Answer provided by Karla Gower, director, Plank Center for Leadership in PR
What contributions did Betsy Plank make to the industry?
She opened up a lot of doors for women. We refer to her as the First Lady of PR because she was the first woman president of PRSA nationally in 1973. And when she became president, she said: "The sky didn’t fall." Before that, she had been the first woman president of several Chicago-based comms organizations.
She also worked hard to professionalize the industry and wanted it to be thought of in the same league as law, for example.
How did she professionalize it?
She worked to elevate PR education and set standards so that people coming out with a PR degree were well qualified. She saw APR accreditation as important because we didn’t have licensing.
What standards did she aim to set for the industry?
She was very ethical – and that was a big part of her belief about what PR needed to be. She wanted to make it a profession so that people who claimed to be PR people, but who weren’t ethical, wouldn’t be seen as part of the profession. It takes a long time to professionalize a field and she worked hard to bring more credibility and respect for PR in the C-suite and also in society overall.
How would you best describe Betsy’s character?
She was very passionate and had a lot of fire to her. Betsy would often say that had she not gone into PR, she would have been an activist involved in civil rights. She loved problem-solving and always would suggest ways to accomplish something.
Betsy also made you feel like you were the only one in the room when she talked to you. She made you feel very special.
How will you remember her?
As a champion for PR education.
Did Plank have any sayings she often used?
We have a slew of quotes from her. One is, ‘You are never too old or young to mentor.’ She also had a sign on her desk that said, ‘It is amazing what can be accomplished when no one takes credit.’ It is so true.
Gower, who is a Behringer distinguished professor in the Department of Advertising and PR at The University of Alabama, is writing a biography celebrating Betsy Plank’s life and legacy having worked with Plank during the last four years of her life at the Plank Center for Leadership in PR. Plank passed away in May 2010.
Betsy Plank is known as a PR pioneer, a champion of PR education, and the First Lady of public relations.
She achieved expert stature in positions not reached by previous women in the profession, attaining national and international stature during a distinguished career in corporate and agency PR.
Plank served as EVP of Daniel J. Edelman, Inc. (now Edelman), before becoming director of PR planning at AT&T and, later, director of external affairs at Illinois Bell.
She achieved multiple firsts for women, being the first to head a division of Illinois Bell, and as president of the Publicity Club of Chicago and the PRSA in 1973. She was the first person ever to receive three of the PRSA’s top individual honors: The Gold Anvil Award (1977), the Paul M. Lund Public Service Award (1989), and the Patrick Jackson Award for Distinguished Service to PRSA (2001).
Plank was also honored with the first Arthur W. Page Society’s Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award and the Public Relations Institute’s Hamilton Award in 2002.
In 2005, the Trustees of the University of Alabama, from which she graduated in 1944, 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 PR.
In addition to her many personal accomplishments, Plank devoted much of her time to advancing PR education, consistently and passionately advocating for the profession’s students.
She played a central role in the establishment of PRSSA in 1967 and, in 1981, while serving as a National Adviser, co-founded "Friends of PRSSA" (now "Champions for PRSSA").
In 1987, Plank co-chaired a national commission to develop guidelines for an undergraduate PR curriculum, accrediting teams at several universities and speaking to numerous student groups and PR classes to enhance education in the field.
In 1989, the PRSA Foundation established the society’s first ever scholarship endowment fund in her name. Since then, the Betsy Plank Scholarship Endowment Fund has helped ensure the availability of PR education funds for students at more than 40 colleges nationwide.
Plank’s legacy is most visible in the countless PR pros, educators and students who credit her with taking the time to mentor them throughout her career. Her focus on others led her to become the most individually recognized woman in the industry, a testament to the value of selflessness in professionalism.
Plank was chair of the Plank Center’s advisory board until her death in May 2010.