May 23, 2010
Editor's note: The first version of this article identified the Betsy Plank Scholarship Endowment Fund as being operated by PRSA. In fact, it is a fund within the PRSA Foundation. Information about making a gift to that Fund can be found on the Foundation's website.
Betsy Plank, APR, Fellow PRSA, honored leader, mentor and matriarch of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the public relations profession, passed away on May 23, 2010, following a short illness. She was 86.
Often referred to as the “First Lady of Public Relations,” Plank received international recognition during her distinguished career in corporate and agency public relations.
She was the first woman to head a division of Illinois Bell (which became 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. Plank is the first person 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 was both a mentor and role model to me,” said Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, PRSA’s 2010 chair and CEO. “Over the years, she continued to amaze me with her incredible insights and professional leadership, not to mention her endearing personal touch in her many personal letters and faxes.
“She continued to encourage me and challenge me professionally and at higher levels within PRSA,” said McCormick, who serves on the Board of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama.
“It’s indeed a sad hour in the life of PRSA,” said Michael Cherenson, APR, PRSA’s immediate past chair. “Betsy inspired several generations of public relations practitioners with her thoughtful counsel on the most important issues facing the profession. She was a tireless, dedicated advocate for the profession. We wouldn’t be here today without her pioneering leadership and steady presence.”
In 2000, Plank also received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arthur W. Page Society, an association of the nation’s top corporate public relations executives.
She earned countless accolades for her outstanding service to public relations and education. In 2006, the PRSA Foundation established the Society’s first-ever scholarship endowment fund — the Betsy Plank Scholarship Endowment Fund.
“I believe a strong foundation in education is fundamental to a profession and defines it,” Plank told Tactics in a November 2006 interview, “We simply have to have strong educational underpinnings and all that infers — research, ethical disciplines and responsibility to society-at-large.”
Plank was a pioneer in public relations education — she was the co-chair of the 1987 national commission to develop guidelines for the undergraduate public relations curriculum, served on accrediting teams at many universities and spoke to numerous student groups and public relations classes.
In a conversation with Tactics, Plank commented on why investing in public relations education and the future of our profession is so important, saying: “This business has been very good to us — providing a challenging, exciting and rewarding career. Surely we owe something to its future. We also have a vested interest in the quality professionals our schools produce. Whether we work in an agency, corporate, government or the nonprofit sector, we all need a new generation capable of performing.”
Plank was a graduate of the University of Alabama and The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at her alma mater is named for her. The College of Communication & Information Sciences at UA also inducted Plank into its Communication Hall of Fame and named its Distinguished Achievement Award in her honor.
She also chaired the Center’s advisory board and remained actively involved with PRSA and The Arthur W. Page Society as well as numerous other organizations up until the time of her death.
“As PR professionals, we have a responsibility to help our students grow, to become PRSA colleagues, leaders in the profession and mentors to those who follow them in the classroom,” Plank said.
She was also integral in the creation of the college student organization, the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). One of her most memorable moments was when she served as a Chicago Chapter delegate at the 1967 PRSA Assembly in Philadelphia and several legendary leaders such as J. Carroll Bateman, Jon Riffel, Walt Siefert, Chris Teahan and Edward VonderHaar proposed establishing a student society. The vote was unanimous, she said. “It was an act of faith and — in my case — the beginning of a lifetime love affair with students," Plank told Tactics. "From that day, our students have proven to be of great judgment and leadership, and they’ve lived up to every expectation we’ve had of them.”
“Betsy was the ultimate ‘Champion’ for public relations education and students. She gave a lifetime to advancing students, especially members of PRSSA,” said Jeneen Garcia, director of education at PRSA. “Her service to the student Society was unsurpassed, from her professional and financial contributions, to arranging for legendary professionals to speak to students, to serving as a historian and mentor to all — including me. She has left a legacy of ethical practice and interest in public relations education for all in this profession to uphold. She will be missed.”
Plank has a PRSSA Chapter at Northern Illinois University, which is named for her — and also established an annual scholarship in her name. And as founder and co-chair of the Champions For PRSSA, Plank received the student organization’s 25th Anniversary Award in 1993.
Plank was born on April 3, 1924. A native of Alabama, Plank returned in 1965 to join the final leg of the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. She received her B.A. degree from the University of Alabama in 1944, and was elected to its College of Communication Hall of Fame in 2000. She was associated with radio station NQV-Pittsburgh before entering public relations in 1947.
Active on the community scene, Plank chaired the Illinois Council on Economic Education and the Citizenship Council of Metropolitan Chicago, served on the boards of the United Way, Girl Scouts USA and Girl Scouts of Chicago, and twice chaired annual Leadership Luncheons of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago. She is a founder and past chair of The Chicago Network, the area’s leading organization for career women, and received its First Decade Award in 1989.
Plank was the only person to have served as president of four Chicago communications organizations: Publicity Club of Chicago (1963); Welfare Public Relations Forum (1966-67); Chicago Chapter PRSA (1969); and the Public Relations Forum (1979).?Plank was named in Who’s Who in America and was a lifetime member of the Publicity Club of Chicago, a member of the Economic Club and Union League Club of Chicago and the International Public Relations Association.
Plank was married to the late Sherman V. Rosenfield and resided in Chicago.
“In my philosophy, public relations is fundamental to a democratic society where people make decisions in the workplace, marketplace, the community and the voting booth,” Plank said after receiving the Institute for Public Relations’ Alexander Hamilton Award in 2000. “Its primary mission is to forge responsible relationships of understanding, trust and respect among groups and individuals — even when they disagree. Mr. Hamilton’s historic work continues to inspire and inform that difficult challenge today.”
Ed Note: We encourage readers to use the comments section (by clicking the "View Comments" link below) to share your favorite memories about Betsy and pay tribute to her life.