PR Women Who Changed History

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Published on April 26, 2017, at 10:02 a.m.
by Dr. Meg Lamme, APR, Contributing Writer

To celebrate National Women’s History Month, the Museum of Public Relations, co-founded by Shelley Spector and Barry Spector of Spector & Associates, an independent PR firm in New York, held a forum on March 9 to celebrate women’s history in public relations. The event followed on the heels of Black PR History Month on Feb. 9, an event to be reprised on May 3.

Titled “PR Women Who Changed History,” the event, which attracted more than 100 students and professionals, featured author Anne Bernays Kaplan, daughter of Edward L. Bernays and Doris Elsa Fleischman Bernays, and Muriel Fox, the first woman executive at the then leading U.S. PR firm, Carl Byoir & Associates, who also co-founded and served as communications director for the National Organization for Women. Renee Wilson, former chief client officer at MSLGroup and current president of the PR Council, (http://prcouncil.net/) served as emcee and closed the forum by introducing a new initiative from the Council, “Shequality,” developed to engage “women in helping women to rise in the executive ranks of PR.”

Along with my colleagues, Dr. Karen Miller Russell, University of Georgia, and Dr. Karla Gower, who spoke about Betsy Plank, our role was to help provide historical perspective through our Q&As. Among those in attendance were Anne Bernays’ daughters, Hester Kaplan and Polly Kaplan, and Hester’s son Toby Stein; Pat Ford, worldwide vice chair/chief client officer of Burson-Marsteller, and a board member of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and the Museum; Dick Martin, former CCO of AT&T; Jack O’Dwyer, editor of O’Dwyer’s, a newsletter for PR and marketing; and PR luminaries such as Patrice Tanaka, Maureen Lippe and Fay Shapiro.

Anne Bernays (left) and Muriel Fox, at the “PR Women Who Changed History” event on March 9. Bernays and Fox were at Barnard College at the same time (Fox was a few years ahead of Bernays there), and, we learned, they had double-dated a number of times while there. Bernays’ date was Earl Hamner, author of “Spencer’s Mountain,” the book on which the hit 1970s TV series, “The Waltons,” was based, and creator of the 1980s prime time soap drama, “Falcon Crest.” Bernays would later marry Pulitzer Prize winning writer Justin Kaplan.

Highlights from the event included clips of interviews with Bernays and Fox, as well as still images dropped behind Fox regarding her PR work for the Equal Rights Amendment as she discussed her climb at the Carl Byoir Agency—which at first didn’t want to hire a woman for any position other than secretary. Fox worked at Byoirthere by day as she helped to grow NOW; as a result of this dual role, she was able at times to create connections between and among her agency, its clients and community stakeholders that would otherwise not have occurred.

As to insights into Fleischman and how much we can credit her with the success of the firm she and Eddie Bernays founded, Anne Bernays made it clear that her mother was an equal but silent partner, brilliant and perceptive—as evidenced by the quality and quantity of the written works she left behind (many of which are on display at the Museum of Public Relations). But, she said, the best way to know Fleischman’s contributions to the firm and to 20th century public relations, to understand her real influence, would be found in the one-on-one conversations between Doris and Eddie—that no one else heard.

You can watch the event in full via Facebook Live, and you can visit the Museum website to watch videos of Muriel Fox, Anne Bernays and Betsy Plank.

The author wishes to thank Shelley Spector and Dr. Karen Russell for their assistance in writing this article.

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