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Betsy Plank Continues to be a PR Legend

Published on March 23, 2024, 8:53 p.m.
by Alexis Anderson.

The month of March is Women’s History Month. Every year, Women’s History Month is observed to honor the contributions made by women to historical events and modern society. One of these women is Betsy Plank, who is known as the “First Lady of public relations” and “a PR pioneer.”

Photo via The Plank Center

Plank had her own 10 Professional Commandments that she went by in her career, and those she mentored still go by them today. She also had a way of creating a lasting impact on the people that she was around. Between the conversations that she would have with others and the way she worked and lived, those moments and memories still stick with her mentees and those with whom she worked.

As most professionals seem to be concerned with how many people they know and how many connections they can gain, Plank was focused on creating real relationships.

This was one thing that resonated with Ron Culp, who is a founding board member of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, Professional in Residence for Advertising and Public Relations at DePaul University, and a mentee of Betsy Plank.

“Betsy was adamant about having relationships that were deeper than the surface,” said Culp. “She would never just start out a conversation. She would want to know, ‘How are you doing?’ And Betsy meant it, she wanted to know how you’re doing.”

Kevin Saghy, former member of The Plank Center Board of Advisors, former PRSSA National president, and current founder and principal of Earned Impression, was also mentored by Betsy Plank. He recalled how the way she believed in him impacted him in his professional career.

“She looked at me as such a leader as a student and had that expectation that that would continue throughout my career,” said Saghy. “She found the good in everyone and found that thing to latch on to, and it’s believable. And, you know, when someone else believes in you that much and shows you that, I think it really is inspiring.”

Saghy also remembers how close they got through working together and how special she made everyone around her feel.

Photo via Adobe Stock by bernardbodo

“I just worked my tail off with her, and by the end, she was like family,” said Saghy. “I remember when she died, and everyone came in, and I felt really special because I knew I had all of these stories about her, and I felt like I was No. 1 on her list. When everyone else started telling stories too, I honestly got a little jealous, but then I realized this woman had hundreds of people who felt like they were her No. 1. How powerful and rare is that?”

Saghy now takes this realization into consideration throughout his professional career and as a mentor, wanting to be that person for others, who Plank was for him.

One of Plank’s 10 Professional Commandments is “Invest in something in the profession you practice.” Culp was able to give a testament to this directive in how she aspired for him to be a teacher in the public relations field.

“In our conversation she said, ‘No, we don’t want an academic,’” said Culp. “‘You have a Ph.D. in experience. So we want you to come in and share what you know with the students,’ so, in that, she set the foundation of me thinking about teaching public relations, and now it’s been 14 years and I’m still doing it.”

Plank also inspired Saghy in the area of ethics. He remembered how Plank would dig her heels in and stick to her decision even if she was the only one in the room who felt that way.

“I’ve been in a couple of rooms where I had to dig my heels in and really push back and actually change the tide on the course of action or conversation,” said Saghy. “And when it turned out really well, I was really proud. I was like, ‘These are the moments that she would be proud of me for doing this.’”

Plank had many achievements. Not only was she the first female president of PRSA, but also she was “the first person ever to receive three of PRSA’s top individual honors: The Gold Anvil Award (1977), the Paul M. Lund Public Service Award (1989) and the Patrick Jackson Award for Distinguished Service to PRSA (2001). She was also honored with the first Arthur W. Page Society’s Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award and the Public Relations Institute’s Hamilton Award in 2002,” according to The Plank Center  website.

Dr. Karla Gower, Behringer Distinguished Professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Alabama and director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, wrote a book about Plank titled “Betsy Ann Plank: The Making of a Public Relations Icon” to honor what Plank did for the public relations field. She also further noted how well Plank worked with men during a time where there weren’t many women working in professional careers such as PR.

Photo via Adobe Stock by Lek

“One of the things about her was that I think she was a strong woman,” said Gower. “And at a time when there were certainly women in the field, but not as many as there are today, she was liked and really well respected by men. She even thought of herself as one of the good old boys.”

Plank made such an impact, not only on the public relations industry, but also on the people who knew her. The way she treated others and always made personal connections, the inspiration and confidence she had in those she mentored, and how strong of a woman and professional she was, still stick in the memories of those who were around her.

This legacy is why public relations professionals continue to go by her words and practices even today.

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