PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Ivy Lee -- High-principled pioneer or advocate of despots?
© 2015 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

An earlier article, Ivy Lee was decades ahead of his colleagues explained how Ivy Lee helped transform American public relations from a purely publicity-oriented field into one that emphasizes mutual understanding. But, despite his progressive thinking, he remains an enigma today. He is credited with several noteworthy public relations coups, but he ended his career under a dark cloud, accused of assisting both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Early in his career, Lee's Declaration of Principles clearly placed him on the high road.

When the frustrations of low pay and long hours convinced Ivy Lee to turn his back on newspaper reporting and seek greener pastures in the then-emerging field of public relations, he and a friend named George Parker opened one of America's first public relations firms. But, in doing so, they promised that its work would be characterized by the journalistic ideals of "accuracy, authenticity, and interest." And, to demonstrate this commitment, they issued a formal Declaration of Principles hoping it would stave off some of the hostility journalists were showing toward 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. Excerpts from this Declaration of Principles are included in the companion article, Ivy Lee was decades ahead of his colleagues.

Lee's commitment to these principles was evident in his handling of a fatal accident on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Previously, American railroads had simply glossed over accidents. They covered up any evidence, kept reporters off railroad property, and refused to comment. And, in this case, the railroad executives were about to do the same thing 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. As a result, the Pennsylvania Railroad got what some historians said was the first positive media coverage of any railroad in decades. Elected officials even praised it for its openness and concern for passenger safety. Soon, every major American railroad was cooperating with the news media and responding to reporters' questions.

Lee's work for the American Red Cross during World War I was also transformative. In addition to helping raise $400 million in contributions and recruiting millions of volunteers, his promotional efforts took what had been seen as a typical "first aid" organization and turned it into America's pre-eminent source for disaster relief and a reputation as one of the most respected service organizations in the world.

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, by the 1930s, Rockefeller was seen as a generous, warm-hearted, humanitarian and philanthropist, a reputation that lives on today.

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.

He was also criticized for his apparent support of the Soviet Union. He was an inaugural member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a highly-respected nonprofit think tank, and, as such, often spoke out on international issues. But, sometimes his comments weren't well-received. Such was the case when he urged the U.S. to recognize the new, post-Russian-Revolution government and open trade relations with it.

Even more damaging were allegations that he supported Nazi Germany. Lee readily admitted to doing public relations work in the early 1930s to promote the sale of products produced by I.G. Farben Industrie, then Germany's largest German chemical company, in the United States. But, he insisted, he never assisted the German government and never did anything to promote the Nazi cause, despite what some of his critics alleged.

This came to a head in November 1934 when Lee testified before Congress to refute charges that he was anti-Semitic and a propagandist for the Nazi government. He vehemently denied both 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 questions about what he did or didn't do for Germany were left unresolved.

A cloud of suspicion still hangs over Lee's reputation, but should it? Today we know the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as nasty, tyrannical dictatorships that threatened to destroy the world, but what did Ivy Lee know? He advocated friendship with the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, just a few years after the Russian Revolution threw off the yoke of the Czar in hopes of establishing a worker's paradise. And, his work for Germany's largest chemical company was in the early 1930s when Hitler was first rising within the German government and long before he became warlike.

So, was Ivy Lee ultimately a good guy or a bad guy? -- Or, was he just a hard-working professional who suffered from bad timing and/or made a few bad choices of clients? -- We may never know, but he was one of the noteworthy pioneers of the public relations profession.

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