The First Press Release

In 1906, the first press release was born and a new era in the Communication world was beginning. From Julius Caesar to Lucky Strike, the History of Public Relations

On 28th October 1906, a train of the Pennsylvania Railroad suffered a tragic accident that resulted in the death of more than 50 passengers.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was facing one of the most delicate and newsworthy moments of its history.

Closely monitoring the case was the expert in Public Relations, Ivy Lee.

Rather than seek to conceal the most tragic facts and wait to see the news coverage of the accident, Lee decided to anticipate himself.

He gave reporters a document, reporting the event from the perspective of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Thus the first press release was born.

On 30th October 1906, The New York Times published the news without changing Ivy Lee’s text.

Besides distributing the press release to reporters, Lee also advised the Pennsylvania Railroad to provide special trains to transport reporters to the accident site.

In the weeks that followed, the press and public officials praised the company for its openness and honesty.

The strategy used by Ivy Lee is considered the first example of a modern communication crisis.

In contrast to previous approaches, Ivy Lee believed that a company should try to win public trust and “good will” by honestly and accurately presenting its position.

In 1904, he co-founded the Public Relations agency Parker and Lee. Its slogan was: “Accuracy, Authenticity and Interest.”

However, his approach was not always consensual.

Ivy Lee was hired by coal mine companies to represent them during a workers’ strike.

The workers had already spoken to the press and the owners also wanted to have a say on what came out in the newspapers.

This time, the reception to the statement sent to the press was not so warm.

Journalists were shown to be hostile, considering the document a “disguised article” sent to manipulate news coverage.

In response to criticism, Lee issued a “Declaration of Principles,” where one could read:

“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 informationconcerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the publicto know about”. 

Public Relations now had a new communication paradigm: “The public be informed.”

A profession is born

The evolution of Public Relations arises associated with the United States’ economic and social development.

It was precisely in Boston that, in 1900, the first agency, Publicity Bureau, was founded, illustrating the professionalization efforts.

Modern Public Relations, in the real assumption of the term, were born after centuries of evolution in the Communication area. Its history crosses several spheres of society.

For some experts, already in 50 B.C., Julius Caesar used rudimentary techniques of Public Relations, when disclosing his military achievements through a publication.

In the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church has coined the term “propaganda,” which would gain a negative connotation in the twentieth century.

In politics, the first President to use the term “Public Relations” was Thomas Jefferson.

The third President of the United States (1801-1809), and the main author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) of that country used the term in a communication to Congress in 1807.

Roosevelt’s “Fireside chats,” already in 1933, are also considered a form of innovation in political communication.

The President addressed the North-Americans through radio, in an informal, reassuring tone that contrasted with the more distant and institutionalised approaches from other leaders.

But the history of Public Relations was not made of success only.

The distrust of the techniques used in media communication is old and, in some cases, justified.

“The Greatest Show on Earth.” It was so that P. T. Barnum announced his travelling circus, the most popular one of the nineteenth century.

And it was in the arena of Barnum & Bailey Circus that some of the techniques that have written the name of Barnum in the history of Public Relations began to be employed, and not for the best reasons.

Barnum chose short names for his attractions, so that they could fit in the headlines; he organised media events – such as the marriage between “the tallest man” and “the fattest woman” on the world – and wrote false letters to the editors, all in order to create media attention.

The goal?

To create advertising for Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Behind his techniques, a communication philosophy: “The public be fooled.”

But Barnum was not the only one to underestimate the value of information and the understanding of the public.

In the fall of 1882, William Henry Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world, was travelling by train to Chicago when he was asked by the press about one of his rail services, which was at a financial loss.

“It doesn’t pay expenses. We would abandon it if it was not for our competitor keeping its train on.”

“But don’t you run it for the public benefit?” asked the journalist.

“The public be damned.”

Criticism would soon arrive.

A growing area

The importance of communication was becoming, increasingly more important for companies and individuals.

Its value would, once again, demonstrate to be essential during the so-called “Battle of Currents.”

Thomas Edison’s company, defender of the use of a direct electric current, used “scare techniques” to discredit the alternating current, developed by Nikola Tesla and promoted by the Westinghouse Electric Company.

By publicly electrocuting animals and lobbying against the alternating current, they intended to prove that this was a dangerous method.

The campaign turned out to be fruitless and the alternating current became the most popular option.

The information – or, in this case, the misinformation – was once again at the center of debate.

A lesson that the Rockefeller family would also eventually learn.

In 1914, the mine workers of the Rockefellers, in Colorado, who were on strike, were involved in clashes with the guards, causing dozens of deaths. The episode became known as the massacre of Ludlow.

The tragedy shocked the country and tarnished the family’s name in the public opinion.

Ivy Lee was hired with a mission: to tackle the impact of negative press and improve the public image of the Rockefeller family.

The expert started to send, on a regular basis, reports to newspapers in Colorado, in which he pointed to the “mass of misinformation and misrepresentation contained in recent issues of the public press,” and disclosed new information.

John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s public image also changed.

The tycoon promised to go personally to Ludlow and talk to the miners and their families.

The visit was a success.

Ivy Lee continued to accompany the Rockefellers and their corporate interests over the years that followed.

By creating philanthropic foundations and investing in information and transparency, Ivy Lee helped create a favourable image of the Rockefeller family before the public opinion.

The pioneers

Although his influence is undeniable, Ivy Lee was not the only pioneer of the area.

Edward Bernays also contributed noticeably to the development of the theory of Public Relations.

By applying diverse concepts of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays wrote several books on Public Relations, the best-known being Crystallizing Public Opinion, Propaganda and The Engineering of Consent.

Bernays also stood out for his work on the ground.

His most famous campaign was developed for Lucky Strike.

In order to expand the market of the cigarette brand, Bernays decided to direct their efforts to the female audience.

His first problem: women did not like the Lucky Strike’s green pack, which did not match the colours of their clothes.

Due to the high costs involved in changing Lucky Strike’s pack, Bernays decided to change... the fashion world.

The expert in Public Relations convinced designers and decorators to incorporate Lucky Strike’s dark green in their collections.

He also organised the Green Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, with some of the most famous socialites of the time.

In order to sidetrack the taboo of the smoking woman, in 1929 Bernays associated cigarettes to the feminist movement.

He summoned North-American debutantes to, on Easter Sunday, march down Fifth Avenue to smoke what he called “torches of freedom.”

The press could not resist reporting the event.

“A Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom,’” wrote The New York Times on the 1st of April.

The campaign had repercussions in the newspapers, from the north to the south of the country and contributed to change mentalities.

By this time, the advances in the practice of Public Relations had already arrived at the classrooms.

In 1923, Bernays taught at New York University, the first university degree devoted to this area.

Public Relations started their way to become a sector with rules and principles, where respect for the public and the accuracy of information are core values.