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Ivy Ledbetter Lee (July 16, 1877 – November 9, 1934) is considered by some to be the founder of modern public relations. The term Public Relations is to be found for the first time in the preface of the 1897 Yearbook of Railway Literature.
Ivy Lee was born near Cedartown, Georgia, the son of a Methodist minister, James Wideman Lee, who founded an important Atlanta family. He studied at Emory College and then graduated from Princeton. He worked as a newspaper reporter and stringer. He was a journalist at the New York American, the New York Times, and the New York World. He got his first job in 1903 as a publicity manager for the Citizens' Union. He authored the book The Best Administration New York City Ever Had. He later took a job with the Democratic National Committee. Lee married Cornelia Bartlett Bigalow in 1901. They had three children: Alice Lee in 1902, James Wideman Lee II in 1906, and Ivy Lee, Jr. in 1909.
Together with George Parker, he established the United States' third public relations firm, Parker and Lee, in 1905. The new agency boasted of "Accuracy, Authenticity, and Interest." It 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. In the same year, after the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck, Lee issued what is often considered to be the first press release, convincing the company to openly disclose information to journalists, before they could hear information from elsewhere.
When Lee was hired full-time 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.
In 1919, he founded a public relations counseling office, Ivy Lee & Associates.
Through his sister Laura, Lee was an uncle to novelist William S. Burroughs.
Ivy Lee died of a brain tumor at the age of 57.
Many historians credit Lee with being the originator of modern crisis communications. His principal competitor in the new public relations industry was Edward Bernays and he has been credited with influencing Pendleton Dudley to enter the then-nascent field.
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 coal mining rebellion in Colorado known as the "Ludlow Massacre." Upton Sinclair dubbed him "Poison Ivy" after Lee tried to send bulletins saying those that died were victims of an overturned stove, when in fact they were shot by the Colorado militia.
From then on he faithfully served the Rockefellers and their corporate interests, including a strong involvement in Rockefeller Center — he was in fact the first to suggest to Junior (against his reservations) that he give to the complex his family name — even after he moved on to set up his own consulting firm.
His supposed 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 anyway. And if the public doesn't like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want." The context of the quote was said to be apocryphal, being spread by Lee as self-promotion, making it both famous and infamous.
Lee is considered to be the father of the modern public relations campaign when, from 1913–1914, he successfully lobbied for a 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 in 1934, the US Congress had been investigating his work in Nazi Germany on behalf of the controversial company IG Farben.
Lee also worked for the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, in which capacity he famously advised managers to list and number their top priorities every day, and work on tasks in the order of their importance until daily time allows, not proceeding until a task was completed. For this suggestion company head Charles M. Schwab later paid him $25,000, saying it had been the most profitable advice he had received. Over his career he also was a public relations advisor to the following: George Westinghouse, Charles Lindbergh, John W. Davis, Otto Kahn and Walter Chrysler.
Writings by Ivy Ledbetter Lee: