Oral Histories

Betsy Plank

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

Betsy Plank Biography

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: 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?

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: 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].

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?

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: 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.

Plank: That’s fantastic.

Interviewer: That behavior. Some of the people were fired right after that.

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: 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.

Plank: I am going to say it’s a soft profession.

Interviewer: The perception.

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?

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.