Plank Center: Shaping Next Generation of Leaders

By Christine Albrecht

There’s a fair amount of pressure that comes along with serving as leaders for a center devoted to leadership! Luckily, the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is led by a dedicated board, volunteers and small staff of dedicated professionals and academics. Karla Gower, Joanne Bischmann and Colleen Dolan sit at the helm of the Plank Center bringing leadership mentorship, education and research to aspiring and practicing PR professionals.

Who was Betsy Plank?

It would be impossible to tell the story of the Plank Center without some background on the late Betsy Plank. Upon graduating from the University of Alabama in 1944, Betsy moved to Chicago where she began a career that included leadership positions at Edelman, AT&T, and Illinois Bell. She also served as the president of PRSA, a board member of United Way, and the Girl Scouts of the USA, receiving many awards and honors along the way. Many industry observers credit Betsy for shaping the path to leadership for women while helping define the direction of public relations.

Toward the end of her career, Betsy was looking to give back in the form of a donation to the University of Alabama. The university wanted to take things a step further and proposed the formation of a center for PR in Betsy’s name. Leadership would be the focus since there was nothing like it and this focus would help capture the legacy of Betsy’s career.

Be an eternal student 

The Plank Center was founded on leadership, and early board members wrestled with how they would define this since leadership is a multifaceted skill. Luckily, Betsy Plank had created ten professional commandments which served as a roadmap to her success. Betsy’s number one professional commandment was being an eternal student. She believed that true leaders never stopped learning. And so, the Plank Center captures this spirit by bridging the gap between academia and the workplace through mentorship programs and research, in the hopes that students can learn from their professional counterparts while PR professionals learn in turn from current students.

The Leading Ladies of the Plank Center  

As Executive Director of the Plank Center, Karla Gower, PhD. brings over twenty years of collegiate teaching experience and an extensive knowledge of the ways that public relations have shifted over time. She has a deep understanding of why students seek an education in PR. Karla believes that being a leader means understanding your working style and the working style of your team and being about to communicate those styles proactively. She has authored a biography of Betsy which will be published next year.

Joanne Bischmann serves as Vice Chair, contributing an impressive background in corporate communications. After several years in advertising at an agency, she moved to Harley Davidson to work with a strong brand and a multi-faceted business model. She transitioned from marketing leadership to lead the communications team, and she credits her time in marketing with giving her the ability to unite teams who at times have a competing agenda. She believes in leveraging the right people for the right job who have the right expertise and resources to get the job done. She told me, “People learn in different ways and it’s kind of like putting pieces of the puzzle together.” Joanne is dedicated to an “always be learning” mentality, since leadership can mean managing people with more experience and tenure. She sets an example for all by being open to change and open to learn.

As the newest and youngest member of the Plank Center team, Colleen Dolan serves as Communications Specialist for the Plank Center. She lived the agency life in the New York fashion scene before getting her master’s at the University of Alabama and joining the Plank Center team. She also owns her own agency and consulting firm. While Colleen is still learning about how to be her own boss, she relies on a network of mentors who can guide her through the process. She believes in the “teach don’t tell” approach to manage and guide her interns so that the work gets done while her team learns and grows. Colleen also believes that appreciation is directly linked to job satisfaction. Said Dolan, “You’re going to get the most out of people, you’re going to get their best work if they’re happy and they feel appreciated.”

Leading by learning 

These three women define leadership at the Plank Center through a consistent cycle of learning and feedback. Leaders need to understand how they learn and how their team learns and be able to communicate these preferences both ways since everyone is learning no matter where they are in their careers. Leaders need to understand how to structure a conversation around feedback whether it be providing feedback or receiving feedback of their own. Feedback is best shared as a story with examples and feelings while being as direct as possible. Leaders can also be mentors because being a leader is ultimately being a teacher. Even leaders need a network of trusted advisors, and the workplace can benefit from what’s happening in the classroom just as academia needs the guidance of professionals in the field.

What would Betsy do? 

As the leaders of the Plank Center adapt their approach over time, they aim to always ask themselves how Betsy Plank would think about the challenges and shifts happening in the industry. They often ask themselves:

  • Are we honoring Betsy’s Legacy? If the Plank Center operates under her name, how will we ensure that our initiatives are true to her?
  • How will the Center look as the industry evolves? Betsy’s career spanned decades of change in public relations. How will the Center follow that path of adaptation?
  • Are we living up to the Ten Professional Commandments? Betsy’s commandments stand the test of time. This manifesto should serve as a roadmap to the journey.

About the Plank Center: The Plank Center was founded in 2005 and is operated by the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There are currently twenty-six public relations professionals who serve as board members. The Center sponsors research, events, mentor programs, and educational opportunities for emerging leaders in PR. It also produces Platform Magazine, a publication written by and for students and recognizes PR leaders and mentors through the Milestones in Mentoring Gala. The Report Card on Public Relations Leaders serves as an ongoing study focusing on performance, culture, job satisfaction, and engagement. The Plank Center was created to honor the legacy of the late Betsy Plank, a pioneer for public relations and women leaders.

Christine Albrecht is a tech expert and marketing enthusiast. As a customer success manager at Sprout Social, she helps digital agencies execute winning strategies for their clients on social media. She also recently graduated from DePaul University with her Master’s in Organizational Communications. @christinialb

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