Lee, Ivy Ledbetter
LEE, IVY LEDBETTER
Ivy Ledbetter Lee (1877–1934) created the model for professional U.S. public-relations promotions and a giant industry that is generally called the publicity business. Ivy Lee believed that facts themselves could be artfully shaped and placed before the public so that they would be seen in a favorable light. Though he is a largely forgotten figure in U.S. history, his impact on commerce, politics, entertainment, and the general business of the United States cannot be overstated. He was the father of all the modern "spin doctors" and public-relations people who seek to present in a favorable light that which is not always pleasant.
Ivy Ledbetter Lee was born in 1877, in Cedartown, Georgia, the son of a Methodist minister. Lee grew up in Georgia and finished his college training at Princeton University in New Jersey, and later, for a single semester, he attended Harvard Law School in Boston, Massachusetts.
Lee began working for newspapers in 1899, working first for the New York Journal and later for the New York Times. After marrying in 1903, he quit newspapers and went to work with a fellow journalist, George Parker, in an effort to get Seth Low elected as mayor of New York. Lee and Parker afterwards went on to work for the Democratic National Committee in the 1904 presidential campaign.
In 1904 Ivy Lee and George Parker decided to form a public relations company called Parker and Lee. It was the second public relations firm established in the United States. Lee began to represent the interests of large firms, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, who wanted public images as good, ethical companies benevolent to public interests.
Lee began to pursue a direct style of press relations to get the company's message across. He described the style in this way: "Shaping their affairs (business) so that when placed before the public they will be approved, and placing them before the public in the most favorable light." Lee ran into many critics by working with the giants of U.S. business and making every possible effort to project their actions as benign and on behalf of the interests of the public. U.S. labor unions were among the first to ridicule Lee for his manipulation of facts. Lee was also attacked by prominent writers of his era. In one of his novels Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) referred to Ivy Lee as "Poison Ivy Lee," and the famous U.S. writer and poet, Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) called Lee "a paid liar." Despite those attacks Lee continued to prosper and became very successful as the Rockefellers' public relations agent.
Working for the Rockefellers and other corporate clients, Lee engaged in what can only be described as the careful management of the press and public opinion. Lee eventually began to oppose granting exclusive interviews to any single member of the press and instead favored controlling the release of any information himself. He was described as a kind of gardener of the press, pruning and clipping, urging the growth of strong stories in one part of the garden and stamping out the poisonous growth of negative stories in another part of the garden.
From 1916 to 1919 the firm Lee, Harris, and Lee grew to become Ivy Lee and Associates, and then Ivy Lee and T.J. Ross. Clients for their public relations management included Anaconda Steel, Chase National Bank, Phelps Dodge, United States Rubber, Armour Meats, United Artists, Chrysler Corp., and Standard Oil.
As early as the 1920s Lee was representing the financial interests of foreign governments in the United States, including Poland, Rumania, and even a brief representation of the Soviet Union. From 1929 Lee also worked for the U.S. subsidiary of the German corporation of I.G. Farben. In 1933–1934 Lee traveled to Germany and met with Adolph Hitler (1889–1945) in a complex effort to improve the Farben Company's public image. In 1934 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused Lee of being Hitler's publicity agent. He was later cleared of that charge. Months later Ivy Lee died as a broken man, leaving an estate of $24,000.
Modern corporations largely follow Lee's approach to public relations, while foreign governments regularly hire public relations firms to represent their interests. In the late 1990s these methods provoked little of the outcry that Lee's work first encountered. Because Lee never published a book on his career in public relations, his work has been largely forgotten.
Doob, Leonard W. Propaganda: Its Psychology and Technique. New York: H. Holt, 1935.
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, s.v. "Lee, Ivy Ledbetter."
Hiebert, Ray E. Courtier to the Crowd: The Story of Ivy Lee and the Development of Public Relations. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1966.
Lee, Ivy L. Human Nature and the Railroads. Philadelphia: E.S. Nash, 1915.
McGovern, George S., and Leonard F. Guttridge. The Great Coalfield Wars. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1996.