that work.

I think some of the qualities, values, or characteristics that have been important for me in my career are the passion and energy, if you will, for what I do. I mean, I love teaching. I love being in practice. I think you have to have passion and energy for anything you do. I don’t mean you have to be a cheerleader, but you can have a burning passion inside of you. But you know, doing something that you love doing is really important.

A second characteristic would be that I’m an individual who has a lot of empathy for others. I mentioned some of the team projects that I have worked on. I think passion, energy, empathy, discipline, and focus are all valuable qualities. A great lesson for me from my couple of years of military experience was the ability to be disciplined and to focus on a mission. That becomes really important, certainly in the corporate world as well. You have to know what your mission is and how you’re going to accomplish it. So I think those are three things that have been important to me.

For students, I think some of those same things are going to be important for them. In fact, I often tell students, you know, you’ve got to do something you have some passion for, something that you have energy for. There’s nothing greater that you can bring to an employer or to an interview than positive energy. Bring that to work, bring that to the interview, and you’re likely to be successful so that I think is really important.

I think students need to be good critical thinkers. I think there is sort of a gap in our world today, which is good critical thinking. I think that’s important for students. Listening, and other personal kinds of communication skills are really, really valuable, even those that are apart from, or outside of their major or field.

If I think about who’s had the greatest influence on my vision, if you will, for leadership, it’s two people, it’s two women. One was my mother, my mother was a schoolteacher many, many years ago. I once asked her, I said, “Mom, did you have a philosophy for teaching?” And she said, “Yes, I did, and it was this: every child who walked into my classroom represented a bright promise, and it was my job, as a teacher, to try to bring that promise to life.”

The other lady who had a lot of influence was actually my first boss in public relations, Margaret Lee at the Upjohn company, a wonderful young woman who died way, way too early from cancer. Margaret was probably the best listener I’ve ever met, she was incredibly empathetic. Her total focus on being a leader was literally on being a servant. She was a classic example of a great servant leader.

She focused on how she could help her employees and her team members learn, grow, develop, and be successful. How could she do that? As I talked with her about leadership, she said, you know, it’s an incredible responsibility, but it’s also one that has great rewards. One of the greatest rewards, she said, “If you’re a good leader, you can make a positive difference in the life of your team members on the job, in the community, and in the profession.” The notion of bright promises that people hold and the notion of trying to make a difference in their life has had a lot of influence on how I see leadership.

I’ll mention the three or four key issues that I think affect the field today. One of them is certainly technological changes, the technological changes that mark almost everything we do in communication, and generally in our lives as well. I think that’s a big issue, trying to stay on top of that, trying to manage it. There are lots being written about data analytics and big data, and what do you do with it; it’s pretty overwhelming.

Diversity in the field is a big issue, a growing issue that needs to be dealt with in ways that it has not been dealt with yet. I think the issue of ethics may be the central issue of the day for us, in terms of how we deal with ethical dilemmas. Honestly, I’m always amazed, not by companies and organizations that report crises, because many of them do, and many of them experience crises, but I’m always wondering, now, where are the public relations folks on this issue? You know, are they involved?

I’ll give you one concrete example, the recent Wells Fargo crisis. This was something that affected some hundreds of employees in that organization. It was known what was going on, at least in some parts of the organization. I’m wondering why somebody didn’t step forward sooner, and why some of the people in public relations might not have played a larger role.

Now, I don’t know enough about it to have any kind of an answer to it, but that’s the kind of question I think of when I think about ethical dilemmas today. Regarding the current ethical state in our profession, I think it’s really a central issue right now; I’m not sure that we’re on top of it.

There was just a new call by one of the leaders in the field for a new code, a tougher code — a way of self-policing the industry better. Well, actually for the Public Relations Society of America half a century ago, they had a very strict code. They had just self-policing function. In the end, it was largely ineffective because nobody wanted to punish someone else in their same profession.

So it’s a huge issue in this age of distrust, fake news, and dishonesty. How do we deal with those issues inside our organization? So I think the ethical dilemma for our profession and its future is really a central one today.

Some ethics, or ethics in some senses can be taught today. For example, we can teach people to understand codes of ethics in practice. We can teach people to understand moral reasoning, how you make decisions when you confront ethical dilemmas. We can teach people based on actual case studies that we might review.

So we can teach people certain things, but it’s more complicated than that, and it finally goes back to self. Each of us in the public relations profession have four dimensions that we have to deal with, or that are part of us, in making decisions. One is our self-ethical orientation, we have our own individual values.

The organizations we work for, number two, have a set of values and ethics. The profession in which we work has a set of ethics, a code of ethics and practices. The societies that we work have them as well. So there’s really four dimensions or four sides to ethical dilemmas. I think the most important one is the individual dilemma. That’s where the action takes place if you will.

I would always tell my students in class talking about ethics, that the first time you confront an ethical dilemma is the key time. That’s the big decision-making moment. Most students and most professionals draw a line in the sand and say I will not cross that line ethically, if you will, or morally.

So, the first time you confront that and you’re staring at that line – if you make a bad decision that first time, then the second time it’s easier, and the third time it’s even easier to make that decision. Finally, there’s no line in the sand anymore.

There are lots of big changes in the PR industry since I began my career. I think the biggest one, of course, is technologies in every sense of the word. There’s a great deal more in education today, good educational programs. 40 years ago, only a few existed but there was not much being done in the way of education. I think the volume and the quality of research about public relations practice is great today.

Again, comparatively speaking to 40 years ago, there was very little of it. I think the recognition for what public relations does today is better than it was, it’s not perfect, but better. So I think those are four big changes.

New technologies touch every aspect of practice literally, as well as our personal lives. New technologies, the volume of information that is available to us, the pace of that information, data, big data, how that implicates messaging, how it implicates strategies and particular plans, and how we evaluate things in organizations is based on technology. So it’s had a dramatic effect on virtually every aspect of practice. I can remember talking with others 20 years ago when people said it’s just another channel. You know, social media, for example, are just another channel. But of course, it’s much more than a channel.

Trends are emerging or developing, today that are going to affect the profession in the future. I’ll go back to technology and the significance of that. I think the concerns today are about trust, truth, honesty, and ethics. I think that’s going to become a bigger dynamic all the time in what we do, it becomes a bigger issue for us to wrestle with as professionals.

I think figuring out how to be even stronger counselors for the leaders that we consult with and deal with is an emerging issue. Of course, the issues of diversity are something that are very pronounced today, but they’re not going to disappear. They’re going to become more significant, I think.

In this age of integrated marketing communications, if you will, I think it’s really important for public relations people, frankly, to be better, to be bigger, and to do a better job. I think we’ve made tremendous progress in terms of convincing people inside of the organizations of the value of public relations. Now, the public image of public relations is bad, and maybe always will be. The more important dimension to me is how do people inside of your organizations view the value of public relations?

The only way we can improve and continue to maintain independence, or the value of public relations, is to demonstrate it, to demonstrate it on the job. We have to demonstrate that we do adds value, that certain other approaches in integrated communication do not.

On the other hand, at the same time, we need to realize, and this is sometimes difficult for us to do, that we are part of an integrated communication effort in the organization. So we need to do a better job of integrating ourselves with and working with the other communication functions.

I met Betsy Plank in the 1990s, I think the early 1990s, at a conference, a PR conference. I only had a chance to speak very briefly with her. We promised we would communicate more. Well, we didn’t much.

I first met her there, and then I joined the Alabama faculty in 1999. The dean of the college, at that time, met Betsy in Chicago at some event. He came back and he said, “Do you know Betsy Plank is a University of Alabama graduate?” I said, yes, I did. He said, “We have got to get her back down here.” She hadn’t been to the university since the 1960s, I think, or some long time ago.

So he said, I’d like you to pull together some kind of an event to get Betsy down here. We put together a two-day event that we called the Betsy Plank forum to bring her back to Alabama, to talk with students, and the local PRSSA chapter to make presentations. We did an industry roundtable while she was there to sort of get her re-acclimated, if you will, to Alabama. That was really the beginning of her much more significant involvement with the University and with The Plank Center, of course.

My favorite memory of Betsy Plank, I’ve got a couple, but there’s one that is most vivid and powerful. In 2007, at the PRSSA conference in Philadelphia, it was the 40th anniversary of PRSSA, I had worked with her that summer to produce a booklet called Legacies of Legends in Public Relations, that held brief messages from 40 legends in the field. We were going to present these to the PRSSA students at the conference in Philadelphia. So here I am with Betsy, and with eight or ten students, and these boxes of 1,200 booklets that we had to place on the dinner table for each student before they came inside.

So we’re sitting, waiting by the door for somebody to unlock it, getting closer and closer to dinner time, and it was a great big door, it was barred. I went up and I knocked on the door, I tried to push the bar, but it just wouldn’t open, and nobody would respond. Betsy got increasingly frustrated.

Now, she was at this time 80 years old. She had a bad arthritic hip. Betsy finally said, “I’m going to open that door.” She climbed up, and with her cane, walked to that door and literally took her hip and threw it against the bar on the door. Now when she did that, the door magically opened. This huge security figure, this guy, stood in the background, opened the door, and she said, “Sir, unbar the doors and step aside, my children and I have work to do.”

Now whether he, at that exact instant, happened to open the door, I will never know. But to see that lady walk up there, so passionate about things, and throw her hip against the door and have it pop open was a memory I’ll always have.

Two things that I think people can take away and learn from Betsy are, one, her mentoring willingness, her mentoring heart, if you will. I’ll give you another example of Betsy. This was at the conference in Philadelphia. Well, we were walking somewhere to go to a session and this young lady came up and introduced herself and started talking to Betsy. The young lady said, well, let’s pick a time to talk.

Then Betsy said, “No. Bruce, you go on ahead to the room. I’m going to sit down and talk to this young woman.” She did, 60 minutes later, she was still sitting there. She had an incredible interest in mentoring and understood the power and value of it. So I think that’s one important thing we can take away.

The second thing closely related to that are her listening capabilities. She’s somebody who, when you talk to her, you know that you have her attention. She is listening to you. You can tell when people are or are not listening to you. With Betsy, it was very obvious. So I think those are two great things we could take away.

Betsy Plank was very passionate about, as far as I know, public relations education, public relations students, public relations research, and the profession itself, including the advancement of the profession. As a huge professional advocate, she was one of the founders of the Public Relations Students Society of America. She was the first woman to co-chair the Commission on Public Relations Education in the United States.

Were she alive today, she would continue to be a passionate champion for education, research, the profession, mentoring, and diversity. If Betsy were building her career today, rather than half a century ago, one big thing would be different, she’d have to learn how to use a computer. That woman refused to learn how to use a computer.

When I was the chair of the department at Alabama, I sent two different people up there, technicians and specialists, to teach her how to go online, email, and those kinds of things. She ultimately refused to do it. OK, I’m kidding, that’s one thing that would be different, she would have to be more technologically oriented than she was. Otherwise, I think many of the same qualities and characteristics that embodied her half a century ago would still be very much with her. That’s her passion and love for the field, students and education, and diversity.

If I hadn’t had a career in public relations, I would have been a teacher. I was a teacher, I’m a teacher now. So that was something that I always wanted to do.

The other thing I would do if I weren’t in the profession is, I love to write, I would be a successful, bestselling novelist, or would have tried to, in any case.

I think through my career what’s been important to me and what I would like to be remembered for, maybe the biggest thing is the importance of feeling passionate about the work that you do. I think people sense that, those that I’ve worked with over the years. I think they feel it, and sometimes it moves them, I think, to do more.

The other quality that I would like to be remembered for is that I was always there. I was always available to students and to professionals, literally any time of the day or night, if an issue came up. They knew that and would sometimes take advantage of that. But being there, I think, especially with students, is really, really important, because that builds trust.

I think that if you’re available, then people trust in you more. I think the other important thing would be what I would call, the legacy of the team. I believe so strongly in the importance and power of the team. That’s how things get done, is with a good team. So I think those are three things that would be important.

What constitutes a good education in public relations, I’m going to respond to that. Then, I’m going to change one little word there, which I think gives us a different sort of view. A good education in public relations, I think, is available today in most places we have in this country, and it’s all developed over the last 40 years, we have any number of major universities.

We’re sitting in one of them. They have terrific education programs about how to write, design, edit, develop strategic plans, develop messages, do research, and evaluate. We have programs that we didn’t have 40 years ago that are teaching public relations majors how to do things that are really, really relevant for the profession, things that they need to get a job. So, a good education in public relations, I think we’re dealing with that pretty well.

Now if I take out the word in and not say good in PR education, but say good for public relations education, then we’re looking at something that’s bigger. It’s not just those core courses that I mentioned, but it’s the other pieces that are involved to make you a better leader and a better person. For example, we do very little in most programs in terms of listening skills, it’s in nobody’s major.

We know that one of the greatest issues in the world today is that people are not good listeners. We’re all guilty of that, we’re not good. Most universities have a listening course or training in development that you can take, so I think that would be valuable.

I’ve talked earlier about some of the major ethical dilemmas today, which is also related to me and the ability to think critically in our courses. We don’t teach that much, we talk about ethics and the importance of it and we teach ethical codes. But how do you think through things? How do you critically evaluate things?

One area that you can study that deals with critical thinking and ethics is philosophy. Do students take a course or two in philosophy? I don’t know of any better courses to expand your mind, if you will, or to learn how to think strategically and critically. So I think if we can add that dimension, we can add the listening dimension, we can add team leadership skills and development that again, we don’t usually get.

So there are other areas, other non-PR major focus areas that I think really enrich and broaden us. So what I’m speaking to, to some extent, is the reflection of my own undergraduate studies, which was liberal arts education, a humanity study. There’s some value in doing that. So I think as we look at a good PR education, we need to think a little bit beyond the practical, mechanical courses that exist in the major today.

Public relations professionals, do they share a persona? I think I’ve heard both sides of that. My own feeling is that they don’t, they don’t share a common persona.

They are different, people are diverse. I know many, many leaders and professionals in the field, they’re different, they have different styles, they have different values, and they have different forms of self-presentation. They’re not all happy and cheery, they have different personalities. So they don’t really have a common persona.

I think what they do have in common is a love of, and fascination with, a belief in the importance of words, language and communication inside and outside of organizations today. So they share that rich belief in our value, but I don’t think there’s a common persona.

Recorded: November 2017