There are certain traditions or practices in the PR industry that we take for granted. But quite often they start with one person's vision. We lost two people this week, Betsy Plank and Lee Levitt, both professionals in their 80s, both beloved and admired by colleagues and industry leaders— and both pioneers in their own specific ways.
Plank was previously external relations director at Illinois Bell, the first woman at the company to run a division. But her passion was for mentoring. She was instrumental in the formation of the Public Relations Student Society of America, PRSA's student organization, and The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, at the University of Alabama, is named for her.
In a telling anecdote, InsideEdge's Keith Burton told me how at PRSA annual conferences, Plank routinely elected to stay in the student hotel and spend her time with the PRSSA crowd. It wasn't a matter of duty, it was her joy.
The importance of mentoring and training the young is, to some extent, taken for granted now, as more PR leaders invest time in either their firms, professional organizations, or their alma maters for that purpose. But the energy that Plank invested in this area for the whole of her career is surely one reason why it is so prevalent today.
Lee Levitt had a different trajectory. In his later years, when I got to know him, he was a common sight at PRWeek events, always deeply interested in the proceedings as well as meeting people. He was an early adopter of laptops, and always had one with him, even back when they weighed a lot more than they do now.
He did not talk about himself much, which is why I had no idea about PR Aids, which he founded in 1958. The company offered an electronic database of editors and television and radio producers that was designed to help PR professionals target their pitches. Levitt went on to do many other things after the company was sold, including consulting with agencies about international partners, but his legacy of putting science and data behind PR efforts is incredibly resonant today.
And he simply loved the profession. “He loved the industry, and truly believed in its value, despite its warts, controversies, and issues,” Don Bates of George Washington University told me. “He loved the idea of people trying to ameliorate differences.”
These two very different stories and legacies form part of the fabric of a still-developing profession. We sometimes struggle to find inspiration in our own organizations. Plank and Levitt remind me that the roots of true innovation are found in the passion of the individual.