Ivy Ledbetter Lee (July 16, 1877 – November 9, 1934) is often considered the founder of modern public relations, or PR. Lee was an influential but controversial pioneer in this field; working with George Parker, he established the United States's third public relations firm, Parker and Lee. Lee also handled publicity for Judge Alton Parker’s unsuccessful presidential race against Theodore Roosevelt. The author of the Declaration of Principles, the first literary piece describing the concept of public relations and its obligation to the people, Lee is also credited with issuing the first press release. He was a career-long competitor of public relations agent Edward Bernays, and was significantly influential in convincing large corporations to create public relation departments within their firms.
Criticized, as many in PR have been, for selling propaganda instead of truth, Lee was a dedicated professional who accomplished much in pioneering his field. While some of his clients appeared suspect, Lee did outstanding work for the Red Cross during World War I, bringing the organization to the attention of the American public at a time when they greatly needed support. As a result of his work, the Red Cross became the major organization for Americans to contribute to for disaster relief. A legendary figure, Lee’s contributions to the field of public relations throughout the early part of the twentieth century are undeniable, and mostly beneficial to society.
Ivy Lee was born on July 16, 1877, near Cedartown, Georgia, the first son of a Methodist minister, James Wideman Lee, who founded an important Atlanta family with wife Emma Ledbetter. Ledbetter, who was a mere thirteen years older than her first son, then had two more sons and three daughters. Lee studied at Emory University for two years but graduated from Princeton University at the top of his class in economics in 1898. Following graduation, Lee enrolled in Harvard Law School but would last only one semester before running out of money. Lee then worked as a newspaper reporter and stringer for the New York Journal, New York Times, and New York World.
In 1901, he married Cornelia Bigelow, the daughter of a prominent Minnesota lawyer. They had three children. After three years in the newspaper industry, Lee resigned from his post in 1903, due to low pay and long hours.
In 1904, Lee established Parker and Lee, one of the nation’s first public relations firms, with partner George Parker. The men made this partnership after working together in the Democratic Party headquarters where they were hired to handle publicity for Judge Alton Parker's unsuccessful presidential race against Theodore Roosevelt.
The firm of Parker and Lee boasted of "Accuracy, Authenticity, and Interest." Under Lee, the firm sought to benefit big businesses by presenting public audiences with two sides to every story in order to alleviate bad press on big business operations. Lee worked to communicate the interests of large businesses to public audiences, and the demands of the public to large industrialists. To ensure smooth communication, Lee aimed to provide as much information to journalists as possible. However the firm often faced attacks by the press for ghostwritten press releases and the disguising of advertisements as stories. Parker and Lee responded by attempting to transform the image of the firm from an agency of sales, to that of service. Despite minor success, the firm lasted only four years. After a highly successful, controversial but influential career in public relations, Lee died of a brain tumor in New York in 1934 at the age of 57.
While still working with his partner at Parker and Lee, Lee evolved his philosophy into his Declaration of Principles (1906) which identified public relations representatives as having a public responsibility that extends beyond the obligations of a client. Drafted during the anthracite coal strike, Lee’s “Declaration” outlined the guiding principles of his personal PR theories. Its major points included factual accuracy, general discretion, and the importance of newspaper reporting and not of newspaper advertising.
In late 1906, after an accident involving the Pennsylvania Railroad, Lee issued what is often considered to be the very first press release after he successfully convinced the railroad company to openly disclose information about the accident to journalists. With his handling of the railroad accident, many historians label Lee the originator of modern crisis communications.
In 1912, Lee was hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad as the company’s first publicity director. Here, Lee lobbied for public support against the passage of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Hepburn Act which sought to significantly reform the railroad industry. While working on behalf of a 5 percent freight increase in 1912, Lee also taught the first public relations course at New York University. One year later, he successfully achieved the 5 percent increase from a reluctant federal government. His success marked Lee as influential in the creation of a new type of relationship between big business incentives and government affairs.
In 1914, Lee entered public relations on a larger scale when he was retained by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to represent his family’s company, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, following the "Ludlow Massacre.” The massacre, which occurred after a gun battle between striking miners and Colorado state militia, left 15 dead including many women and children. The event sparked a major public outcry and widespread violence throughout nearby mining communities. Lee was hired by the Rockefellers to alleviate the impact of the negative press and to restore the public image of the family to what it once was. Lee is believed to have produced a variety of reports and press releases sent to various state officials and newspapers that contained misleading and inaccurate information concerning the violent event.
From then on Lee faithfully served the Rockefellers and their corporate interests, including a strong involvement in Rockefeller Center. Lee was the first to suggest to Rockefeller Jr. that he give the complex his family name.
In the early 1920s, Lee became an inaugural member of the Council on Foreign Relations after it was established in New York, in 1921, and financially backed by the Rockefellers. As a PR representative, Lee espoused a philosophy consistent with what has sometimes been called the "two-way street" approach in which representatives not only listen to clients, but help them communicate a public message. In practice, however, Lee was often criticized for engaging in one-way propaganda on behalf of large corporate clients generally despised by the public. Shortly before his death, the U.S. Congress began investigating Lee’s work in Nazi Germany on behalf of the controversial company, IG Farben. However, during World War II, Lee also worked on behalf of the Red Cross, helping to raise more than $400 million dollars in contributions and recruiting millions of volunteers on the organization's behalf. Lee was influential in establishing the Red Cross as the major organization for Americans to contribute to for disaster relief.
Lee was also employed by Bethlehem Steel, in which capacity he famously advised managers to list their top priorities and work on tasks in that order. For this suggestion, company head Charles M. Schwab paid him $25,000. Lee also worked as a PR representative on behalf of General Mills and Lucky Strike, and was an adviser to George Westinghouse, Charles Lindbergh, John W. Davis, Otto Kahn, and Walter Chrysler.
A major proponent of large business mergers, Lee publicly argued company collaborations to be Christian, and denounced economic competition as non-Christian and selfish. Lee was also influential in persuading large companies to create public relation departments.
A pioneering yet controversial figure among public relations, Ivy Lee is often labeled the father of the field. A highly skilled representative and adviser, Lee was influential in founding the field of public relations and defining its relationship with both the press and government officials. A successful lobbyist, Lee was prominent in creating a relationship between the press and the government which serves as a cornerstone within the world of public relations well in the twenty-first century. A legendary figure, Lee’s contributions to the field of public relations throughout the early twentieth century are immense.
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