Oral Histories

Betsy Plank

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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: Betsy, your career has been very very successful from the time that you actually started working with a nonprofit group through your experience with the Bell system. What personal qualities do you have that you feel enabled you to achieve the kind of success that you did? What were the abilities in your case really helped make a difference in your ability to influence others?

Plank: Well, I suppose one has to confess to being a workaholic. That’s for starters. And it’s a very, that’s a Sirens song, because it has its disadvantages as well. But falling in love with work and staying at it until the problem is solved brings, I think, another either virtue or fault. I grew up liking puzzles. And I’ve always thought that public relations people, aside from being workaholics and in love with what they do, are people who really like problem solving and its many guises. And it’s interesting, you were talking earlier about some of the client experiences I had.  That was one of the joys of working in the original Play Skool Toys because you had to learn a lot about preschool behavior and preschool development with some of the geniuses of the times, Bruno Bettleheim and others and some at Yale University before much had been known about preschoolers. Or much had been thought about them and how their work is their play or their play is their work. And I learned that about people who like puzzles. And I think ultimately that interest in puzzles would translate as it grows into problem solving has been very useful. It’s the challenge you know that serves you well.

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: 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: Do you think [tape turned over] is public relations people, in your judgment, have a certain persona like lawyers, seem to be like lawyers and doctors seem to be and financial accountants are sort of like type of people. In your opinion, do public relations. Can you describe a certain characteristic or persona of how you recognize a public relations person. The kind of characteristics that you come out of college from one of these programs that you have a little something that would be a little different than others.

Plank: Well I’m not sure that we wear an A, a B or a C on our foreheads or chest or anything like that but I think that there’s a certain style that generally speaking identifies or characterizes a public relations person. And let me put it this way, you often find public relations people in civic and community affairs that have nothing to do with their daily bread. There’s hardly a non- profit organization that you can scratch that doesn’t have some of its leadership invested in public relations people. If you are sitting around such a table for a non-profit organization with a board or a committee that is comprised of the lawyer, the businessman, the advertising man or woman, the ordinary citizen, you can usually tell who is the public relations person because first of all they are to get back to one of my original tenants they are they are problem solvers. They like to they will address the problem head on. And not dance around it or avoid it or table it for another discussion. They are inclined to let’s face up to it now. And in the same way I always see a public relations person as some one who is looking at how we can address it. What action can we take to resolve the problem? We can either talk it to death or meet again or whatever but what’s the action that we can take to resolve it. So I think that those characteristics usually will define a strong and effective public relations person as opposed to the characteristic action of a lawyer who will think and God bless the lawyers and God bless the accountants, but God bless the public relations people too because they are more likely to take some intelligent informed action about something. So, yes, I think there are some characteristics that are unique.