• Matthew Rasor

Lessons from Ivy Lee

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

The transformation from agencies of sales to agencies of services

By Matthew Rasor

Figure 1 Lee, Ivy L., 1905 (Harris & Ewing)

Ivy Ledbetter Lee is considered a pioneer of modern public relations. After graduating with an economics degree at Princeton University, he enrolled in Harvard Law School. However, he was forced to drop-out after one semester due to financial issues. He then started work as a newspaper reporter for several publications; such as the New York Journal, New York Times, and New York World. By 1903, he decided to pursue a career in public relations due to low pay as a stringer. He was then employed by Citizens Union, a group assembled to represent political parties, was presented with his first opportunity at public relations practice.

A Different Approach

Lee’s experience with Citizens Union brought him to the realization of severe disconnections between corporations and the public. In 1905, he would form a partnership with George Parker, to establish Parker and Lee, one of the earliest public relations firms in the United States. Their new approach to public relations prioritized transparency. One of his most significant contributions, the Declaration of Principles, published in the American Magazine, attempts to redefine public relations practices and obligations. He ensures that their firm, “is not a secret press,” and, “all [their] work is done in the open.”

A Crisis

Figure 2 Atlantic City, NJ Electric Train Wreck, 1906

Lee’s principles would be tested during an accident involving the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which killed 53 people due to a drawbridge failure. The company’s policy at the time refused to communicate with the press regarding accidents. Although, he was able to convince the directors to invite the press to the crash site. Additionally, he held on-site briefing concerning the crash and provided fact sheets to reporters to assist with their stories. This two-way communication between message sender and the message receiver would be beneficial for the railroad company and

gained praise from the press.

Reputation Rebuilding

Lee would eventually take on John D. Rockefeller as a client in 1914. He was initially hired for damage control following the Ludlow Massacre, which occurred when the Colorado state militia fired upon striking coal miners. His job was to alleviate negative press and restore Rockefeller’s public image. He rejected William Henry Vanderbilt’s public be damned philosophy and attempted to improve Rockefeller’s reputation with press releases and public statements. He also advised several business decisions, including, negations of contracts, improvement of working conditions and addressing workers grievances. These actions transformed Rockefeller’s image as a ruthless capitalist to a philanthropist.

The influence that Lee has had on modern public relations is indisputable. His strategies and methods may have been unconventional at the time, but they would eventually influence public relations practices entirely. His use of two-way communication and press releases resulted in positive feedback from the public and earned credibility. His value of planned communications is still relevant for aspiring public relations professionals today.




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