Ivy Ledbetter Lee (July 16, 1877 – November 9, 1934) is considered by some to be the founder of modern public relations, although the title could also be held by Edward Bernays.
Early life and career
Ivy Lee was born near Cedartown, Georgia as the son of a Methodist minister. He studied at Emory College and then graduated from Princeton. He worked as a newspaper reporter and stringer. Together with George Parker he established the US's third public relations firm, Parker and Lee, in late 1904. The new agency boasted of "Accuracy, Authenticity, and Interest." They made this partnership after working together in the Democratic Party headquarters handling publicity for Judge Alton Parker's unsuccessful presidential race against Theodore Roosevelt.
The Parker and Lee firm lasted less than four years, but the junior partner — Lee — was to become one of the most influential pioneers in public relations. He evolved his philosophy in 1906 into the "Declaration of Principles," the first articulation of the concept that public relations practitioners have a public responsibility that extends beyond obligations to the client.
When Lee was hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1912, he was considered to be the first public relations person placed in an executive-level position. In fact, his archives reveal that he drafted one of the first job descriptions of a VP-level corporate public relations position.
Impact on public relations
Many historians credit Lee with being the originator of modern crisis communications. His principal competitor in the new public relations industry was Edward Bernays. In 1914 he was to enter public relations on a much larger scale when he was retained by John D. Rockefeller Jr to represent his family and Standard Oil, ("to burnish the family image"), after the the coal mining rebellion in Colorado known as the "Ludlow Massacre". From then on he faithfully served the Rockefellers and their corporate interests, including a strong involvement in Rockefeller Center, even after he set up his own consulting firm.
His instruction to the son of the Standard Oil fortune was to echo in public relations henceforth: "Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anway. And if the public doesn't like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want". His influence on "Junior" was such that Rockefeller became dedicated to improving labor relations between businesses and their employees across the nation. Additionally, Lee is considered to be the father of the modern public relations campaign when, from 1913-1914, he successfully lobbied for a successful railroad rate increase from a reluctant federal government.
Lee espoused a philosophy consistent with what has sometimes been called the "two-way street" approach to public relations, in which PR consists of helping clients listen as well as communicate messages to their publics. In practice, however, Lee often engaged in one-way propagandizing on behalf of clients despised by the public. Shortly before his death, the US Congress had been investigating his work on behalf of the controversial Nazi German company IG Farben.
Lee also worked for Bethlehem Steel, in which capacity he famously advised managers to list their top priorities and work on tasks in that order, not proceeding until a task was completed. For this suggestion company head Charles M. Schwab paid him $25,000.
Through his sister Laura, Lee was an uncle to novelist William S. Burroughs.
Ivy Ledbetter Lee died in New York in 1934 at the age of 57.
New York Times article of February 13, 2005, "Spinning Frenzy: P.R.'s Bad Press," by Timothy L. O'Brien.