Coal mine operators, like railroad magnates, were held in the public’s contempt at the start of the 1900s. Obsessed with profits, caring little about public sentiment or even the well-being of their employees, mine operators were vulnerable to critics in the growing populist political movement. Mine workers organized, and 150,000 workers in Pennsylvania went on strike in 1902, shutting down the anthracite industry and disrupting coal-dependent industries, including the railroads. The mine owners snubbed reporters, which probably contributed to a pro-union slant in many news stories and worsened the owners’ public image. Six months into the strike, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to take over the mines with Army troops. The mine owners settled.
Shaken finally by Roosevelt’s threat and recognizing Roosevelt’s responsiveness to public opinion, the mine operators began reconsidering how they went about their business. In 1906, with another strike looming, one operator heard about Ivy Lee, a young publicist in New York who had new ideas about winning public support. He was hired.
In a turnabout in press relations, Lee issued a news release that announced: “The anthracite coal operators, realizing the general public interest in conditions in the mining regions, have arranged to supply the press with all possible information.” Then followed a series of press releases with information attributed to the mine operators by name—the same people who earlier had preferred anonymity and refused all interview requests. There were no more secret strike strategy meetings. When operators planned a meeting, reporters covering the impending strike were informed. Although reporters were not admitted into the meetings, summaries of the proceedings were given to them immediately afterward. This relative openness eased long-standing hostility toward the operators, and a strike was averted.
Ivy Lee’s Public Relations Accomplishments
Lee’s success with the mine operators began a career that rewrote the rules on how corporations dealt with their constituents. Among his accomplishments:
Institutional Openness Railroads had long had secretive policies not only about their business practices but about accidents as well. When the Pennsylvania Railroad sought Ivy Lee’s counsel, he advised against suppressing news—especially on things that would inevitably leak out anyway. When a train jumped the rails near Gap, Pennsylvania, Lee arranged for a special car to take reporters to the scene and even take pictures. The Pennsylvania line was applauded in the press for its openness and transparency. News coverage of the railroad, which had been negative for years, began to change.
Finding Positive Angles When the U.S. Senate proposed investigating International Harvester for monopolistic practices, Lee advised the giant farm to implement manufacturers against reflexive obstructionism and silence. A statement went out announcing that the company, confident in its business practices, not only welcomed but also would facilitate an investigation. Lee then initiated a campaign that highlighted International Harvester’s beneficence toward its employees. The campaign also emphasized other positive information about the company.
Giving Organizations a Face Colorado militiamen, called in to augment company guards, opened fire during a 1914 mine labor dispute and killed women and children. Overnight, John D. Rockefeller Jr. became the object of public hatred as it was a Rockefeller company that owned the mine. Even in New York, where Rockefeller lived, there were rallies demanding his head. Public relations pioneer Ivy Lee advised Rockefeller to tour the Ludlow area as soon as tempers cooled to show his sincere concern and to begin work on a labor contract to meet the concerns of miners.
Ivy Lee came on the scene at a time when many organizations were making extravagant claims about themselves and their products. Circus promoter P. T. Barnum had made this kind of puffery a fine art going back to the 1840s, and he had many imitators. It was an age of puffed-up advertising claims and fluffy rhetoric. Lee noted, however, that people soon saw through hyperbolic boasts and lost faith in those who made them. In launching his public relations agency in 1906, Lee vowed to be accurate in everything he said and to provide whatever verification anyone requested. This became part of the creed of good practice in public relations. And it remains so today.
8.3.3 Public Relations on a Massive Scale 1. Objective: Explain how the two World Wars affected public relations
The potential of public relations to rally support for a cause was demonstrated on a gigantic scale during World War I and again during World War II.
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