Ivy Lee, a Pioneer of Public Relations

It’s ironic that this course writing by Professor De Sterio on Ivy Lee, public relations, and a railway crisis communication is exactly a century old…

1906 – marks the beginning of it all, with a railway accident involving the Pennsylvania Road company that resulted in the death of about fifty people. One of Professor De Sterio’s course writings revisits the history of Public Relations and crisis communication, focusing on the actions of Ivy Lee, a pioneer in PR.

2006 – Marius, as he was commonly called, along with five other individuals, tragically passed away in a collision between French and Luxembourgish railway companies: respectively, CFL and SNCF. Marius was on his way to give a lecture to his students in Information and Communication Sciences at the University of Metz when the train accident occurred in Zoufftgen, a town on the Franco-Luxembourgish border. His students (from 1999 to 2006) will never forget him, just as they will remember his writings for the courses.

Ivy Lee, a Pioneer of Public Relations

After World War II, Nazi propaganda lost its reason for being. However, the concept of propaganda, as a political tool, possesses characteristics that have delighted researchers and paved the way for what is now known as Public Relations. Although the origins of this concept remain somewhat vague, the definition of what is meant by this term is unambiguous.

Communicating facts is not just a strategy or a choice of communication; it is a moral obligation increasingly imposed on responsible individuals in organizations concerned about their reputation.

The first public relations firm was established in 1906 in New York and was the work of Ivy Ledbetter Lee (1877, Polk, Georgia – 1934, NYC). Alongside Sir Edward Bernays (an Austrian and double nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud), Lee was one of the founders of Public Relations. Considered precursors to what became known as Spin Doctors (in the 1930s in the United States and gaining popularity in the 1980s), they were communication and political marketing advisors, « image enhancers » working on behalf of personalities. In short, Spin Doctors became specialists in communication tasked with advising on the image of a political party, often during election campaigns.

The term « spin » refers to the circular movements observed when a ball rotates. This concept was applied to Public Relations to invoke the filtering and presentation of facts in order to highlight positive aspects of observed actions. This movement gained followers, with the most famous Spin Doctors including Karl Rove, the former advisor to George W. Bush, who was alternatively called « Bush Brain » or « Baby Genius, » and Alistair Campbell, advisor to Tony Blair. They have worked extensively on shaping the image of their respective countries during the Iraq war in the field of political marketing. Although these Spin Doctors are often portrayed as Machiavellian characters, their methods serve as sources of inspiration in the battle for personal branding.

Returning to Ivy Ledbetter Lee’s work, it was indeed after a surge of train accidents, particularly the 1906 Pennsylvania Road incident, that Lee, who had just been hired by the railway company as a consultant, would leave his mark on the history of Public Relations.

With a truly innovative approach, he advised the company to issue a statement to dispel rumors surrounding the accident. The significant death toll of 57 people from the train derailment heading towards Atlantic City continued to fuel rumors against the Pennsylvania Road.

Instead of adopting an ostrich policy, Ivy Lee, with his great vision, advised the company to tell the whole truth about the incident. Thus, the press release was picked up by The New York Times the following day. This method of communication found great success with the media, and October 28, 1906, would come to symbolize the drafting of the first press release.

Defined as a short message sent to journalists to inform them of an event, the press release has evolved along with modern communication technologies, transforming into a press kit (including multimedia files) or, with the emergence of the internet, into electronic press kits (EPKs). Before this « press release » in 1906, the term « public relation » appeared for the first time in the preface of the Yearbook of Railway Literature in 1897.

As the principal advisor to the Rockefeller family, Ivy Ledbetter Lee continued to demonstrate his exceptional communication skills. He suggested that the family name the construction of the modern commercial complex of American oil magnate Rockefeller as the Rockefeller Center. History proved him right, as the name attracted numerous tenants, despite the atrocities such as the Ludlow Massacre, where striking miners were killed by the Colorado National Guard.

In 1912, Ivy Lee gave the first public relations course at New York University.

This shows that the history of railways is closely linked to Public Relations, especially with the ongoing crises occurring across our continents.

We owe to Ivy Lee the famous quote that can be translated as:

« Tell the truth because sooner or later, the public will discover the truth anyway. And if the public does not like what you’re doing, change your policies and adapt them to their needs. »

While public relations encompass all the techniques and actions used to manage the reputation of a company or brand among its various audiences, emerging actors in online communication, such as Community Managers or Social Media Managers, must anticipate crisis risks that could irreversibly damage their organization. Various actions are employed in public relations, and it is important to gather researchers and professionals to shed light on this communication subject that is not always highlighted in academic productions.

[1] Many politicians have used this system in a completely different context, including in France, publicist Jacques Seguéla in François Mitterrand’s campaign strategy, as well as Thierry Saussez, Henri Guaino, and Mimi Marchand in Nicolas Sarkozy’s circle. We also note Sibeth Ndiaye, Joseph Zimmet, Clement Leonarduzzi, and other social actors such as MacFly and Carlito for Emmanuel Macron.


Ivy Lee par Les Echos, 2011 

‘Poison Ivy’ Lee and propaganda, par PR Academy, 2014

Naissance et transformation des « relations publiques »

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