|Don’t Like the Rules of Modern-Day PR? Blame it On Ivy Lee
By: Jeannine Wheeler
Not many PR practitioners today will know a man called Ivy Lee, yet he is the modern-day founder of public relations. He called himself a "physician to corporate bodies" and believed that companies should not conceal the truth from the press and that business leaders should not shun publicity.
Born near Cedartown, Georgia in 1877, Ivy Ledbetter Lee was a newspaperman, author, publicity manager, and influential pioneer who espoused the PR ethics we know today, including client openness, crisis comms, and corporate social responsibility.
Lee was the son of a Methodist minister and member of a prominent Atlanta family. He studied at Emory College and graduated from Princeton, after which he worked as a newspaper reporter and stringer for the New York American, the New York Times, and the New York World.
He soon moved on to the world of PR, using his journalistic writing and media-savvy skills to become publicity manager for Citizens’ Union. He authored a book called The Best Administration New York City Ever Had and later took a job with the Democratic National Committee.
Together with George Parker, in 1905 Lee established the U.S.’s third public relations firm, called Parker and Lee. The new agency boasted of "accuracy, authenticity and interest": three PR characteristics still held in high esteem today.
He outlined his philosophy in his Declaration of Principles, believed to be the first articulation of the concept that PR practitioners have a public responsibility that extends beyond obligations to their clients.
He articulated this point during the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck, when he issued what is considered to be the very first press release by convincing the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to openly disclose information to journalists before they could ascertain the information from other sources.
“Tell the truth,” he said, “because sooner or later the public will find out anyway. And if the public doesn’t like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want.”
PR professionals, of course, routinely counsel this today.
If you’ve ever been frustrated by not having access to C-level suites, Lee overcame this objection as well. He was hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1912, and was considered to be the first PR person to be placed in an executive-level position.
You can also thank him for your job description. He drafted one of the very first VP-level corporate public relations positions.
In 1919, he founded the public relations counseling office Ivy Lee & Associates.
He was a firm believer in corporate public responsibility.
Lee believed in a philosophy that has sometimes been called the "two-way street" approach to PR, in which public relations advises clients to listen, as well as to communicate to their stakeholders and the public.
He counseled Bethlehem Steel Corporation, where he advised managers to list and number their top priorities every day, working on the tasks in order of importance until the day ran out, not moving on to the next task until each was completed. For this, company head Charles M. Schwab reportedly paid him $25,000, calling it the most profitable advice he had ever received.
He was controversial as well.
Lee worked as PR counsel to the Rockefeller family and its business concerns, including Standard Oil and the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company. Many believe he was the originator of modern-day crisis communications. In fact, his skills were sorely tested in 1914 during the coal mining rebellion in Colorado known as the Ludlow Massacre, when there were some deaths. Lee reportedly sent out bulletins attributing those deaths to an overturned stove, when in reality the victims were shot by the Colorado militia. At one point, Upton Sinclair called him Poison Ivy.
He advised other latter-day behemoths as well, including George Westinghouse, Charles Lindbergh, John W. Davis, Otto Kahn, and Walter Chrysler.
Not bad for a PR and certainly one with a key to the C-Suites.
His greatest innovation was his frank, open policy toward the press; he not only answered reporters’ queries but also notified the press of newsworthy developments within the companies he represented.
He died in New York City on November 9, 1934.
If Lee could only have imagined how important (and challenging) that advice is today, with a 24-hour news cycle, digital news services, influential bloggers, social media, and an unprecedented ability for the public to weigh in on any crisis — whether miniscule, silly, or profound.
Jeannine Wheeler is a PR Director who has worked in three countries, including Russia, the US and the UK. She is currently Sr. Vice President of Pure Energy PR, a full-service boutique communications firm with a focus on the energy, healthcare, technology, construction, real estate & land development, tourism & hospitality and food & beverage industries. Jeannine is in the firm's Austin, Texas office.