Starting Out by Looking Back

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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 and only 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.

About the author

Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Betsy truly is an inspiration to PR pracitioners around the globe. May her many career achievements, ongoing stewardship of our profession, and personal encouragement of others continue to spur each of us to contributing even more in the months and years ahead. Thank YOU Betsy and best wishes for a speedy recovery!

  • Always love that Betsy does everything with great style and enthusiasm. When the Miami Conference was cancelled in 2005 and we held a smaller PRSSA conference — still in Miami — later in the year, she came up to me and gave me a huge hug and kiss. She said: “Hurricanes are a small setback. Gotta keep moving forward, doing good things just like you are by being here.” What an inspiration!

  • Betsy has been a mentor to me throughout my career and like Gary, I have constantly tried to emulate her dedication to the profession, the students and PRSA. The consistency of her dedication and the literally thousands of people she has touched throughout her life has given us all a goal to which we can aspire. My thoughts and prayers are with her as she faces her current challenges with grace and dignity, which is her hallmark.

  • I am honored to serve Gary as he ascends to the postion of Chair & CEO. I am equally proud to join a group of past Chairs that includes people like Betsy Plank, who continues to inspire us all. PRSA is blessed to have strong leaders – past, present and future.

  • What a great way to start the year Gary. Betsy is such an inspiration to many of us. Her constant presence and support is something I, like so many others, cherish. Her cherry demeanor is enhanced by the seemingly-ever-present red jacket is a comfort to many. I send her strength for a speedy recovery and can imagine those faxes returning as quickly as she can send advice to us all again. What an elegant and smart lady for all of us to admire and emulate.

  • Betsy Plank is an outstanding role model, not only for today’s practitioners and educators, but for tomorrow’s public relations professionals – our students. Her efforts on behalf of PRSA and PRSSA for so many years have been exemplary! She is a true champion for our profession. Best wishes to her for a speedy recovery!

  • What a wonderful tribute, Gary. For better or for worse, your entire body of work as PRSA Chair and CEO has nearly moved me to tears! Let’s hope I can’t say the same thing in July 🙂

    I can vouch for PRSSA’s appreciation of Betsy’s support. In fact, the students made a video in San Diego in which they yelled, “Hi, Betsy! We miss you!” while waving to the camera. The video made her smile during a very difficult time.

  • Have you ever known anyone who could convince you to do things you knew you didn’t have time to do and maybe even felt you didn’t have the talent to do? If you don’t know such a person, you don’t know Betsy!! She’s one in a million and one of a kind. Get well, Betsy – and thanks, Gary.

  • Gary, thanks for an inspirational post to start the year. We all have folks in our past who inspired us to reach beyond our grasp and aspire to higher service for the greater good. For so many in PRSA and PRSSA, that person is Betsy Plank. Best wishes to Betsy for a speedy recovery. Thanks Gary!

  • As a student, I know I often get caught up in thinking about what’s next. There are countless trends to keep on top of and it’s no easy feat. However, this piece was a great way to remind me that it’s equally important to look back at how far we’ve come because of leaders like Betsy. Thanks for your advice. I know PRSSA appreciates what you and PRSA leaders do for us and we’re looking forward to a successful 2010.

  • Gary,

    Thanks for this post! Betsy will always have a special place in the hearts of PRSSA members. After reading “A brief history,” a publication on the history of PRSSA, I was amazed at how much work Betsy does for the society. I’m glad I have practitioners like her to look up to. She’s taught methe importance of giving back to the profession. I can’t wait to become a PR professional and invest time into the passionate students who want to make a difference.

  • Thank you for the Betsy tribute, Gary. Betsy has been my boss, colleague, mentor, friend … and most of all my inspiration for trying to make the right public relations decisions and for executing those decisions with a special flair. Betsy always has been know for the special flair she brings to all she touches. I think of Betsy often … with love, respect and admiration.

  • Gary, how exciting to be that linked to Betsy Plank! When I was chair of the College of Fellows [1999], it seemed odd to me that the Gold Anvil recipient wasn’t integrated into the annual conference. Many people don’t know that the first College class was comprised entirely of Gold Anvil awardees – a natural link. So the College started what became an annual program, the “Golden Dialogues,” that featured the most recent recipient. It was scheduled so PRSSA conference attendees could benefit from hearing that grey eminence in a smaller [vs. plenary] setting. The College needed someone to interview the “Great Ones.” There was only one Greater-than-the-Greats who could do this, and so we tapped Betsy. For several years, it was as inspiring to see her in action as to hear the Anvil recipient answer her questions. That lady does shine a light! May she return to health – and may you have a great year at our helm. Joan Capelin, APR, Fellow PRSA

  • If anyone is entitled to be classified as the “mother” of public relations, it’s Betsy Plank. She was there at the birth of our profession, and was always at the forefront.

    Practitioners should always look to her contributions for insight and quality.

  • I second everyone else’s comments for the lovely Betsy tribute, Gary. She became my mentor 30 years ago and remains so to this day. In that time, not only have I grown professionally because of her but also personally. I so admire her grit, grace and good humor. I certainly hope she feels much better soon!

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