PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Foreshadowing the explanatory and the mutual satisfaction phases of public relations,
Ivy Lee was decades ahead of his contemporaries.
revised; © 2015 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Ivy Lee was an early practitioner, perhaps even the originator, of the explanatory approach to public relations. He not only practiced public relations but aggressively explained its purpose and defended its actions. This helped shape public perceptions of the field and also set standards that other practitioners felt compelled to follow.

Despite these progressive views, he remains an enigma. After masterminding a number of major public relations coups, he ended his career under a dark cloud of suspicion accused of working for both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Ivy Ledbetter Lee graduated from Princeton and entered Harvard Law School in 1898, but he soon ran out of money and dropped out. Having developed strong writing skills while working on the campus newspaper during college, he became a business reporter for the New York Journal and later a stringer for The New York Times and the New York World. But, by 1903 he was disenchanted by the low pay and long hours associated with newspaper reporting and turned to the greener pastures in the then-emerging field of public relations, just as many other frustrated journalists had done. However, he did not completely renounce journalism; he relied heavily on his journalistic skills and remained deeply committed to its ideals.

He and his friend George Parker soon opened their own public relations firm -- one of the first in the United States -- and promised that its work would be characterized by the journalistic qualities of "accuracy, authenticity, and interest," traits which were pretty rate among the vast majority of hyperbole-spouting publicity specialists and press agents of those days. They even issued a formal Declaration of Principles to demonstrate their commitment to journalistic integrity.

Lee's Declaration of Principles sought journalistic legitimacy for public relations.

Excerpts from
Ivy Lee's Declaration of Principles

"This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news.

"This is not an advertising agency. If you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it.

"Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most carefully in verifying directly any statement of fact. ...

"In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about."

This Declaration of Principles is undoubtedly Lee's longest lasting and most sweeping contribution to the profession. It was developed and distributed to the media in 1906 when he and Parker were advising anthracite coal operators on how they should respond to a strike. They issued the declaration hoping it would counteract, or at least soothe, the rising hostility some newspaper editors and reporters were showing to other public relations practitioners who were issuing press releases, running ads that were meant to look like news stories, and making other efforts to manipulate news coverage.

Lee's commitment to these principles became even more evident in his handling of a fatal accident on the Pennsylvania Railroad than it had been in the coal strike. Previously, American railroads had simply glossed over any accidents that occurred and didn't even acknowledge that they had occurred. They would cover up evidence, keep reporters off railroad property, and refuse to comment. In this instance, Pennsylvania Railroad executives were about to do just that when Ivy Lee intervened and convinced them to try a new approach.

Lee invited reporters and photographers to come to the scene of the accident and even provided a special train to get them there. He then held on-site briefings, distributed fact sheets, and made railroad experts and executives available for interviews. These were unprecedented actions for a railroad, but they paid huge dividends. They were overwhelmingly praised and well-received by the news media, the general public, and government officials.

One result was that the Pennsylvania Railroad received what some historians said was the first positive media coverage of any railroad in decades. Beyond that, state and local elected officials praised the railroad for its openness and apparent concern for passenger safety. The overall response was so favorable that almost every other major American railroad soon followed suit and began cooperating with the news media and responding to reporters' questions when accidents happened on their lines.

Lee helped his clients gain new levels of acceptability by explaining their actions.

This approach seems obvious today, but it was nothing short of revolutionary at the time. In fact, Eric Goldman's 1948 history of public relations asserts that Lee's willingness to respond to questions and provide a more complete and understandable context for his clients' actions marked the start of the second stage of public relations' development, a period sometimes called the explanatory era.

During World War I, the American Red Cross became one of Lee's clients that dramatically benefitted from his efforts to more fully and effectively explain its work to the American people. It had been around long before the war, and it was generally well-regarded. But, it was simply seen as one of many, largely interchangeable "first aid organizations" that tried to help people in times of trouble. There was nothing that really distinguished it from the rest of the pack.

Ivy Lee changed all that. By launching an aggressive publicity campaign that combined hard facts and statistical data with the personal stories of both victims and the volunteers who served them, he boosted the Red Cross's reputation to the point that it was seen as the pre-eminent source of disaster relief throughout America and as one of the most respected service organizations in the world. Along the way, he also helped the Red Cross collect more than $400 million in contributions and recruit over a million volunteers. And, he did it primarily by explaining what the Red Cross is and what it does.

What he did for John D. Rockefeller was even more amazing. Prior to 1914 Rockefeller had a well-deserved reputation as a ruthless, profit-driven robber baron. Some commentators went so far as to call him "the most hated man in America," an image that even Ivy Lee couldn't change overnight. But, he took him on as a client, and by the 1930s Rockefeller was generally seen and revered as a generous, warm-hearted, humanitarian and philanthropist, a reputation that lives on today.

A few paragraphs further down I'll explain why this transformation was not universally well-received but, before we get to that, let's briefly explore what Lee was trying to do with his new approach, how he did it, and what set it apart from earlier approaches to public relations.

Some of Lee's most ardent supporters describe his impact on public relations as almost messianic. For instance, Fraser Seitel, a nationally prominent practitioner and now a textbook author, wrote: "Lee, more than anyone before him, lifted the field from a questionable pursuit (that is, seeking positive publicity at any cost) to a professional discipline designed to win public confidence and trust through communications based on candor and truth."

Lee also prefigured aspects of the mutual satisfaction phase of public relations.

By the time Lee took Rockefeller on as a client, he wasn't alone in taking an explanatory approach to public relations. Several other cutting edge practitioners also focused on explaining their clients' activities in ways that made them palatable to their publics. There were, however, limits. Lee ruefully admitted that even he couldn't honestly explain the actions of some of his clients well enough to make them palatable to the general public.

The indisputable fact is that John D. Rockefeller fully deserved his long-standing reputation as a "robber baron" because that's what he had been for decades, and he had made no secret of it. He and several other well-known American tycoons achieved their business success and wealth by being ruthless, profit-driven managers and manipulators whose actions were often harsh, arrogant, and uncaring. While some of what they did might be explained away, much of it was beyond any hope of gift-wrapping or otherwise smoothing over. The public would never approve of it.

Faced with this realization, Lee came up with a suggestion that was totally contrary to the robber barons' prevailing philosophy of the public be damned. Instead of trying to explain and justify Rockefeller's past actions, Lee decided that changing Rockefeller's current and future behavior patterns -- or at least his companies' actions -- offered the best hope of achieving a better public image of Rockefeller, so that's what he set out to do. Initially, Rockefeller resisted, but Lee's persistence and persuasiveness wore him down.

Instead of limiting his role to writing press releases and public statements and arranging special appearances for Rockefeller, Lee advised him about the public relations advantages of a broad range of business decisions and management policies. This included establishing new mechanisms to redress workers' grievances, selecting new plant sites, setting employee wages and working conditions, and negotiating contracts with suppliers and vendors. In many ways, Lee's suggestions to Rockefeller presaged interactive adjustment and mutual satisfaction approaches to public relations that weren't fully introduced into the profession until 70 years later.

But, whatever you call his approach, Lee had clearly -- Some would say miraculously. -- transformed John D. Rockefeller's public image from that of an uncaring tyrant to that of a paternalistic employer and an incredibly generous philanthropist.

Ironically, some people saw Lee's work for the Rockefeller family as a blight on his reputation. They accused him of smoothing over and assuaging public outrage about the Ludlow Massacre in which dozens of striking Colorado coal miners, along with some women and children, were shot by strike-breaking security men hired by mine owners that included the Rockefellers. Labor supporters saw Lee as anti-union, and writers such as Upton Sinclair dubbed him "Poison Ivy" Lee for trying to favorably spin the story in the press.

Backlash against his international clients seriously marred Lee's reputation in the 1930s.

While there is no doubt that he promoted "understanding" -- at least of a sort -- rather than just seeking publicity and name recognition for his clients, many people -- in business and in government -- began questioning his underlying motives and values during the last few years of his life. Much of it centered on two of his highest-profile, foreign clients: the Soviet Union in the 1920s and I.G. Farben, the corporation than dominated Nazi Germany's chemical industry in the early 1930s.

Those who knew Lee and his background were not at all surprised when he launched a publicity campaign that urged diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States and other nations in the 1920s. Ever since his college days, he had been intensely interested in and frequently wrote and spoke about international diplomacy and expanded foreign trade. He was an inaugural member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a highly-respected nonprofit think tank, and, as such, often took a public stance on international issues. Some of his comments were well-received and praised. Others were not.

His campaign urging the U.S. government to officially recognize the Soviet Union as a new and legitimate, post-Russian-Revolution government and open trade relations with it triggered a fire-storm of criticism.

Even more damaging -- at least in retrospect, although perhaps not at the time -- were allegations that Lee supported and worked on behalf of Nazi Germany. At the time (1934), Lee readily admitted that he had a contract to do public relations work in the United States and promote product sales for I.G. Farben Industrie, Germany's largest chemical company. But, contrary to the accusations that were leveled against him, he insisted that he never consulted with the German government or did anything to promote the Nazi cause.

This all came to a head in November 1934 when Lee was called to testify before Congress and refute charges that he was anti-Semitic and a propagandist for the Nazi government. He vehemently denied these charges and asserted his personal opposition to Hitler. Unfortunately, Lee died of a massive brain tumor while the hearing was still under way. As a result, the hearing was canceled and the questions about what he did or didn't do for Germany were simply dropped and left unresolved.

Regrettably, dark clouds of suspicion still hang over Lee's reputation today.

Should they? Are they really warranted?

Today, decades after World War II and the Cold War, we know in retrospect that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany became nasty, tyrannical, and war-driven dictatorships that threatened to destroy the world. But, Ivy Lee never knew that. Neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany had become a threat to world peace by the time Ivy Lee died in 1934.

So, if Ivy Lee is to be judged, it should be on the basis of what he knew when he was living, not what we have learned since that time. Setting aside all the post-war biases that have developed against the Soviets and the Nazis, Lee's actions basically boil down to:

In this context, was Ivy Lee a good guy or a bad guy?

Perhaps was he just a hard-working public relations professional who suffered from bad timing and/or made a few bad choices of clients.

Regardless of lingering questions about his political views and choice of clients, Ivy Lee was a notable pioneer of the public relations profession. In the first decades of the 20th century he practiced public relations in ways that didn't become widespread or popular for another fifty years. It's a shame he didn't live long enough to use these techniques to clear his own name.

Online Readings Table of contents Edward Bernays was also
a pioneer of public relations
Practicing Public Relations home page
Publicity phase of public relations Return to
Explanatory phase of public relations
Mutual satisfaction phase