Posted: February 14, 2014, 4:30 p.m.,
by Myreete Wolford.
“Stories about Betsy [Plank] are legendary.”
Chief Communications Officer of Wisconsin Energy Co. Rick White agreed to do an interview with me regarding his work with the board of advisors for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. But little did he know, he would be breaking protocol and beginning a series of testimonies to honor the center’s founder, herself.
“She made you feel like you were the only one that mattered,” White explained from his own memories with Plank. “And that was even more so the younger and newer to our profession you were.”
Betsy Plank was a leader in public relations, the first lady of Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), the “grandmother” of many young professionals according to White, and the founder of The Plank Center. Beyond all of that, she was a pioneer for women in PR and a mentor to everyone she met.
The associate dean of P. I. Reed School of Journalism of West Virginia University, Diana Martinelli, understood firsthand just how much Plank did for women in public relations.
“As a woman, she was a trailblazer in the PR profession,” Martinelli raved. “She served as an executive at Edelman, owned her own successful agency and led PRSA as its first woman president in the early 1970s. She was smart, tenacious and passionate throughout her professional life.”
Martinelli sat on a couple of national-level PRSA education committees with Plank and admired her energy and passion for PRSSA and for PR education in general.
“She didn’t just talk the talk,” Martinelli said. “She lived it, continuing to think of creative ways to support students, PRSSA and PR education.”
Plank looked out for the next generation of leaders in public relations. Most people have a mentor, but few lead and motivate like Betsy Plank could. And no one understood this gift more than the manager of communications for the Chicago Cubs, Kevin Saghy.
“I was PRSSA national president when I got to know Betsy very well,” Saghy said. “She identified with me as a new practitioner, and she immediately took me under her wing.”
Saghy continued telling a story of Plank’s innate ability to make one feel special.
“When I was applying for jobs in Chicago, she insisted I stay in her spare apartment,” Saghy said with a smile you could hear over the phone and a humble tone that has never left him.
“She prepared me for my interview, then took me out to meet the people she thought I needed to know,” Saghy explained. “I walked into my interview and the first thing they asked was how I liked Chicago and where I was staying. Her gesture and ongoing mentorship gave me a boost of credibility that I am very grateful for.”
Plank was a rarity in the communications industry, yet she would not agree. She handpicked the first Plank Center’s board of advisors based on their own rarity to the field. Complete with advisors of strong leadership, true ethics and mentorship ability, The Plank Center is a direct reflection of the legacy she left.
“This is why I am so passionate about The Plank Center,” Saghy added. “How could I not carry on her legacy after all that she has done for me?”
Beyond the norm of business, Plank loved face-to-face communication, typewriters and faxing her handwritten letters. She also always had a camera with her to capture important moments. After hearing the stories of Plank, ex-officio board member Brian Price has been able to see technology in a new way even through his millennial eyes.
“As technology grew, she still insisted on the importance of direct human interaction,” Price said. “The sincerity of a personal connection can go a long way.”
Although Price is the first PRSSA National president to have never met Plank, he was able to perfectly summarize Plank’s legacy.
“Betsy was deeply passionate about mentorship,” Price said. “She wanted to set an example for those to come, which should inspire all of us to not only seek out help and advice, but also to step up to assist others. She continuously cared about others much more than herself. It was her focus on others that has, unintentionally, brought her so much attention and respect today.”
While interviewing the 23 board members of The Plank Center, I found that each one of them had a unique Plank story or lesson to share. Some were of hospitality, others were just of the shaking of hands, but no matter the time, the impact was the same.
Writer’s note: I wish I had the honor to meet her.