Oral Histories

Betsy Plank

Interview Segments on Topic: Marketing/Advertising/Branding

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.


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.

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.