Oral Histories

Betsy Plank

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Education/Training

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 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?

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: 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?

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.

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.