Women’s History Month: Four Women PR Leaders You Should Know
I’m proud to have so many driven, accomplished and powerful female colleagues in the PR industry at large and here at The Bliss Group. Many of the close mentors I’ve had at Bliss have been women, and seeing them achieve success for themselves and for their clients is incredibly motivating. As a young professional, I don’t take for granted the fact that I have so many women role models working alongside me and guiding my work. Coincidentally, the day that I finished this blog post was the day our firm announced Cortney Stapleton as our new CEO. Seeing a woman reach the leading position at the firm was an empowering moment of recognition of the value of women’s expertise within the PR industry.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2022 Current Population Survey, 67% of public relations specialists are women. Though PR is a woman-dominated field, we do not always take the time to appreciate their leadership throughout the industry’s history or acknowledge the barriers in the path of their success.
This Women’s History Month, here are four prominent women in PR history you should know – and where their legacy leaves us today.
- Doris Fleischman (1891-1980)
Fleischman is known as a pioneer in public relations. She began her career writing for the New York Tribune, and she brought these strong writing skills to the PR industry. Fleischman was hired by publicist Edward L. Bernays, her eventual husband, at his New York PR firm. There, she wrote the majority of the firm’s press releases and other communications. Unfortunately, she didn’t receive the credit she deserved for her accomplishments in this role and for her success in creating a brand name and reputation for her husband’s firm. As a working woman in the early 1900s, Fleischman was a feminist involved in women’s suffrage and efforts for pay equity. She is also famously known as being the first woman to keep her maiden name on her passport. Fleischman was awarded the Theta Sigma Phi (sorority of women in communications) Headliner Award in 1972 for her success and influence in the industry.
- Inez Y. Kaiser (1918-2016)
Kaiser was the first Black woman to start and run her own PR firm. Kaiser began working in communications as a hobby, serving as a column writer while maintaining a teaching job. A Black newspaper editor suggested Kaiser go into PR, and she took his advice as she transitioned away from her teaching role. Kaiser lived during the Jim Crow era in Kansas City, and she struggled to obtain a lease for her firm due to racism. Despite these systemic barriers, Kaiser persisted in starting her own firm and obtained large, national clients including Burger King and 7UP. Kaiser is also known for her involvement in the civil rights movement and the NAACP, and she was the first Black woman to join the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). She received an honorary Doctor of Law from Lincoln University for her groundbreaking work in PR and for her work as a teacher in Missouri.
- Muriel Fox (1928-)
Fox is most famously known as co-founder of the National Organization for Women, for which she also headed public relations. Fox previously worked as a copywriter for Sears Roebuck, then served as a publicist on political campaigns. Looking to advance her career, she applied for a job at the largest PR firm at the time, Carl Byoir and Associations, and was met with the following rejection: “We don’t hire women writers.” She eventually obtained a position in a different department at the firm and became their youngest vice president at just 26 years old. In 1976, she was one of Business Week’s Top 100 Corporate Women, and she received the Business Leader of the Year award from Americans for Democratic Action.
- Betsy Plank (1924-2010)
Plank is often referred to as the “First Lady” of public relations – so named for her breakthroughs in high leadership positions in the PR industry. Throughout her 63-year career, she served as executive vice president of Daniel J. Edelman, Inc. (today, Edelman), public relations planning director at AT&T and director of external affairs at Illinois Bell. In 1973, Plank became the first woman president of the Public Relations Society of America. She was known for her focus on PR education for undergraduates, and she served as a mentor for many in the next generation of PR professionals. Plank was the first person to receive three of PRSA’s top awards: the Gold Anvil Award in 1977, the Paul M. Lund Public Service award in 1989 and the Patrick Jackson Award for Distinguished Service to PRSA in 2002.
Uplifting Women in PR
Throughout history and continuing today, many women have provided their dedication and talents to the PR industry, helping establish best practices and serve their clients’ needs.
However, across all workplaces there are less women in leadership and management positions, showing that there is more to be done to create an equitable work environment that supports women’s progression. There’s also striking racial disparities in which women make it to the top, meaning that our inclusion must validate intersectional identities and give women from all backgrounds the chance to lead and succeed in the industry.
This Women’s History Month, I’m especially grateful for my colleagues and mentors who have reaffirmed the value of women’s role in the industry. I hope this month inspires PR professionals at all levels and career stages to look back at foundational female leaders. Their stories can inform and inspire how we enable women’s success in PR moving forward.
By Hailey Oppenlander
Photo by Pexels