Lee Establishes the Field of Public Relations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By cooperating with the press during a labor dispute involving the Anthracite Coal Roads and Mines Company, Ivy Ledbetter Lee established open disclosure as a public relations philosophy.

Summary of Event

In 1906, as a second major strike in four years threatened to paralyze mining operations and further encourage federal regulation, George Frederick Baer and his coal mining associates (all affiliated with J. P. Morgan’s financial empire) retained an up-and-coming young publicist named Ivy Ledbetter Lee to help manage the potentially explosive situation. Instead of following standard corporate procedures and suppressing information flows to the public, Lee adopted what was then a radical approach. He candidly announced that he was a publicity consultant who had been hired by the anthracite coal mine management to handle publicity, then invited the press to ask questions. Lee actively distributed information through press releases that were written according to the standard style guidelines followed by journalists of the time, another departure from the normal procedure for corporations. His open disclosure and dissemination of information in an easily used form effectively promoted his client as cooperative, open, and honest. Public relations Labor strikes;public relations Business;public relations [kw]Lee Establishes the Field of Public Relations (Spring, 1906) [kw]Public Relations, Lee Establishes the Field of (Spring, 1906) Public relations Labor strikes;public relations Business;public relations [g]United States;Spring, 1906: Lee Establishes the Field of Public Relations[01610] [c]Business and labor;Spring, 1906: Lee Establishes the Field of Public Relations[01610] [c]Publishing and journalism;Spring, 1906: Lee Establishes the Field of Public Relations[01610] Lee, Ivy Ledbetter Baer, George Frederick Mitchell, John Roosevelt, Theodore Parker, George F. Cassatt, Alexander J.

Grasping the moment, Lee sent his now-legendary “Declaration of Principles” to appropriate newspaper editors. These principles set the tone for the practice of modern public relations and still serve as the standard for ethics in the industry. Lee stated:

This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency; if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact. Upon inquiry, full information will be given to any editor concerning those on whose behalf an article is sent out. In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of the business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.

A Princeton graduate, Lee had been a newspaper journalist from 1899 to 1903, when he began taking on clients as a publicist. In 1904, Lee and George F. Parker formed Parker and Lee, one of the nation’s first publicity agencies. In contrast to Lee, Parker was somewhat of a traditionalist in the field. He was much older and more experienced, however, and had a number of important connections in the business and political arenas, with such men as George Westinghouse and Thomas Fortune Ryan. Parker’s contacts enabled Lee to take on work that established his reputation. Although Parker and Lee held together for less than four years, the firm was a major springboard from which Lee launched his illustrious and often controversial career.

The late 1800’s and early 1900’s constituted an era of social consciousness, and big business and government were ill equipped to deal with that fact. The Populist political party grew from distrust of capitalist power brokers and corrupt government officials. Muckraking investigative journalists made a living exposing corruption in business and government. Articles and books published during this period by authors such as Lincoln Steffens, Frank Norris, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair resulted in legislation that continues to influence American society, such as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

President Theodore Roosevelt strongly believed that the federal government had a responsibility to protect the public’s welfare when conflicts arose among management, labor, and consumers. A master of publicity himself, Roosevelt maintained a high profile in the popular press and used it to pursue his policies effectively. Although a Republican, Roosevelt had progressive views. He successfully challenged huge corporations such as the Northern Securities Company, Pennsylvania Railroad, Standard Oil, and United States Steel through use of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and impeded their attempts to concentrate economic power. His well-publicized conservation policies saved many American resources from excessive exploitation.

Business leaders reacted by trying to use the same weapons to their own advantage. They turned in increasing numbers to publicity to help defeat what they considered to be harsh and unfair regulatory attempts. Baer’s hiring of Ivy Lee in 1906 was one such attempt to use publicity, although one arrived at with difficulty. As coal mining operations had consolidated into a few huge organizations during the 1890’s, the United Mine Workers United Mine Workers (UMW) union had expanded as well. In 1902, the UMW’s 150,000 members went out on strike in the anthracite coal Anthracite Coal Strike (1902) regions of Pennsylvania. This spectacular strike lasted from May until October and threatened the nation’s major source of heating fuel as winter approached.

President Roosevelt was determined to halt the dispute and threatened to operate the mines under the supervision of federal troops. Management did a poor job of handling the situation, remaining aloof and seemingly unconcerned about Roosevelt, worker demands, and the public’s fear of freezing to death with winter coming on. Baer made only one statement to the press during the entire ordeal, and when it was published, it angered the American people. He essentially told the press that labor rights were the responsibility of the men to whom God had seen fit to give control of the nation’s property interests, and not the responsibility of labor agitators.

On the other hand, John Mitchell, the head of the UMW, demonstrated model press relations during the turmoil. He treated reporters with respect, providing them with trustworthy information concerning the UMW’s point of view. Some accused the press of showing a pro-union bias in coverage of the strike. Mitchell made complete statements to reporters, whereas the mine operators maintained silence; thus it was primarily the UMW’s perspective that appeared in print. As a result of this one-sided communication flow and the disastrous statement made by Baer, the public was influenced to sympathize with labor rather than with management. With public opinion turned against the coal mine operators and President Roosevelt threatening to send in federal troops, management was forced to compromise. Labor won a shorter workday, a 10 percent pay increase, and other union rights.

By 1906, another major UMW strike was imminent, but this time the anthracite coal operators seemed to understand that their response must be different from that of four years before under similar circumstances. They retained Lee, who immediately announced to all newspapers that the coal mine operators realized the public’s interest in the situation and would supply the press with all information possible. The statements released by Lee during the period that followed were sent as signed notes from the men he represented, the Coal Operators’ Committee of Seven, which included Baer, W. H. Truesdale, J. B. Kerr, E. B. Thomas, J. L. Cake, David Willcox, and Morris Williams.

Lee’s activities on behalf of the Coal Operators’ Committee of Seven represented a radical departure from the behavior exhibited by these men in the past. Instead of attempting to prevent journalists from gathering information, Lee saw to it that their work on the coal strike story was simplified. Reporters were given advance notice when a press conference was being held, including its place, time, and topic. A complete summary of the proceedings was distributed to the press within a short time after each meeting had adjourned.

Lee knew what was newsworthy as well as the proper format in which to write his releases, so he was able to get many news articles published concerning positive aspects of the coal trust. Press officials were relieved to have such cooperation and welcomed input from the coal operators. As a result, the public received a more balanced treatment of the issues involved than they did during the 1902 strike. The situation was worked out more equitably and rationally than in 1902.


Lee’s success in getting favorable press coverage for the anthracite coal operators led to the retention of Parker and Lee by Alexander J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1906. Lee immediately reinforced the direction he had established for the practice of public relations by boldly transforming the railroad’s policy of secrecy. When accidents coincidentally occurred at about the same time on a Pennsylvania Railroad line and a New York Central route, Lee arranged for reporters to travel to the scene of the Pennsylvania mishap at railroad expense, then helped them to take photographs and write their stories. Meanwhile, proceeding as usual, the New York Central line attempted to minimize reportage on its accident. As a result, the Pennsylvania Railroad management received enthusiastic praise for its handling of the situation, whereas the competition foundered in a wave of public criticism. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the acknowledged management leader in its industry at that time, much the same as General Motors would become in the 1950’s, and Lee’s position with such a prestigious and respected firm was highly visible. His unquestioned success in dealing with the accident was an important stride not only for his own career but also for the future of the public relations profession.

Lee came to view his job not only as interpreting the organization to the public but also as interpreting the public to the organization. He wrote that the Pennsylvania Railroad management was pursuing a broad policy of common sense, which entailed doing as much for the public as possible because if it did so, the public would reward the firm with its loyalty. Lee attempted to humanize the company by relating many human-interest stories about company officials to the public through the use of pamphlets, press releases, and speeches. These stories told of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s contributions to agricultural education, college scholarships, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and pension plans. He portrayed the company as one big happy family.

Other firms realized the efficacy of Lee’s methods. International Harvester International Harvester Company gave him the opportunity to prove his philosophy in the face of a Senate resolution to investigate the company for its alleged monopolistic practices. Lee wrote that International Harvester’s management welcomed such an investigation because it had done no wrong and that company officials would facilitate the proceedings in every manner possible. By expressing confidence in itself, the firm gained the goodwill of the public and government personnel.

Lee soon had many imitators. Newspaper reporters looking to change careers realized that they had the skills necessary to recognize newsworthy events and report them clearly and objectively, and these individuals realized that business and governmental organizations needed such skills to promote themselves effectively. As a result, the modern practice of public relations was born and grew. It is interesting to note that Lee did not use the term “public relations” during this period to refer to his work; he used the term “publicity” instead. It was not until the mid-1910’s at the earliest that Lee began to refer to the tasks he performed as “public relations.”

According to Ray E. Hiebert, a Lee biographer, Lee depended heavily on the works of others such as Andrew Carnegie, Woodrow Wilson, and Walter Lippmann and was not a great original thinker. He did possess, however, a unique ability to put the ideas of many others together and use the collection in original ways. Although Lee was not alone in establishing the field of public relations, he was the first to practice in it as an independent agent. Most important, Lee was the first to attempt to explain his occupation to the public.

The 1906 anthracite coal mine strike was the first in a series of highly publicized events that gave Lee the opportunity to set good examples for a fledgling profession to follow. His success not only defined sound public relations practice but also illustrated the worth of such practice to management. Lee knew that a favorable public opinion toward a firm must be rooted in that firm’s ethical behavior. His ability to communicate this fact successfully to corporate management resulted in a more socially responsible business environment. Public relations Labor strikes;public relations Business;public relations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cutlip, Scott M., Allen H. Center, and Glen M. Broom. Effective Public Relations. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999. One of the most widely used textbooks in public relations education. Provides accurate and comprehensive coverage of the profession.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henry, Kenneth. “Social History and Significance of Public Relations.” In Defenders and Shapers of the Corporate Image. New Haven, Conn.: College & University Press, 1972. Discusses the historical development of public relations in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiebert, Ray E. Courtier to the Crowd: The Story of Ivy Lee and the Development of Public Relations. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1966. Major biographical work focuses primarily on Lee’s career rather than his private life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Myths About Ivy Lee.” In Perspectives in Public Relations, edited by Raymond Simon. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966. Dispels myths about Lee and analyzes the important contributions he made to the practice of public relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seitel, Fraser P. The Practice of Public Relations. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2003. Comprehensive textbook written from the practitioner’s perspective. Includes discussion of the evolution of the business of public relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tedlow, Richard S. Keeping the Corporate Image: Public Relations and Business, 1900-1950. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1979. One of the most complete histories available of corporate public relations for the period covered. Recommended as a starting point for interested readers.

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Categories: History