Today is a sad day for public relations. Betsy Plank, 86, died peacefully at her Chicago home this morning.
I first met Betsy at a PRSA conference 40 years ago, and she “adopted” me when I moved to Chicago 23 years ago. We communicated regularly via old-fashioned technology — letters and faxes. Even towards the end, her notes were thoughtful and inspirational. She loved this profession, and mentored hundreds, perhaps thousands of fellow PR professionals.
During Betsy’s more than six decades in PR, she marked many “firsts.” In the early ’70s when we initially met, she was the first woman elected national president of PRSA. Ten years earlier, she had become the first woman president of the Publicity Club of Chicago. Over the years, she received many awards. Besides PRSA’s Gold Anvil as outstanding U.S. professional, Betsy also received the Distinguished Service Award from the Arthur W. Page Society in 2000. Public Relations News named her in 1984 as one of the Worlds’ 40 Outstanding Public Relations Leaders. She is the only person to have been president of four Chicago communications organizations: Publicity Club of Chicago; Welfare Public Relations Forum; Chicago Chapter PRSA; and the Public Relations Forum. Last year, the Publicity Club recognized her with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Beginning her career in the agency world, Betsy eventually became Executive Vice President and Treasurer at Edelman. From there, she moved to a corporate job by joining the Bell System. After serving as AT&T Director of Public Relations Planning, she became the first woman to head a department at Illinois Bell, directing urban, community and educational affairs, issues management and economic development. She retired in 1990, but did not slow down. For the past 20 years, Betsy has been a wise counselor to many PR pros, and she has devoted countless hours to volunteer and civic activities.
In her 2002 acceptance remarks upon becoming the first woman to receive the Institute for Public Relations’ Alexander Hamilton Award, Betsy said, “In my philosophy, public relations is fundamental to a democratic society where people make decisions in the workplace, marketplace, the community and the voting booth. Its primary mission is to forge responsible relationships of understanding, trust and respect among groups and individuals – even when they disagree! Mr. Hamilton’s historic work continues to inspire and inform that difficult challenge today.”
A leading advocate of PR education, Betsy founded the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at her alma mater, the University of Alabama (graduated 1944). I was honored when Betsy invited me to serve on the center’s board. The PRSSA chapter at Northern Illinois University is named in her honor. She also is founder and co-chair of the Champions for PRSSA.
Betsy was married to the late Sherman V. Rosenfield, and up until last year she spent several summer afternoons on his beloved boat on Lake Michigan.
At Betsy’s request, no memorial service or funeral will be held. Donations in her name may be made to The Plank Center for Public Relations Leadership at the University of Alabama, Box 870172, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0172. Bequests can be made online through this University of Alabama link. Friends are discussing memorial tributes, including something at the PRSA national conference and during a future Plank Center event.
Hear Betsy’s own words about careers in PR in one of the several You Tube videos highlighting her wise insights about the profession. Her acceptance speech for the Arthur Page Distinguished Service Award — “Extending the Spirit of Arthur Page to Those Who Will Follow” — underscores her deep, personal commitment to young professionals.
Indeed, today is a sad day for those of us who knew and loved Betsy. But Betsy would want us to focus on the future through a celebration of her life.