Oral Histories

Betsy Plank

Interview Segments on Topic: Transition to Corporate World

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: What caused you to leave that position?

Plank: Well first of all I think I had always worked for agencies. I worked for agencies since I entered the field in 1947 and congenitally I am programmed to say yes to every opportunity first of all, that’s my style, I had said to myself and I remember well that one day the vice president for AT&T, Paul Lund, took me to lunch and after we got through some professional business he propositioned me to come join AT&T and Paul was a great salesman difficult to say no to. And had and there seemed to be a great deal of excitement being generated around the Bell systems in those early years of the 70s. And so I thought it would be wonderful to be on the corporate side of the house. And we had some conversations that went on both in Chicago and in New York and so I decided to jump ship from the agency world to the corporate world and come full circle and experience both fields.

Interviewer: That was one of Paul Lund’s most brilliant moves to me and also I think the fact that you were willing to do that speaks a lot to yourself. I feel that it turned out to be a positive experience from your standpoint.

Plank: Oh indeed and it was a totally different aspect of the practice of public relations for me. I had, in working in the Edelman firm and previous agencies, I had  some wonderful clients. I still look back with great joy and affection for clients like Oscar Myer and Armour and especially Play Skool Toys and Burgess Battery and especially the nonprofit group. I still have a great affection for the Red Cross and I shall be a Girl Scout until I leave this planet. But I had never been on the inside of a company. I had always been on the outside even counseling or performing whatever function they had retained us to perform and it’s quite a different thing to be inside of the company and be part of its corporate culture or try to catch up and be part of its corporate culture and the difference. It’s interesting that you pose the question. What if and when I talk to student they often don’t think of this. In my experience I found that for example the Bell systems function in life was to deliver telephone communication service to the wide population almost all the population of the country and beyond. And that was its reason for being. And public relations played a role in that. And happily it was a very distinctive and important role but it was not the main business of the Bell systems. Where as I had gone through how many years, 20 plus years working for agencies where the business that I was in was public relations so that everyone concerned, for example in the Edelman organization, woke up in the morning and thought about the practice of public relations and how they could serve their clients best, but nevertheless, at heart, the business that we were in was public relations, quite different when you are within a corporate organization and it’s business is not public relations. Its business is to produce a product or a service and to deliver it responsibly.