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Lee Levitt, PR pioneer and thought leader, dies at 80

May 26, 2010

Visionary Lee Levitt, APR, passed away May 19, at the age of 80, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Visionary Lee Levitt, APR, passed away May 19, at the age of 80, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

An early champion of public relations, Lee Levitt, APR, was a visionary who helped the young profession grow by building community, establishing professional standards, and utilizing new technology. Levitt played conspicuous roles in the field for more than 50 years.  He passed away May 19, at the age of 80, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Levitt was a national college debate champion representing his alma mater, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  Following service as an officer in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, he moved to New York City, which he loved as a devoted transplant. However, in his soft-spoken geniality he remained a “Southern gentleman” and always enjoyed returning to the Smokey Mountains.

He honed his communications skills and news sense under the guidance of his father, Joseph Levitt, longtime editor at the Knoxville News Sentinel.  He launched his career with his own public relations agency, started in the early 1950s.  With the advent of business computing, he saw the opportunity for the new tool to revolutionize placement of press releases.
In 1958, Levitt co-founded PR Aids, which became one of the largest public relations service organizations in the world at the time.  With offices in eight cities, PR Aids, later known as PRA, served more than 4,000 customers nationwide, including PR agencies as well as corporate and institutional communications departments.

The company offered a new concept for mass distribution of press releases: providing an electronic database of key editors and program producers to enable customers to effectively target the right audience among more than 50,000 print and broadcast media.  PR Aids also published two newsletters, Publicist and Publicity Break, offering timely tips for pitching editorial decision makers.

After PR Aids was sold in 1985, Levitt built a well-respected international consulting practice specializing in PR management, merger and sales strategies. He was at the forefront of forging productive international business relationships and identifying transcontinental market opportunities for his clients. His first-of-its-kind book, “Levitt’s Manual of PR Sales Strategy and Tactics,” sold successfully around the world and was the basis of workshops he conducted for clients and others. 

A dedicated leader in the PR community, Levitt was a member of the PRSA Counselors Academy, and chair of its Technology Professional Interest Section. As a Council member of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), he chaired its prestigious Golden World Awards. 

Throughout his career, Levitt read voraciously and actively commented on current issues.  His views and opinions appeared frequently in Letters to the Editor sections of major newspapers.  He was fond of saying that one of the earliest successful public relations campaigns was implemented by Roman Emperor Alexander the Great, whose rise to power was fueled by making sure that news of his far-flung military victories reached headquarters and was disseminated throughout the Roman Empire.

Levitt is survived by his wife in New York City, Marian Fay Levitt, who is a jewelry designer and lecturer at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  His daughter, Lisa Levitt, is a corporate marketer in Los Angeles, and his brother, Joseph Levitt, Jr., is an attorney in Knoxville, Tenn.

A memorial service in honor of Levitt will be held later in the year.


Don Bates says:

Lee was a great guy. Quiet, diplomatic, insightful, smart. He was a mentor and friend. He helped to bring technology to public relations with the PR Aids media database and his many efforts via CompuServe and other online mediums to make the case for PR's value are too many to mention. He also worked globally on his own and via IPRA to help agencies and practitioners connect with each other for projects, mergers and other opportunities. Suffice it to say, we've lost a good one.

May 27, 2010

Ira Yelle, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

I second Don Bates comments. He helped me with PRSA presentation ideas, and was a mentor to younger PRSA members. His kind will be missed.

May 28, 2010

Howard Sholkin says:

I met Lee years ago during our involvement with PRSA Technology section conferences. He was very insightful, helpful, and unassuming. He talked about international public relations but I never knew how much he contributed to the development of the PR industry. He was a pioneer and pioneers are hard to replace.

May 28, 2010

Mark Weiner says:

In addition to the recognition represented by others before me, let me offer another important contribution to which Lee contributed substantially: the professionalization of PR service providers. Prior to PR Aids, the profession had very little support in terms of harnassing the power of assets we now take for granted: technology, outsourcing and professional standards. Service providers have contributed greatly to the rise of public relations and the proliferation of modern PR support organizations -- media databases, press release production and distribution, and many more -- owe a debt of gratitude to Lee and to the pioneers of his time who recognized PR's potential...and then helped to accelerate its growth, credibility and uniqueness.

June 2, 2010

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