#ThrowbackThursday: Foundational moments of PR

In today’s world, public relations professionals are arbiters of information, blending strategy and honesty to effectively serve various stakeholders. This practice of transparency and clear, open interaction with the media and the public began when PR practitioner Ivy Lee sowed the seeds to shift PR from a single-minded, self-serving practice to one with more openness and integrity. This #ThrowbackThursday, we’re highlighting some key insights from the Father of Modern PR—and how they still ring true to this day.

Eat crow in the short term for long-term benefit

It took a literal train wreck to sow the seeds of a more open relationship between businesses and media. In the immediate aftermath of the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck, Lee advised the Pennsylvania Railroad company, to step forward and openly disclose to journalists the cause of the incident and how it planned to handle the aftermath before they could get that information elsewhere. This tactic established the Pennsylvania Railroad as the primary source for answers about the incident, building a corporate image of responsibility and honesty in midst of a crisis.

This method of getting ahead of a news story allowed more effective control of narrative than refusing to speak to the media at all. Lee issued the first ever press release for the incident, what happened and how it was handled. By doing so, he cemented a new path for PR by working on crisis management out in the open and building the Pennsylvania Railroad – and the practice of PR – a more trustworthy image.

The guiding lights

With an understanding that trust is hard-earned and easily lost, Lee created guidelines describing a sort of moral code for PR professionals. This Declaration of Principles emphasizes the necessity of honest communication, advising the consistent disclosure of honest information because of the public’s habit of eventually uncovering the truth. Lee goes on to emphasize the importance of public input, advising that changes in policy should align with the wants and needs of the public. How can businesses meet this need? By giving prompt, accurate information.

These principles support a two-way street to the open and honest exchange of information that enables companies to listen more effectively and then, refine and communicate messages to the critical public. Take a famous Lee client, House Rockefeller (excuse the GoT reference) of Standard Oil. He encouraged the Rockefellers to openly address scandal with forthcoming public answer. Riding this opposition to secrecy and commitment to truth, Lee’s PR influence on Standard Oil helped shed negative labels like “Robber Baron” and preserve the Rockefeller name in a more positive light.

PR spin…for a cause – Building a service juggernaut

Lee also transformed the reputation of the American Red Cross during World War I, growing from just one of many aid organizations to the preeminent service and relief brand it is today. Explaining the mission of the Red Cross and supporting it with factual information on the impact of its relief efforts helped raise over $400 million in donations and recruit over one million volunteers.

Getting back to basics serves as a reminder of what’s important as new challenges, crises and goals face contemporary PR practitioners. Indeed, common threads exist between the growth of the Red Cross and the pursuit of greater market share in today’s businesses. Want to communicate impact? Sounds like a case study, a marketing tool almost universally regarded as extremely effective. Here’s to you, Ivy Lee - while you are not the only person to influence the game, your pioneering dedication to clarity, transparency and substance makes you today’s #TBT.