Kathy Lewton thought chairing the PRSA would be more about
messaging than juggling numbers. But as Adam Leyland reports, her
circus family background and politically active aunt have shaped her
into a capable leader.
After months and years of internal bickering and a very public hiatus
over accounting anomalies, there's been a quiet revolution going on at
the PRSA. There's a new sense of focus, accountability, and
And if new COO Catherine Bolton has been the new broom for this
revolution, 2001 PRSA chairman Kathy Lewton has been the shovel, working
tirelessly behind the scenes to get the PRSA back in shape.
"Kathy went through the budgets line by line, dollar by dollar -
slashing, burning, questioning, retargeting," recalls Bolton from those
dark days in January. "We worked until past midnight, night after night
to get it fixed."
Lewton, with her customary good humor, chuckles at the "exquisite irony"
of the experience - because balancing the books and fixing internal
infrastructure issues was the last thing she had in mind when she took
the job. "The platform I ran on was to quit the internal stuff and get
out there with the message about what a wonderful and important
profession this is. It's hilarious. I hate numbers, but it had to be
done," she says.
But that's Lewton through and through. Never afraid to steamroll through
obstacles ("Some people don't like my candor. I say, 'Get over it'"),
she has a Midwesterner's roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic. If there's a
job to be done, she'll do it. And since she's also a partner and SVP in
the New York healthcare practice of Fleishman-Hillard, she does that job
CEO John Graham is another fan. "She wanted to do it, and I felt that
the PRSA needed some real leadership and integrity, so we've supported
her." As things have turned out, however, Lewton has hardly slacked at
the office at all. "I cut my client load back from six to three, but
then the programs all grew. I'm 80% billable. I guess if I added PRSA I
would be 140-150% billable."
A lifelong healthcare specialist, her biggest client - CV Therapeutics -
is in Palo Alto, CA. Her other clients are in Chicago (Abbott Pharma)
and Virginia (University of Virginia Health Systems). Since she works in
New York, she explains, "I fly a lot."
But for the slightly manic Lewton ("I'm only half there sometimes, but
it's my best half"), juggling multiple tasks is in her blood. Her
father's family members were circus performers - her uncle was a trapeze
artist; her niece rode the elephants. She says she gained her sense of
fun "and costumes" from them.
To understand Lewton, however, you also need to know about her mother's
family, full of vociferous Democrats. In particular, Lewton cites the
influence of her aunt, a labor union organizer in the 1920s who led
rallies and strikes, and even went to jail. "She was not shy," says
Roots such as these have enabled Lewton to handle some complicated
professional conflicts. As well as having two demanding jobs, Lewton is
married to John Deats, a senior PR practitioner most recently at GCI,
where he headed up the healthcare practice. "We just don't talk about
that which we can't talk about," says Lewton.
Bolton attests not just to Lewton's work ethic, but to her results, and
the systems she's put in place to make things work better. For example,
Lewton assigned an individual PRSA staff member to act as a liaison
officer for each of the 22 committees, with responsibility for reporting
back to the board. "In the past, it was a challenge to get a PRSA
staffer to say 'no' to a committee member. Kathy has encouraged a sense
Bolton also praises her recruiting ability. "When people asked to help,
she wasted no time in getting them on board. She's an amazing woman - a
great leader who gets ideas and follows them through."
Lewton is looking forward to the PRSA conference in October. "The
national conference will see an almost 50% increase in professional
development seminars," she says. And, with just four months to go until
the end of her tenure, Lewton is also hoping to enjoy some payback for
all the hard work by taking the message out to the wider community. She
will be speaking at the Detroit Economic Club in early October, and says
more speaking engagements are being arranged. She also has 25 speeches
lined up for the fall to address local chapters of the PRSA. And she is
looking for ways to collaborate with the Arthur Page Society, The
Council of PR Firms, and others.
Does she ever find any spare time to chill out? In a manner of speaking:
Lewton has a huge collection of plush toys in the office. "I like to
play; it's good therapy." She also reads four to five books a week,
("mystery books: I read the first chapter and the last"). She loves to
cook. And in her Connecticut home tucked away in the woods, her garden
is a retreat.
Just don't expect Lewton to put her feet up; she's busy planting and
1966-1971: Reporter, The Daily Pantagraph, Illinois
1971-1976: Assistant director of PR, Bowling Green State University,
1976-1977: Graduate, Northwestern University
1977-1982: Director of PR, Flower Hospital, Toledo, OH
1982-1990: VP, PR, St. Vincent Medical Center, Toledo, OH
1990-1992: VP, marketing and PR, University Hospitals of Cleveland
1992-1993: SVP, marketing and PR, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center,
1993-1996: VP, Porter Novelli healthcare
1996-1998: Head of healthcare practice, Porter Novelli
1998-1999: EVP, Porter Novelli
1999: SVP, Fleishman-Hillard
2001: Partner, Fleishman-Hillard
2001: PRSA chairman