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Kansas City native wrote fashion columns, then formed PR firm
By JAMES R. HAGERTY
Aug. 12, 2016 2:58 p.m. ET
Inez Kaiser, a feisty home economics teacher, branched out in middle age to become a fashion writer and pioneer in public relations.
The Kansas native in the late 1950s became the first African-American woman to own a PR firm serving national clients, according to the Public Relations Society of America. She worked with clients including Seven-Up Co., Lever Brothers Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. She also served as an adviser to the federal government on minority-owned business in the 1970s.
The 5-foot-tall Ms. Kaiser often encountered discrimination but “never backed down from anyone or anything,” said her son, Rick Kaiser.
Ms. Kaiser died July 31 at a hospital in Overland Park, Kan. She was 98 and had been suffering from kidney disease.
At times, Ms. Kaiser had to do some aggressive PR on her own behalf, she recalled in an interview with the Kansas City Star two years ago. When she sought downtown office space in Kansas City, Mo., for her firm in the early 1960s, agents kept telling her no space was available.
“When things don’t work out, I get a Plan B,” she said. “So I went to the office that was in charge of all the rentals and told them, ‘If I don’t get an office by tomorrow, I’m going to call the presidents of NBC, CBS and ABC to come to Kansas City and see what’s going on.’” She finally got her space without having to call in the TV networks.
Inez Louise Yeargan was born April 22, 1918, in Kansas City, Kan. Her father was a house painter, and her mother did domestic work. When she enrolled at Kansas State Teachers College in the 1930s, she said in an interview recorded by the Museum of Public Relations in New York, “the sewing teacher told us to all go home. She didn’t want any black students in her class. I told her I wasn’t going anywhere...and I stayed right there and got my degree.”
She later earned a master of arts degree in home and family life at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.
For 26 years, she taught home economics courses in and around Kansas City. As a sideline, she began writing a column in the mid-1950s called “Fashionwise and Otherwise” that ran in African-American newspapers. She covered fashion shows in New York and Paris and prodded garment makers to offer pictures of black models, not just whites. She also wrote a cookbook, “Soul Food Cookery.”
A friend suggested she try public relations. “I never heard of public relations,” she later said, but she set up her own firm, Inez Kaiser & Associates, and began pitching for business. She got a contract to work for Seven-Up, she said, because an executive there liked the way she admitted she didn’t know the answer to one of his questions but would get back to him within a day.
In the 1970s, she organized a group called Del Sprites that helped junior and senior high-school girls learn social graces and pursue higher education. The public relations division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication later created a college scholarship program in her honor.
Ms. Kaiser told the Kansas City Star she was a Republican “because all the people who helped me get my business started were Republicans.” The Nixon administration sent her to represent the U.S. at an economic conference in Africa. She served as an adviser on minorities in business during the Ford administration. President Ford “was someone that I dearly loved,” she said, recalling that she wept when he lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.
Despite her Republican leanings, her son said, she voted for Barack Obama in two presidential elections.
In her final months, a rash of racially tinged violence swept across the U.S. During his eulogy, her son said: “She believed in doing something, not just saying something. So I am asking if all of you will do something. The next time you go to your place of worship, ask someone to go with you that doesn’t look like you.”
Her hobbies included watching baseball and other sports. When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series last year, she dispatched her son to buy victory T-shirts for more than 60 employees at her nursing home.
Ms. Kaiser is survived by her son, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Her husband, Richard Kaiser, a former postal worker, died in 2003.
Write to James R. Hagerty at firstname.lastname@example.org
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In 2015, we had the privilege of speaking with Inez Kaiser, the founder of the first African American female-owned public relations agency in the United States. Listen to this one-of-a-kind interview: http://www.prmuseum.org/video-and-audio/#inez
Kaiser, born on April 22, 1918, grew up in Kansas, in a time — the 1930s — when African Americans living in the South were not allowed the opportunity of a higher education. But, determined to go to college, Kaiser applied to Pittsburgh State University in 1941, and was admitted. Kaiser began her career as a teacher in Missouri, where she spent a lot of her free time writing. Her column, “Fashion-Wise and Otherwise,” was published in African American-owned newspapers across the country. One day an editor suggested that she go into public relations, a field Kaiser had never known of before, but was hooked once she learned about it. In 1957, she opened Inez Kaiser & Associates, the first public relations firm headed by an African American woman in the U.S. It was also the first African American owned business to open in Kansas City, Missouri. In a recent telephone interview conducted by the Museum, Inez gave this advice to PR practitioners: "Always be thorough and honest with your clients, and try your best to develop personal relationships with them.”
Betsy Plank (1924–2010), known as the First Lady of public relations, achieved a number of firsts for women in the field and acquired international recognition through her 63-year career. Plank was devoted to public relations education and to the growth of the PR industry. She spearheaded the development of the Public Relations Student Society of America and earned the moniker “the Godmother of PRSSA.” She also helped develop guidelines for the national curriculum for undergraduate public relations university courses in 1987. She lectured many public relations classes and mentored a number of students and young professionals during her career, leaving a legacy of giving back through education and guidance to the next generation of PR professionals
Her keen business insight and creativity allowed her to become one of the most influential and respected PR leaders of her era. After beginning her career at a small agency serving not for profit clients, Plank worked for 13 years at Edelman Public Relations, where she rose to become executive vice president. In 1973 she joined AT&T as director of public relations planning, and then moved onto Illinois Bell Telephone Company as director of external affairs.
Plank was a PR pioneer. She was the first woman to be elected president of the Publicity Club of Chicago in 1963 and the Public Relations Society of America in 1973. She was also once of the most honored women in PR, being the first person to receive three PRSA individual honors.
Learn 90 facts about Betsy Plank: https://issuu.com/theplankcenter/docs/betsyplank90factsbookfinal/13?e=9105177%2F7306382