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The Leadership Behind the Leadership

Published on April 20, 2016, at 4:45 p.m.
by Mackenzie Ross.

Founded in 2005, The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations promotes leadership and innovation in the field of public relations. Each year, the Center hosts the Milestones in Mentoring Gala in Chicago to honor the work of six people — either public relations practitioners or educators. The event has come to be known as the “Oscars of Public Relations” and reflects the success of The Plank Center. Over the years, many individuals have been honored, but one quiet leader goes unrecognized. As the director of The Plank Center, Dr. Karla K. Gower is the leadership behind the leadership.

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A Canadian native, Gower first earned her law degree and practiced family law before deciding to move to Tempe, Ariz., to pursue a Master’s in Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Following her time there, Gower achieved a Ph.D. and was then hired by The University of Alabama, where she has worked as a professor for the past 17 years. Since 2008, she has served as director of The Plank Center.

“It wasn’t something that I ever really thought I wanted to do,” Gower said. “It took me out of my comfort zone a little bit, but I also think it was important to do that. I knew the opportunity wouldn’t come back around.”

Since taking on the role of director, Gower has overseen the day-to-day management of the Center, handled the bank accounts, coordinated the Fellowship for Educators Program, organized the semi-annual board meetings and planned the Milestones in Mentoring Awards event, which happens every October. Additionally, she works closely with the 28 members of The Plank Center’s Board of Advisors.

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“I had the opportunity to learn from watching all these great public relations leaders on the board and how they handle problems and issues and ways to approach things,” Gower stated.

Gower applies the lessons she has learned from the board in her emails and in handling situations on campus at The University of Alabama. She can also use examples from them to better teach her students in PR courses, which include PR writing, PR management and PR campaigns.

Sonny Franks, a junior at UA dual-majoring in public relations and marketing, credits Gower with teaching her strong writing skills. Franks appreciated how she kept the class discussions current and relevant. Gower started each class with a student-led discussion of current events and regularly included recent examples of PR writing by influential companies.

“She is also incredibly understanding and showed a high regard and respect for the time and energy of her students,” Franks said. “I think that that is why she garners so much respect from her students. People respect those who show them respect.”

Gower earns this same respect thanks to her enthusiasm in her work with The Plank Center. Dr. Bruce Berger, former director of The Plank Center and professor emeritus for the UA Department of Advertising and Public Relations, has worked with Gower since 1999 and admires her organizational skills and discipline.

“The Plank Center has grown tremendously under her direction,” Berger said. “And Betsy Plank would be so proud of Karla! In virtually every sense the Center has developed, expanded, achieved in the last five to six years: programming depth and richness, strength and quality of the board itself, outreach and connections with many others, national recognition and reputation.”

Berger said the Center is in a “far better place” now thanks to Gower’s leadership, and that both students and PR professionals can learn from Gower.

“They can see her as a role model,” Berger said about Gower. “After all, we always talk about the importance of doing, not just saying, right? So, Dr. Gower is a wonderful role model for teaching, research, ethics and living values.”

Gower models her own behavior after Betsy Plank, the namesake of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Gower is currently writing a biography on Plank and encourages people to get involved in their communities, just as Plank was heavily involved in her community.

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As for her goals with The Plank Center, Gower hopes the Center will continue doing research on mentorship in public relations.

“I would also like to take a stand and push the profession forward in some areas like diversity, for example,” Gower said. “Everybody talks about diversity, but we haven’t really accomplished a lot. And I’d like to see The Plank Center be the catalyst to push the profession forward.”

While she said it is hard to find ways to push diversity forward, Gower thinks educating people on the importance of diversity is the first step.

Gower defined PR leadership as being thoughtful and strategic. Leaders need to be able to cut through all the clutter, understand people’s differences and bring people together to make things happen. She also said being a little bit fearless and confident is a good thing. According to her colleagues and students, Gower certainly exemplifies these characteristics in her own life.

“Whether it be in the classroom giving back to future generations of public relations practitioners, or through The Plank Center furthering the legacy of Betsy Plank, Dr. Gower exemplifies leadership in all she does,” Franks said. “Truly great leaders operate with the betterment of the future in mind, and it’s clear that Dr. Gower does just that.”

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