Betsy Plank: First Lady of Public Relations
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
A life dedicated to her craft leaves cues for the future of public relations education
By Violet Nowak
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is not a phrase I would usually associate with public relations. However, I ended up in the backwoods of Alabama with my family while on summer break. After a couple of days, I found myself missing my university classes and idly curious about the history of my chosen field. So, I decided that every time I felt that longing, I would research the life story of someone from the public relations world. My favorite that I came across was that of Betsy Plank, the “godmother of PRSSA,” and a champion of public relations education.
It may come as a surprise, but the “first lady of public relations'” did not immediately begin her career in the field. After graduating from the University of Alabama in 1944, Betsy Plank worked in several industries before landing a job at Daniel J. Edelman, Inc. (now Edelman). She spent 13 years at the agency and became the executive vice president. Eventually, she left to become director of public relations planning at AT&T and then director of external affairs at Illinois Bell (now Ameritech). She was the first woman to be head of a division at Illinois Bell, as well as the first female president of both the Chicago Publicity Club and The Public Relations Society of America.
In addition to her considerable achievements in the workplace, Plank was also a trailblazer of public relations education. She played a large role in the creation of the Public Relations Student Society of America, as well as Friends of PRSSA (now Champions of PRSSA). Additionally, she co-chaired a national commission to accredit new public relations degree programs at universities, as well as develop curricula. A crown jewel of her work in education is the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at her alma mater, the University of Alabama. This work was so important to her because, as she said, “The hallmark of every respected profession is a formal program of study.” She believed in investing in others and the field, and this is how she expressed it.
Although she passed away in 2010, her legacy still lives on today in a myriad of ways. A self-described workaholic, one is for the work she did at the agencies and companies she worked for. Another is for the multitude of awards she received, including three of PRSA’s top individual honors and the Arthur W. Page Lifetime Achievement Award. The most memorable, though, is through her investment in others. As noted in her obituary, she mentored many people throughout her career and cared deeply about them. Until she died, she was actively involved in education as the chair of the Plank Center and created resources for students, such as her Baker’s Dozen for Public Relations Students.
Betsy Plank is an icon of public relations. While there are many lessons to be learned from her career, the most poignant to me is that investing in those around us and those that come after us is important. Public relations is a competitive field. However, it is important to remember that collaboration and learning from your peers are valuable skills. It is also an evolving field, constantly updated as attitudes and technology change. We can continue to improve the education students receive by sharing resources and being involved in mentorship. Betsy Plank’s work is a reminder to care for my colleagues and strive to uphold the reputation of our field.
About the Author:
Violet Nowak is a student at the University of North Texas studying journalism with a concentration in public relations and psychology. She is excited to enter the field when she graduates in 2021.