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In my entire PR career, I had never really taken the opportunity to look into the history of Public Relations.  I always figured smoke signals were the original press release.  In order to provide some background for a project I am working on, I decided to see what I could find.

I came across the story of Ivy Lebetter Lee, who is credited with issuing what is widely believed to be the world’s first press release.   I thought I’d share it with you.

The First Press Release

In 1905, Ivy Lee and his partner, George F. Parker, both former newspaper reporters, partnered to establish the U.S.’s third public relations firm, Parker and Lee.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was a client of Lee’s.  After a derailment in Atlantic City, New Jersey on October 26, 1906, Ivy Lee advised the owner of the railroad to preemptively release information to the media about the accident with the hope of controlling the story before reporters got the “scoop” elsewhere. The railroad agreed, and the first official press release was written and distributed via wire to media all over the country.

Legend has it that the release that Lee issued, was accepted and published verbatim by media agencies.  Lee also organized for reporters and photographers to visit the scene of the accident, even providing special train transportation.

Newspapers and elected officials praised the railroad for the openness and apparent concern for the safety of it’s passengers.

The following spring, however, Lee’s tactics were judged less admirable when he accepted the mandate to represent a group of striking anthracite coal miners.  Apparently, the second press release he mailed out regarding the strike was not well received.  Journalists called the release an “ad disguised as a story sent to manipulate news coverage”.

Lee’s Declaration of Principles

In response, Lee issued a “Declaration of Principles” which follows (my breaks):

“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 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.

Corporations and public institutions give out much information in which the news point is lost to view. Nevertheless, it is quite as important to the public to have this news as it is to the establishments themselves to give it currency.

I send out only matter every detail of which I am willing to assist any editor in verifying for himself.

I am always at your service for the purpose of enabling you to obtain more complete information concerning any of the subjects brought forward in my copy.”[i]

What Are Principles?

Principles, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, are:

  1. A fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.
  2. A rule or belief governing one’s personal behavior.

Principles also apply to businesses and organizations, and are defined as:

Fundamental norms, rules, or values that represent what is desirable and positive for a person, group, organization, or community, and help it in determining the rightfulness or wrongfulness of its actions. Principles are more basic than policy and objectives, and are meant to govern both. See also principle.

In a day and age where public relations continues to be an industry plagued by concerns about the integrity of its practitioners and where social media contributes to a “loosening” of formal communication constraints and a relaxing of accountability.

Besides sharing information about the origin of the first press release, what is my point?

It is important to have principles.

It is crucial to have principles.  To know, in your own mind, what your beliefs are and to be clear on where your personal “lines in the sand” are drawn.  These are the guides that determine your behavior in any situation, but are especially helpful in times of stress, urgency, conflict and disaster.

I believe everyone has principles, I just think that people may not actively think about them, know what they are, and, understand how they align with those of  the company, organization or industry they where they are employed.

Wonderful examples of the complexity of this issue are portrayed in Margin Call, a 2011 film about the key people at an investment bank (Lehman Brothers) in the 24 hours leading up to the tipping point of the 2007 – 2008 financial crisis, which I caught this weekend.

The characters of Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci both struggle with a crisis of principle during the bigger crisis.

I wonder if the  senior executives  at Wal-Mart are currently performing this introspection, considering this week’s news headlines of “bribery scandal”.

It Is Important to Regularly Review Your Principals

Once you have established your principles, do they remain static, or do they perhaps change with personal growth and life experience?  Mine have changed over the years, softening in some respects, while tightening up significantly in others.

Maybe, along with New Year’s resolutions, we should regularly examine our personal principles.   Both to remind us that they are important and to assess if they have shifted over time.

It’s Fascinating

I am fascinated and thrilled that within the first two years of business in a fledgling industry, one of the key things that Ivy Lee did was to establish and share his principles of public relations.

In large part, the principles he penned are as applicable to-day as they were in 1906.

I think it’s  very interesting, though, that Mr. Lee chose the word “accurate” in describing the “matters” and “information” he would be sharing with the public rather than using the word “truth”.  And that bothers me a bit.

I also saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” on the weekend (no I don’t really spend all 48 hours watching the movie channel, although this distraction might be partly responsible for the little “mishap” I had with my new cleaver).

The lead character, Roger Thornhill, a New York advertising exec played by Clark Gable, tells his secretary “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.”

I don’t subscribe to that opinion.  Do you?

[i] Sherman Morse, “An Awakening in Wall Street: How the Trusts, after Years of Silence, now speak though authorized and acknowledged Press Agents” The American Magazine, vol. 62, September 1906 p. 460  (Thank you to Karen Miller Russell for providing the article and the reference http://www.teachingpr.org/teaching_pr/2006/09/100th-anniversa.html)