Oral Histories

Betsy Plank

Interview Segments on Topic: Trust/Credibility

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: Do you think Enron and other scandals are a sign of changing morals?

Betsy 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.

Interviewer: Do you think that if the statement such as credos and mission statements have any value or would they actually change people’s behavior. Johnson & Johnson’s credo so well known as a template for how you operate or behave in that company and other companies. Do you think that they do make the difference or they are not? Do you have an opinion about it?

Betsy Plank: I think that credos and statements of this is how we perform and these are our expectations for your performance in terms of trust and truth and ethics. I think there is most certainly a role for that. And all aspects of work life whether it’s government or profit or not for profit. But the flip side of that is that it has to be backed up by behavior and concern which is quite evident. I mean if these are simply credos that go into the bottom drawer or dress up the walls of the boardroom then they have obviously have accomplished very little. But they are essential if they are paired with practice and behavior. Because words are very powerful and they give meaning and influence to ideas so that I would think that an organization would be that is ethical and is trustworthy and that wants its employees to behave in that manner would be remiss or stupid not to put that not to put that into a credo or into something that people can refer to and believe in and say yes this is what we stand for. Because this is it’s like saying here’s a country without flags. That’s you simply don’t have that. You need a flag of that expresses the behavioral expectations of that particular organization.

Interviewer: That is a terrific goal to have and I’m sure that that would be successful and the center will be successful. I’m just down near the end. I’m just going to ask you some quick questions. They are sort of personal type questions these aren’t personal certain way various people that I interview to get some kind of sense of who they are. You’ve already one of the things that you answered who were some of the people who had the biggest influence on your career or your life. You kind of touched on that. I wondered if there were other people that you might want to include because by saying that as far as mentors go you mentioned Duffy Swartz. Mentioned she was certainly that much more of a person. I just wondered if there were some people in particular that made an impact on you in a certain way that helped you get through your life. Made you better a public relations person in the process.

Betsy Plank: Well, I’ve I do believe a great deal in nurture so when I’m asked to. If that nurturing has been good and productive towards one’s adult career life. When asked I give a lot of credit to the patience and the example of one’s parents. And I have never known a finer public relations person in my life than my father who was an executive with a public utility and a civil engineer of some consequence who never quite understood public relations or what business I was in. But he was one of the fine one of the native practitioners of it and the kind of person that you would talk about ethics and trustworthy behavior, he was an exemplar. We come up through a lot of education and a lot of teaching and teachers and I already mentioned the one who pointed me in the direction of some strange craft called public relations was Duffy Swartz and I’ve been blessed along the way with many wonderful colleagues and mentors. Certainly I am extremely grateful to Dan Edelman for the years productive years I spent under his roof and with all that I learned and had to learn. When I was when I was with that firm certainly I feel the same way about them, about people in the Bell system such as Paul Lund and Jack Koten and Ed Block and many many people who exhibited the best in terms of practice and behavior and brilliance upon many occasions. And the professional side of my life I could not let this opportunity escape without mentioning people like Harold Bateman who was a remarkable leader in his time in the 60s and the 70s and who really is the person who helped me fall in love with education for public relations. I’ve had colleagues that I have been very proud to march with like David Ferguson and Pat Jackson and none of those names that I mentioned still populate this planet because I don’t want to risk mentioning anyone who’s still walking lively here for fear that I will omit someone and feel guilty and unhappy about that for weeks to come. One of the things that I think that is very characteristic of public relations people is their desire to be very supportive of one another. Very recently a colleague of ours had died. His name was Herbert Bane and Herb was a strong leader in the business and sat on many boards and did much in terms of civil rights and believed in the importance of trustworthy behavior and he was the one walking one day away from the Hilton Hotel and the sun was shining happily. We would have had been at a meeting there and he said to me in 1960 or 61. Why don’t you run for president of the Publicity Club of Chicago, which was a very big deal in that town. And I said you are absurd. No one, what they would never consider having a woman president of this important organization. No he said I’ll nominate you. We want you to get it. Well it happened. And you know he mastered-minded it all and sure enough that summer I was sitting on or the next summer I was sitting on the beach in Michigan City looking at the bylaws for the Publicity Club of Chicago because I was going to be president come fall. It was an amazing experience and the sky did not fall. And so subsequently I became president of other organizations down the line, primarily the Public Relations Society of America and again everyone along the way was extremely supportive. I am not aware that anyone ever gave me a hard time, ever stood in my way, ever challenged me because I was a woman. They simply were highly supportive of the whole venture and it was not something that anybody everybody took it in stride let’s put it that way. So I’ve been very very blessed with that kind of experience and support. And my sense is that that’s just simply the style of good public relations people to be supportive of one another.