Ivy Ledbetter Lee was one of the first leaders of the burgeoning public relations industry that was mostly being advanced by former newspaper men who recognized a new, specialized facet of the press industry. He was a Princeton graduate in 1898 and top of his class in economics before working as a news reporter in New York City in the late 1890's. He quit the job in 1903 because of low pay and late hours.
In 1904, Lee was hired by George Parker and they founded the company Parker & Lee late in the year. They can be considered the third publicity company of the country. The first company in this line of work was created in Boston in 1900 by George V. S. Michaelis, Thomas Marvin, and Herbert Small, was named the Publicity Bureau and sought "to do a general press agent business". Among their early clients were MIT and the American Telephone Company. The next of these companies was started by William Wolf Smith in 1902 as a response to the mounting attacks on Capitol Hill against consolidation efforts and labor issues of big business. Wolf, who had been a reporter for the New York Sun, felt corporations needed help to balance the attacks coming from the press and regulatory bills.
Lee's biography on the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library website explains his work with Parker this way: "In this era of muckraking journalism, Lee saw the benefit public relations work could have for big business, believing if people were presented with all the facts on both sides of an issue they would not come down so harshly on business interests. Lee saw his role as interpreting the public to the industrialists and the industrialist to the people. To achieve this end Lee believed in supplying the newspapers with as much information as possible. His 'Declaration of Principles,' drafted during the anthracite coal strike in the spring of 1906, explained his guiding precepts of public relations theory. The main points of the Declaration were, to guarantee the accuracy of his facts and leave to the discretion of the newspaper editor whether an item was worth printing as news. The aim was to provide news not advertising."
George Parker had been President Grover Cleveland's press agent for his three bids for the presidency and was engaged to handle the Democrat's 1904 presidential press needs. He hired Ivy Lee because of his writing abilities, which were necessary because they soon had to defend themselves from attacks by the press for ghost writing press releases and placing advertisements disguised as stories. The larger duty of the day was to convince a pro-competitive populace to accept the new concept of a government-business partnership. They needed to change their image from "selling to the public" to "serving the public" while they were "excluding the public" from the decision making process involving public concerns. They needed to administer the markets rather than sell to them. This was an important task in an era (1895-1904) that saw 3000 companies disappear into mergers.
Lee's economic philosophy saw the movement toward larger economic units and perhaps one state economy as inevitable economic progress. He went on argue that collaboration (meaning merging) was Christian, where as competition was selfish and even unChristian. He also claimed that nothing, including the Bible provided a truly objective standard of judging human actions, so everything is really subjective.
He quit Parker & Lee in 1908 and went to work for Pennsylvania Rairoad as their first publicity director. The type of influences on legislation were shifting from lobbying to a mix of lobbying and publicity support. The railroads were fighting against the reform minded President Teddy Roosevelt who blocked many of their goals with the Hepburn Act. One of the issues Lee kept fighting for was a 5% freight increase which he lost in 1910, but won in 1914. In this period the linking between public relations and governmental favors created a new type of legislative relationship.
Lee went to work for John D. Rockefeller in 1914, managing the public's perspective of the Ludlow Massacre, which involved the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, whose mines were owned by the Rockefellers. According to Colorado State University's Kirk Hallahan, "On April 20, 1914, a gun battle broke out between striking miners and the Colorado state militia at the temporary camp set up by strikers outside the mines at Ludlow. Three strikers and one militiaman were killed. However, the real tragedy was revealed when 11 women and children were found dead in one of the many earthen storage pits dug below the tent colony. The innocent victims had hidden in the pit to escape the gunfire and apparently suffocated when a smoky fire later swept through the compound. The incident sparked 10 days of widespread violence in the surrounding coal fields, resulting in at least 53 deaths."  To combat the public outcry, Lee created a campaign to influence public opinion (especially on the East Coast) of Rockefeller, CF&I, and the Massacre, which included 19 bulletins that were sent to opinion leaders and the press. The bulletins contained misleading an inaccurate information concerning the circumstances surrounding the strike, the militia's actions, and the resulting deaths.
In the 1920's, Lee worked for General Mills, Lucky Strike, and many other ventures including convincing companies to building public relation department within their firms. He took heat for views he had on the Soviet Union. He openly defended the system, which confused Business Week and brought name calling from others. He represented I. G. Farben after Germany was getting bad press in the states. He may have advised them to change aspects of their national strategy, however it brought investigations from Congress and questioning in the press. Late in 1934 he died from brain tumor.
Books by Ivy Lee
- Human Nature and the Railroads; printed privately 1915
- Publicity Some of the Things It Is and Is Not; Industries Publishing Co.,1925
- Present Day Russia; Macmillan, 1928
- The Problem of International Propoganda, a New Technique Necessary in Developing Understanding Between Nations; issued by his firm in 1934
- Marvin N. Olasky., Corporate Public Relations: A New Historical Perspective , Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1987
- Scott M. Cutlip, The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1994
- Alex Molnar, Colonizing Our Future: The Commercial Transformation of America's Schools, Social Education Vol. 64 2000.
- David Martinson, Truthfulness in Communication is Both a Reasonable and Achievable Goal for Public Relations Practitioners, Public Relations Quarterly
- "Ivy Ledbetter Lee Papers," Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.
- Michael Turney, "Ivy Lee," On-line Readings in Public Relations.
- Richard W Pollay, "Propaganda, Puffing and the Public Interest", Public Relations Review, Volume XVI, Number 3, Fall 1990. (Refers to Lee's tobbaco industry related work).
- Kirk Hallahan, "Ivy Lee and the Rockefellers' Response to the 1913-1914 Colorado Coal Strike," Journal of Public Relations Reserach, 14(4), 2002, pp. 265-315.