Lee had broken new ground by sending a "manifesto" to leading newspaper editors, promising them factual information and assistance in matters affecting his clients. And with Ludlow in the headlines, he sent out news releases that succeeded in putting a better spin on the Rockefeller involvement in the Colorado mining mess. His more discerning critics, pouncing on falsehoods fed to him by executives on the scene, quickly dubbed him "Poison Ivy" -- a taunt he never dispelled.
Nonetheless, Ivy Lee had a way with those who ruled the boardrooms and, until his death in 1934, was intimately involved in the PR operations of General Electric, General Motors, U.S. Steel and other giant corporations. He encouraged his clients to think not only of selling products and services but of building better relations with employees and communities. He was an advocate of institutional advertising who worked in tandem with Bruce Barton (more of him later).
Ivy Lee's rival as a PR pioneer was Edward Bernays, who started out as a theatrical press agent adept at concocting stunts to promote the likes of Enrico Caruso and the Russian ballet. He was in the P.T. Barnum circus tradition, but added to this a big dose of intellectualizing and philosophizing that came to him naturally. (He was a cousin of Sigmund Freud, who concentrated on the psychology of the individual while Eddie Bernays stressed the psychology of the masses.)
In the 1920s, Bernays and Walter Lippmann explored the force of public opinion and the means of shaping it. While Ivy Lee was content to use his undoubted intuition to judge and anticipate the public mood, Bernays turned to polling and scientific research -- techniques now standard in the PR business.
As a member of the World War I Committee on Public Information, he learned much about the use of posters and symbols to mobilize a nation. His later book, simply titled "Propaganda" reputedly was on Nazi Joseph Goebbels' bookshelf.
While Lee and Bernays pioneered PR, Bruce Barton led the way to a new dimension of advertising by concentrating on creating benign images and symbols for his many big-business clients. His firm, Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, became a major player in the politics of the 1930s, as he orchestrated the big business campaign against the New Deal. But after World War II, advertising consultants abandoned their political hard edge to concentrate on radio and TV as mediums to sell products, images, symbols and emotions.
What disappoints in these new volumes is a general adherence to an artificial division between PR and advertising, two obviously interrelated industries whose activities more and more are conducted under one agency roof. Roland Marchand's book gives only one passing reference to Edward Bernays; Stuart Ewen and Larry Tye all but ignore Bruce Barton; William Bird gives similar dismissal to Ivy Lee. A more sweeping history has yet to be written.
While there is an extraordinary amount of commentary (and nonsense) now being written about the media, more attention needs to be paid to the industries that influence the content and spin of information and imagery flowing to the American public. For better or worse, PR is a quintessential creation of the 20th century, a fifth element so to speak gluing together the technology, consumerism, entertainment and mind-set of our age.
Joseph R. L. Sterne, was, for many years, editorial page editor of The Sun and before that a political and foreign correspondent. He is now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.