|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|Spanning the explanatory and mutual satisfaction phases of public relations:
Ivy Lee was decades ahead of his colleagues
|© 2000 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations home page||About the author|
Ivy Ledbetter Lee has long been acclaimed as an early practitioner, perhaps even as the originator, of the explanatory approach to public relations. After graduating from Princeton, he began working as a newspaper reporter in the late 1890s but turned to public relations shortly after the turn of the century and became one of the defining figures of the fledgling profession. He not only practiced public relations, he aggressively explained its purpose and defended its actions. In doing so he helped shape the public perceptions of the field and set standards other practitioners felt compelled to meet.
Ivy Lee's Declarations 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."
Ivy Lee's longest lasting contribution to the profession may have been the Declaration of Principles he distributed to the media in 1906 when he and his then-partner George Parker began advising anthracite coal operators on how they could respond to a strike. They issued the declaration in hopes of countering the rising hostility which journalists were expressing for ghost-written press releases, ads disguised as news stories, and other efforts to manipulate news coverage.
At the time, Lee's views were revolutionary. In fact, Eric Goldman's 1948 history of public relations claims they marked the start of the second stage of public relations' development.
Interestingly enough, it wasn't the coal strike that gave Lee a chance to prove the value of openness and honest communication with the press and the public. It was the accident on the Pennsylvania Railroad described in the linked discussion of public relations' explanatory phase.
In the eyes of fervent supporters, Lee's impact on public relations was almost messianic. Fraser Seitel 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."
At a time when other cutting edge practitioners were trying to explain their clients' activities in ways that were palatable to their publics, Lee was realizing some things just couldn't be explained in a palatable yet honest way.
When Lee went to work for the Rockefeller family, John D. Rockefeller had a long and well-deserved reputation as a robber baron because he was one. He and several other well-known tycoons had achieved success and wealth by being ruthless, profit-driven businessmen whose actions were often harsh, arrogant, and uncaring. Some of what they did could be explained away, but much of it was beyond any hope of gift-wrapping. The public would never approve of such behavior.
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. He concluded that changing Rockefeller's behavior -- or at least his companies' actions -- might be the best public relations of all. 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 was soon advising Rockefeller on the public relations advantages of a broad range of business decisions and management policy that included mechanisms to redress workers' grievances, the selection of new plant sites, setting employee wages and working conditions, and negotiating contracts with suppliers and vendors. In many ways this presaged the interactive adjustment and mutual satisfaction approaches to public relations that weren't fully articulated 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 and reclusive tyrant to a warm, paternalistic employer and an incredibly generous philanthropist.
Lee's publicity work for the American Red Cross during World War I was universally acclaimed. He helped raised $400 million in contributions, recruited millions of volunteers, and established the Red Cross in Americans' minds as the place to turn for disaster relief.
But, Lee was also involved in some questionable activities. His successful efforts at calming the turmoil that followed the "Ludlow Massacre" at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, for instance, embittered labor supporters who saw him as being anti-union and committed to strike-breaking.
More serious criticism arose about his work for I.G. Farben Industrie of Germany in the early 1930s. Although he insisted he never advised any members of the German government, only I.G. Farben managers and only about business matters, Lee was called to testify before a 1934 Congressional hearing where he was accused of being anti-Semitic and of doing propaganda work for the Nazi government.
In the midst of this turmoil and before his role could be settled in the public eye, the 57-year-old Lee died of a brain tumor and the complete details of his work in Germany were never publicly revealed, a fact that some public relations historians see as a black cloud hanging over his reputation.
|Table of contents||Further reading on
Publicity phase of public relations
Explanatory phase of public relations
|Further reading on
Mutual satisfaction phase
|Practicing Public Relations