Managing Public Opinion: Ivy Lee’s Press Release

Ivy Lee is credited as one of the founders of modern public relations, along with Edward Bernays.  (Alessandro Desantis, Medium)

He advised them to simply tell the truth.

In the middle of the muckrakers, in the middle of Upton Sinclair and other writers of the time exposing the unethical business practices of the century, Ivy Lee felt, as Plato had before him, that truth is a better explanation to the public than any other because it established trust.

Keep in mind, Lee believed this during a time when press agents and publicity men promoted the interests of the business. Much of what was published in newspapers in relationship to the way the business related to the public was hardly truth.

However, with their Declaration of Principles, Lee and his partner established a framework for disseminating information to the public. These principles established that their agency was not an advertising agency but one that supplied news—facts only.

So, Lee’s approach was extremely radical for the early 1900s.

What was the response to Lee’s strategy?

Portrait of Ivy Lee (Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress)

Lee’s first notable experience with the public would be in 1906 with an Atlantic City train wreck in Pennsylvania. The typical response from media at the time would be to cover up the incident and hope the public would let it ride. However, Lee proposed the company allow journalists to go to the scene to report the facts as seen through their own eyes. He too would issue statements to journalists that would be called press releases.

These reports generated good press for the company, but not all journalist were convinced that this was the way to report this event. Some journalists found the press releases to be advertisements disguised as facts.

Nevertheless, Lee persisted in telling the public the truth….

Years later, when Lee managed the Colorado Coal Strike, he again established the whole idea of reporting the facts when managing a situation between miners’ union and the Rockefeller family.

The incident was a strike that led to 50 fatalities. Using his Declaration of Principles, he dealt with both the family and the union in trying to manage public opinion about a highly divisive issue. You might remember that because, there was such a huge divide between business interest and the public, the public did not trust media—a tool of business.

Thus, using the same method of getting the facts out, he mailed bulletins to both workers and the media and successfully salvaged the reputation of the Rockefellers.

…And how did the Declaration of Principles play a role in this event?

The Declaration of Principles played a huge role in the way Lee managed public opinion because, while he worked on behalf of the Rockefellers, he also made sure there was open communication between himself and the miners.

However, central to these events was the press release, first issued in 1906, and then used as a communication method….

While this was public relations in its infancy, press releases accomplish a few goals:

  • They quickly and briefly share information to the public (news agencies and other organizations).
  • They allow the organization to share their perspective on a particular issue.
  • They allow you to guarantee that information is correct regarding a product or service.

While Lee used the press release as a tool to disseminate facts, it has evolved to do more than just tell the truth. When you read press releases today, some of them are both informative and persuasive.

Why is Lee such a historical figure in terms of public relations?

The 'Ivy Ledbetter Lee - Founder of Modern Public Relations' marker located at the courthouse in Cedartown, Georgia. (Latitude 34 North)

Ivy Lee is such an important figure because it is the first time that an agency used media to inform the public from an unbiased point-of-view. Lee established, while unofficially, the whole idea of developing relationships with the public. More importantly, he created the press release.

For public relations in our time, why is this significant?

These events are the beginning of a different type of agency. While the latter part of the century was marked by a focus on providing media for business interest, Lee’s publicity bureau focused on truth. These events are significant because Lee established the import of telling the truth to you and me, the public.


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