In Memoriam: Betsy Plank, the “First Lady” of Public Relations

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UPDATE: 5/24/10:  Today, the PRSA family mourns the loss of Betsy Plank, APR, Fellow PRSA, who passed away on May 23, following a brief illness. She was 86.

According to her wishes, Betsy will be cremated and the internment will be private. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, University of Alabama, Box 870172, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0172 or on-line (designate Plank Fund).

At its July board meeting, The Plank Center will join with the Chicago public relations community to celebrate Betsy’s contributions to the profession. PRSA also will recognize Betsy at this year’s PRSA International Conference in Washington, D.C., Oct. 17-19.

Updates, including information on events recognizing Plank’s achievements, will be posted on the PRSA website.

The following post originally appeared on Jan. 6, 2010.

Starting Out By Looking Back

Monday was my first working day as PRSA’s 2010 Chair and CEO. I was pleased to receive support and congratulations from so many of my friends, former leaders, PRSA members and professional colleagues as I stepped into the job.

There was one person, however, with whom I could not speak — someone who not only was instrumental in shaping my career, but also in encouraging me to aspire to this office: Betsy Plank, APR, Fellow PRSA.

Betsy is known as “the first lady of public relations.” I’ve been thinking about her a great deal lately, wishing her a speedy return to full health and reflecting upon her remarkable record of achievement.

If I were to write about all of Betsy’s accomplishments in helping to shape the public relations profession, then I’d be writing a book rather than a blog post. She has been the “champion” of so many passions to improve our profession — students, education, scholarships, ethics and leadership — to name a few.

All this while she achieved countless career highlights that include being the first woman to head a division of Illinois Bell (now Ameritech), the first woman to be elected president of the Publicity Club of Chicago (1963), the first woman to be elected president of PRSA (1973) and a founding member of PRSA’s College of Fellows.

Betsy is the first person ever to receive three of PRSA’s top individual honors for professionals: the Gold Anvil (1977), the Paul M. Lund Public Service Award (1989) and the first Patrick Jackson Award for Distinguished Service to PRSA (2001).

Betsy has been both a mentor and role model to me. Over the years, she continues to amaze me with her incredible insights and professional leadership, not to mention her endearing personal touch in her many personal letters and faxes. (And in this day when we all feel overwhelmed by text messages and e-mails, I still appreciate receiving a fax from Betsy!)

There were countless times that I picked up a fax from Betsy who had “a thought” during the night and sat down to send it along. And always, at the end, there was a note of encouragement or, many times, persuasion to continue giving back.

She continues to encourage me and challenge me professionally and at higher levels within PRSA. For that reason, I’m honored to serve on the Board of the Directors of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama, her alma mater.

Betsy recognized many years ago the importance of investing in public relations and the future of our profession. In 1967, she and several other PRSA leaders put forth the motion to create the Public Relations Student Society of America — a group now more than 10,000 strong. And she never stopped being a pioneer — or champion — for public relations education.

I asked her once about her dedication to the students and the well being of the profession. Being her modest self, she shrugged and said that the business of public relations has been very good to her, providing a challenging, exciting and rewarding career. “Surely we owe something to its future,” she said. “We all need a new generation capable of performing.”

With commitment like that, who could have refused her when she asked me to become a co-chair of the Champions for PRSSA, continue my leadership within PRSA or join her in promoting leadership through the Plank Center. Believe me, it’s an honor to serve and continue to learn beside her.

Betsy is the ultimate champion for public relations education — and the profession. I appreciate her continuing to serve as a historian and mentor to all — including me. I look forward to seeing her soon. Get well, Betsy.

Gary McCormick is the 2010 Chair and CEO of PRSA

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Arthur Yann, APR

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