Public Relations Tactics

In memoriam: Betsy Plank, APR, Fellow PRSA, 86

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.


Gail Liebl says:

Betsy was mentor, my dear friend, and truly like family to me. I feel blessed for each moment I had with her. I will miss her but her legacy lives on in all of us who continue her mission. God Speed and I love you forever, Betsy. Thank you for molding me into the person I am today.

May 23, 2010

Don Wright says:

It's an understatement to say that Betsy Plank was one of the greatest and most loyal friends public relations education and research has ever had. She will be missed very much. Donald K. Wright, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA Professor of Public Relations College of Communication Boston University

May 23, 2010

Mary Beth West says:

I met Betsy at my first PRSSA National Conference in 1991 in Phoenix, Ariz., as a student from the University of Tennessee. She led a session at the student conference that stood out from all others (of course), and afterward, I pulled her aside to ask her advice about a mentoring program we were trying to start back in Knoxville. She walked with me to a separate meeting room where she spent the next hour sharing her insights and encouragement, which helped drive the creation of what became a very successful chapter program that helped many students make professional connections. At the time, being so new to the organization, I had no idea about the depth of this lady's leadership background with PRSA and PRSSA . . . I just thought she was an exceptionally sharp professional who was being generous with her time. Soon after, when I learned more about her pivotal role throughout PRSA's history and in PRSSA's founding, I felt all the more honored that she would have taken so much time to help a single student with such a grassroots-level request. But that was Betsy. If it had anything to do with PRSSA or any single public relations student, she was first in line to mentor, motivate and inspire. To me, Betsy embodied what life-long commitment to a set of principles really meant, and how one person's life's work in the public relations profession specifically could influence and impact thousands of lives directly, and perhaps millions of lives indirectly. Her legacy to PRSA, PRSSA and this profession will always be, to me, unparalleled.

May 23, 2010

Kathy Hubbell, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

It is almost physically painful to read this and to know of Betsy's passing. I remember watching her with PRSSA students at an international conference a couple of years ago - just as I was making my own transition into teaching -and being absolutely amazed at both her energy and her compassion. She was vitally interested in everything that was going on, and in talking to every student that she could. Even more wonderful, those students very obviously loved her. I remember thinking I hoped to have the same ongoing passion and commitment as I go through the next couple of decades, because she certainly set the bar for excellence.

May 23, 2010

Philip Tate says:

RIP, Betsy Plank. Your legacy lives on in the thousands of public relations practitioners and PRSSA Students you mentored and inspired over the years.

May 23, 2010

Cedric L. Bess says:

Our profession has lost one of its pioneers with the passing of Betsy Plank. She was a mentor and inspiration to so many of us, especially those who were fortunate enough to work with her during our time in PRSSA. I will fondly remember her passion, spunk and tireless dedication to public relations education. I am forever grateful for having known such a giving professional and an even better human being. Cedric L. Bess PRSSA National President 2000-01

May 24, 2010

Rosanna Fiske says:

When friends called yesterday to tell me about Betsy's passing, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. For some reason, I always felt Betsy was invincible. Maybe it was the red hair and the red lipstick. Maybe it was that infallible good spirit that always, always saw the positive. Maybe it was that incredible energy. Betsy changed many of our lives just by being Betsy. I am so glad we got to laugh together.

May 24, 2010

Michael Cherenson says:

Betsy was a trailblazer, mentor, leader, friend and inspiration to us all. Her legacy will live on forever. The world is a better place thanks to Betsy Plank.

May 24, 2010

Sonja Popp-Stahly, APR says:

Betsy was such a strong advocate for PR education. I remember meeting her for the first time at a PRSSA National Conference nearly 20 years ago when I received a Betsy Plank/PRSSA scholarship. That set the stage for my understanding of her passion and devotion to PRSSA. In the years that followed, I always looked forward to seeing her at the Friends/Champions for PRSSA receptions. She truly understood the power of a strong PR education and its importance in creating a solid foundation for the future of our profession. Betsy was a true inspiration.

May 24, 2010

Kathy Schoch Ziprik says:

How can anyone match the enthusiasm, dedication and love of PR students that Betsy had? She was a force to be reckoned with when it came to the growth of our profession and the value of a public relations education. She will be greatly missed and her wisdom will always be valued.

May 24, 2010

Mary Deming Barber says:

Betsy is one of those people I always looked forward to seeing at PRSA meetings. Her wonderful smile and warm embrace will be remembered for many years to come. The void left is immeasurable but I hope we can all use Betsy's life as one to which we all aspire. The students and professionals with whom she worked are changed for the better forever. I may just have to buy a red jacket for conference this year too!

May 24, 2010

Ken Jacobs says:

I'd like to share an example of Betsy's kindness. In '93 I was job-hunting in far-away Chicago, and someone arranged a networking meeting for Betsy and me. Betsy not only treated me like a lifelong friend, but brought me as her guest to a luncheon of Chicago PR bigwigs. There I sat in between, and got to chat with, Betsy and PR legend Al Golin. I'll never forget Betsy's kindness to me that day.

May 24, 2010

Jim Little, APR,Fellow PRSA says:

Betsy never lost her enthusiasm for public relations, for the Pulbic Rleations Society of America, and for students...a great lady, a great professional, and a great friend. She will always be with all of us who knew her.

May 24, 2010

Mike Banas says:

An amazing woman - I met her once and a year later and a totally different venue she remembered my name. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to talk with her on many occassions through her friends and colleagues - she taught (and exemplified) ethics, integrity, expert like no other. A great inspiration and something we should all aspire to.

May 24, 2010

Mickey G. Nall, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Betsy Plank embodied all the best attributes of what a true professional is -- dedication to the work; leadership at every phase of a career; providing a path for tomorrow's practitioners; moral and ethical practice in professional and personal pursuits; and grace, generosity and kindness 24/7...I certainly mourn her loss and celebrate the inspiration she is to me and to all of us in public relations.

May 24, 2010

Tegan Zimmerman says:

I met Betsy at the 2008 PRSSA National Conference in Detroit when she took time out of her evening to take a photo and chat with me about my career. Betsy was kind, bright and one of those people that you just know is special. Ultimately, Betsy inspired me to pursue a career in public relations. Her legacy will live on and she is proof that passion, dedication, hard work, and kindness can lead to great things.

May 24, 2010

Catherine Huggins, APR says:

It's rare in life that we encounter an individual like Betsy Plank. A person who made such positive and lasting impacts on others. Betsy exemplified what is truly best about humanity and she set the standard for our public relations industry. May her deep passion and and strong commitment to others continue by those who were fortunate enough to have met Betsy or become aware of her countless contributions.

May 24, 2010

Debbie Mason, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Betsy was a legend, even while alive. Her sheer force of will, determination and "guts" as she called it, were an amazing role model for so many of us to have the courage to speak out, to do the right thing always. I feel fortunate to have been among those who were "adopted" by Betsy. She encouraged, proded, challenged and celebrated so many growth points in my own life--and dozens more. She will be painfully missed.

May 24, 2010

Rita Weighill, Greater Kanas City P says:

There is a great debt owed for the vision,energy and example that she invested on behalf of all those who follow in her giant footsteps. Kansas City PRSA Member

May 24, 2010

Dr.Joe Trahan,APR,Fellow PRSA says:

I will miss Betsy's friendship,professionalism,dedication,leadership from the front,sense of humor and smile. She will always be the heart and soul of PRSA & PRSSA! She will live forever in our hearts,minds and the souls of all of the past,current and future PRSSA students. Proud to be a PRSSA Alumni, Dr. Joe Trahan,APR,Fellow PRSA Chair-SE District Immediate Past Chair PRSA EA

May 24, 2010

Pauline Draper-Watts says:

Over the decades Betsy was a pioneer and an inspiration to so many - I count it a privilege to have known her in more recent years. Our industry has lost a valued friend.

May 24, 2010

Cecilia Hughes says:

When I was first introduced to Betsy at the PRSSA National Conference in 2008, she wrapped her arms around me in greeting. Following our meeting, she sent a personalized note... Betsy was the epitome of class. She was a beautiful person and I considered her a great legend, leader, mentor and friend. She will be painfully missed.

May 24, 2010

Amy Mengel says:

I never met Betsy Plank, but received her namesake scholarship as a PRSSA member when I was in college at the University of Georgia. I've always felt gratitude for that award, which helped me greatly with my tuition. I wish I could have met her. She was certainly a champion of the profession. @amymengel

May 24, 2010

Mike Neumeier, APR says:

When I was the president of PRSSA many, many years ago Betsy went out of her way to make me feel special. She let me know the job was an important one and helped in countless ways. She was (and will always be) a class act.

May 24, 2010

Michael Bardin, APR says:

Betsy Plank will certainly be missed but she'll never be forgotten. There is so much within PRSA and PRSSA that bears her handprint that she will live forever in our professional and personal lives. Everyone loved Betsy, how could you not? What a giant. What a spirit. What a joy. We'll always love you Betsy.

May 24, 2010

T. Michael Jackson, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

I recall what an honor it was to present the first Patrick Jackson award to Betsy - and how wonderful she was in receiving it. Her stories of PRSA past events - and of Pat -were ones I will cherish forever.

May 24, 2010

Craig Miyamoto, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Betsy lives forever in my heart. I will never forget the first thing she always did when she saw me -- since it was usually at a PRSA conference, she'd give me a PRSSA heart to display on my name badge. I am so fortunate to have seen her often during the years that I served as a PRSSA national advisor, and as a PRSA director, and will never forget the warmth of her hugs. God bless your beautiful heart, Betsy.

May 24, 2010

Cheryl Procter-Rogers says:

Betsy was a dear friend who always had a kind word, great words of wisdom and a warm and welcoming smile. I will miss the days spent in her living room and on her boat debating the news of the day. I will miss her personal handwritten or typed notes of support and encouragement. Her love for the students was unmatched and unwaivering. She introduced me to big ideas, many important people and to Lean Cuisine (smiles). When Terry and I married, she never forgot to send a small gift to us for Valentine's Day. This was her way. I will miss her red jacket and heart of gold.

May 24, 2010

Sharon Walenda Doyle says:

Betsy was a mentor to me when I was a student at Northern Illinois University and President of the Betsy Ann Plank PRSSA Chapter. I am humbly proud to be a recipient of the Betsy Ann Plank Award for outstanding public relations. Betsy was a living legend as a phenomenal businesswoman; pioneer of public relations and as a remarkable human being full of joy and always giving of herself. She touched so many lives and we are better for having known her. Our loss is Heaven's gain. God bless you Betsy. You and your family are in my prayers and fondest thoughts.

May 24, 2010

Robert Stack says:

PRSA and PRSSA have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. Betsy Ann Plank, APR, Fellow PRSA was more than the matriarch of PRSSA, she was a passionate and vocal champion of public relations education. Her words and deeds touched the lives of hundreds upon thousands of students on campuses all across America during a iconic career spanning decades. As a former National Professional Advisor to PRSSA, I feel a personal sense of loss for a remarkable colleague and dear friend who truly paved the way for others in our profession. I know that she would not want us to morn her loss, but to champion her causes and carry on her legacy of touching the hearts and minds of PRSSA students.

May 25, 2010

Laura DeGroff Simoes says:

I remember well Betsy's sentiment of extending oneself in service -- be it as a colleague, as a leader or as a friend. She could always be counted on as a champion and cheerleader of the profession. I feel lucky to have benefitted from Betsy's mentorship when I was in PRSSA, and I am proud of her stewardship of that organization beyond my tenure.

May 25, 2010

Pat Swann says:

What a tremendous loss to the public relations field. Betsy Plank was a first-class lady whose enthusiasm for life and public relations never wavered. Her devotion to students, in particular, was unbelievable. Let's commit ourselves to carrying on the values she embraced every day of her long and distinguished life! I'm sure that members of AEJMC Public Relations Division will be toasting her accomplishments in Denver!

May 25, 2010

Tressa Robbins says:

I had the pleasure of meeting Betsy at a Champions for PRSSA meeting several years ago and talking with her. She was truly a pioneer - in every sense of the word. Her legacy will live on through the thousands of PRSSA and PRSA members' lives that she touched.

May 25, 2010

Dennis L. Wilcox says:

Betsy was the godmother of PRSSA and a mentor, inspiration to several generations of students who served as disrict and national officers of PRSSA. Her legacy is a strong PRSSA that has helped the careers of thousands of students through the years. She was the champion of PR education for most of her life, and she will be missed by all of us educators who grew to love her and consider her one of our best friends.

May 25, 2010

Carl Botan says:

I was saddened to hear of Betsy's passing. Betsy was one of the truly exceptional people I have known. Her skill and influence in the field have been spoken to eloquently here but I think one more thing needs to be said. Betsy was an outstanding champion and advocate for PR education in general, and for PRSSA in particular, but she was also a superb one-on-one teacher. If a young woman (or man) needed more self-conifdence they got it after speaking with Betsy. On the other hand, if a young person needed a little less brashness they also got that after speaking with Betsy. And both came away liking her. Betsy's like will not soon be seen by our field again. Carl Botan, Director PhD program in Health and Strategic Communication, George Mason University

May 25, 2010

b j Altschul, APR says:

Betsy was an icon of integrity to me practically since I first met her. Besides, we were both short! When she learned of a contribution I made to the PRSA Foundation some years ago, she lost no time calling to suggest creating an annual award for the best PRSSA student internship. That has since become one of the highlights of the conference for me every year as I have the honor of meeting the next generation of young leaders who are bridging from classroom to workplace. Betsy's influence will endure for us all -- and always with that delightful twinkle so uniquely her own. What a gem of a human being!

May 25, 2010

Laurie Wilson, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Betsy’s passing gives me the opportunity to reflect on how great an influence she has been on me personally and professionally. My friend has passed, but she leaves innumerable reminders of her imprint forever shaping the direction, content and delivery of public relations education. Because her vision for education was a vision for the profession, her efforts changed the substance and practice of public relations in ways we may never fully realize.

May 25, 2010

Vivian Hamilton says:

I'm predicting that Betsy is already "upstairs" giving wise counsel to the good Lord, whether He realized he needed it or not. What a leader, what an inspiration and what a woman! We were lucky to have her among us.

May 25, 2010

Michael Smith, PhD, Past Chair, NCA PR Division says:

One of the things I admired about Betsy was the bridges she built between professionals and educators. She was there as the National Communication Association formed its PR Division, reaching out on behalf of PRSA to seek ways in which we could work together. Just last summer, she helped establish an awards fund through the Plank Center to recognize the Top Three Student PR papers at NCA. I enjoyed talking with her in the process of estabishing those awards, and her passion for education and professional development was clear. May we who follow her carry that vision forward.

May 26, 2010

David Dieterle says:

I will never forget my first days in 1987 at the Illinois Council on Economic Education as its president and executive director. Betsy was our Chairman and her foresight and counsel was invaluable. Since I left ICEE in 1995 I still think of her often as many of my little nuances I do these many years later came from Betsy and my working with her. She always made me better, she made anything we did at ICEE better. She was a true lady. Thank you for this opportunity.

May 27, 2010

Michael McDermott, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

The public relations profession has lost another giant. Betsy will be sorely missed by all in our field.

May 27, 2010

Del Galloway, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

I am saddened at Betsy's passing. Like so many others, I am fortunate to have experienced her counsel and to have enjoyed her friendship ... along with many (many) laughs. She was an extraordinary human being. She gave unselfishly to so many, and made our profession stronger by her example. I wish her peace.

June 1, 2010

Lara Golike says:

I am sure Betsy's spirit will live on in the PR world. I will never forget one of my first meetings with Betsy. It was when I served on the National Committee. I thought her Mickey Mouse suitcase was such a hoot. Then, when we were on the same flight back, she set up for me to meet her in the Admiral's Club and somehow got our seats together on a packed plane with an extra seat for me to lay down because she knew how tired I must be. My funniest Betsy story was when I stayed in her spare Chicago condo - I won't get into the details, but surely a trip I will never forget. May we never forget her - God Bless you Betsy.

June 1, 2010

Kara Czerniak says:

I had the pleasure of meeting Betsy at the 2005 PRSSA National Conference. I served as the National Conference Coordinator at the time, when Hurricane Wilma shut us down. We rescheduled the conference for later in the year, closer to Christmas. Betsy brought Santa hats for the National Conference Committee, and she ran around with the biggest smile on her face. She lit up the room and radiated positivity. Though we had less than half the attendance at the rescheduled event, we had a blast, and Betsy was a star. Thanks for the memories and all the advice, Betsy. We will miss you.

June 1, 2010

Kelly Albanese says:

Having just learned of Betsy's passing I am filled with sadness, but also gratitude for having known this incredible woman. I will never forget her smiling face and the white "campaign" hat she would wear at the International Conference to collect donations for Champions for PRSSA. Thank you for all you have done. You will be missed, Betsy.

June 4, 2010

Craig Skaggs says:

I met Ms. Plank at the award ceremony at S. Illinois U., where I received the first Betsy Ann Plank award ever awarded by PRSA. I think it was 1973, and my essay, "Vinculum" was on the need for empirical accountability for the PR profession. Ms. Plank was a supporter of the approach, but I'm not sure it has ever caught on, which is why, in my opinion, advertising, lobbying and legal have outstripped our profession in credibility among business leaders. I really appreciated the support Ms. Plank gave to PRSSA, as did my old mentor at WVU, Dr. Hunter McCartney.

Dec. 5, 2011

Deborah McCartney says:

Thanks Craig. Dr.McCartney, my father, has passed away but all his students and fellow educators and friends will never forget hiim.

April 17, 2012

Sonia says:

I bought a book of a Benjamin Franklin biography published in 1938 and inside I found a membership card for the Girl Reserves belonging to Betsy Ann Plank with a recognition date of 1939, it looks like a beautiful part of history in this woman's life. I would be happy to pass it on if someone would like to keep this.

June 19, 2014

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