Published on May 23, 2022, 10:08 a.m.
by Annemarie Munoz, Guest Contributor.
In the United States, women make up 60-80% of the public relations workforce but occupy only one in five leadership positions. Betsy Plank dared to change the role of women in leadership and marked many firsts in the industry making her known as the first lady of public relations. How did she dare to change PR? In 1963 she was the first female president of Chicago’s Publicity Club, and in 1973 she became the first female president of the Public Relations Society of America.
Today, that daring spirit can continue to push the boundaries of the industry just as it did half a century ago.
Charlene Wheeless challenged PR practitioners and students at the 5th annual Allen H. Center Distinguished Lecture for Public Relations to dare to change PR. The event, hosted by the Glen M. Broom Center for Professional Development in Public Relations, had record attendance for Wheeless’ keynote according to Dr. Kaye Sweetser, director of the Broom Center. Wheeless focused her message on changing an entire industry from within as a Black woman in corporate America.
After more than three decades of experience in the PR industry and having been surrounded by white executive men, Wheeless knows about being your own advocate. She asked the audience to remember the following:
• “You are enough.” You don’t need to change parts of yourself to fit in; your one-of-a-kind amazingness is enough. Trailblazer Inez Kaiser knew she was enough as she fought against institutionalized racism and became the first Black woman to found a national PR firm in 1957. She went on to become the first Black professional of PRSA and served as an adviser for two U.S. presidents. Kaiser also founded Del Sprites, an organization helping disadvantaged African-American high school girls pursue higher education — reminding them that they too are enough. Her determination and grit paved the way for Black women and girls in leadership everywhere.
• “Choice, not chance, changes your life.” To change your circumstances, you must first make the choice to fight for what you believe in. In 1987 Marilyn Laurie fought her way through the masculine hierarchy of PR. She battled systematic sexism throughout her career and became the first female chief communication officer of a Fortune 10 company. Laurie was responsible for the first-ever Earth Day campaign. Today, Earth Day is a nationally recognized holiday. Laurie’s assertiveness and result-driven attitude shot her through the ranks of PR.
• “Seven seconds of courage.” Once you make the choice to change your life, you only need seven seconds of courage to make small changes that will last a lifetime. In 1950 the Alliance for Women in Media was founded by 282 courageous women. Since its inception, the alliance has committed to supporting education, opportunity and recognition of women pursuing careers in media. Courageously, they have taken the charge from within and work tirelessly to provide opportunities for women in an often inequitable environment. The alliance has celebrated 70 years of courage and fights for women’s voices in media leadership knowing that every voice is different and rich in individual context.
Abril Sosa-Pineda, a PR major studying at San Diego State University, was inspired to apply Wheeless’ words to her life.
“I really enjoyed attending the lecture. I found it to be reassuring and inspiring. As a PR student, it’s hard to envision how you can change the industry, but it really just takes seven seconds to gather the courage to do whatever,” she said.
As the event came to an end, Wheeless dared the crowd to change PR and remember that when you stand up for what you believe in, change will follow.
“I want you to dare to change PR, but I do not want you to stop there. I want you to dare to change the world and let PR follow,” she said.