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The Complex Legacy of Early PR Leader Ivy Lee

Ivy Lee
Ivy Lee (Photo by Harris & Ewing from the
Library of Congress)

Published on December 15, 2017, at 7:25 a.m.
by Grace Turner.

Ivy Lee: founder, pioneer and trailblazer of public relations. We study him and other PR giants, such as Edward Bernays, Arthur Page and Betsy Plank, for their contributions to our field.

However, we must delve deeper and recognize these people for what they were: people. They were complex and sometimes displayed tendencies seemingly motivated by greed or ambition, just like any human being.

“My concern is that some of these people in our history have been made into one-dimensional people that we really need to examine, and we really need to learn more about,” said Dr. Meg Lamme, a Plank Center Scholar whose essay was recently published in the release of Lee’s newly discovered manuscript, “Mr. Lee’s Publicity Book.” “I don’t think he’s the father of public relations. I don’t think Eddie [Edward Bernays] is the father of public relations. No one’s the mother of public relations. We just don’t know enough yet. And I think public relations or aspects of PR have been found to be too widespread to be able to say at any point in history, ‘That’s the one. They invented it.’”

It’s important that we study history in the context of the time period and take into account the opposing viewpoints.

Ivy Lee's Declaration of Principles
Lee and his colleague George Parker issued a formal
Declaration of Principles in 1906, which demonstrated
their commitment to journalistic integrity. (Source: Dr.
Michael Turney, Northern Kentucky University

Perhaps the most thorough historian of Ivy Lee’s career is Dr. Ray Hiebert. In his 1966 biography of Lee, Hiebert recognized him for playing a role in the evolution of PR and for expressing his beliefs in guiding principles that are followed today.Lamme explained that Lee believed that hiding the source cast a shadow on the public relations process (though he tended to call it “publicity”). If people didn’t know where information was coming from, that was when things got bad. That was the beginning of the evil of propaganda.In addition to disclosure, Lee believed that good policy made good PR. Organizations must first do good work, he said, before they could implement effective PR. But in some cases, it seems Lee did not always practice what he preached. A striking example is his involvement in representing a German client post-World War I.

In 1929, Lee’s firm was retained by the American subsidiary of I.G. Farben, also known as the German Dye Trust, to represent its interests. Lee sent his son, James Wideman Lee II, to live in Germany and serve as the liaison between Ivy Lee and Farben. In June 1933 — just months after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party’s seizure of power (Machtergreifung) — Farben retained Lee to represent its parent company in Berlin as concerns of anti-German sentiment grew in the United States and abroad. In that role, Lee measured American sentiment toward Germany in U.S. press coverage, insisting that no messages of anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda appear in the United States, and he met Reich officials in the process, including then-Chancellor Hitler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, asking questions and attempting to understand their policies. In 1934, Lee testified to the Special Committee on Un-American Activities that he also had counseled Germany to engage with the foreign press and had arranged for any of his own suggestions to be attributed to a German if distributed in the United States.

Special Committee on Un-American Activities
Lee testified to the pictured U.S. House members at the Special Committee on Un-American Activities in 1934. (Photo by Bettmann on Getty Images)

“Unwittingly or not, Lee had served as the hidden propagandist in concert with the Reich,” Lamme wrote in her findings recently published in “Mr. Lee’s Publicity Book.” “He was the unknown source, that root of propaganda evil that he’d warned against.”

When Lee realized the magnitude of his error, he advised I.G. Farben to cut ties with the Nazi party and broke off his own relationships with the Germans, not having understood the connection between the two, a position he testified to in the 1934 hearings.

Shelley Spector, the founder of the Museum of Public Relations, said we will never truly know what happened between I.G. Farben and Lee.

“I don’t think that Ivy Lee was being unpatriotic,” she said. “I think that Hitler was coming to power, and nobody knew how bad it was going to be. I’m not making excuses for what Ivy Lee did; I really don’t know anymore than what I’ve spoken to Ray Hiebert about, his biographer.”

Spector highlights what we do know: “When you read his pamphlets and speeches, you see that he’s sincere, that he really cares. He believes in this field.”

Lamme agrees and points to a partner dinner in October 1934 at which Lee presented his groundbreaking ideas to the members of his firm. According to Lamme, Lee’s vision was for the firm’s members to become the brain trust for their clients.

“To think ahead, to become more well-rounded, more well-read and informed, be open to ideas from other resources, willing to take risks and creativity and client relations, that’s all the stuff we talk about now,” said Lamme. “And that’s what he was going back to his firm to say, ‘This is where we should go,’ and then he died.”

His death at age 57 a month later meant he could not bring his ideas to fruition.

Ivy Lee was certainly a thought leader and 20th century pioneer in corporate public relations counsel. He worked on a deeper level than the “publicity men” of his generation and those who used PR for religious or political purposes going back thousands of years. Although historians have found that he was not the first PR practitioner, his place in public relations history is significant — and no less so for the complexity of his legacy.

Sources Cited
Hiebert, Ray E. Courtier to the Crowd: The Story of Ivy Lee and the Development of Public Relations. Iowa State University Press, 1966.

Lee, Ivy L. Mr. Lee’s Publicity Book: A Citizen’s Guide to Public Relations. Edited by Burton St. John III, With commentary by Meg Lamme, PRMuseum Press, 2017.

Much has been written about Lee and the Reich, including a study by Lamme and UA alum and former Platform member Katie Gatti, titled “The ‘Master Spellbinder’ and the Grey Lady: Joseph Goebbels in the New York Times, 1933.” Presented to the UA Research & Creative Activity Conference, April 7, 2015.

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