The Bloody Birth of Corporate PR
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because every so often, as a former public relations man named Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “yesterday’s snow job becomes today’s sermon.”
By Sean Braswell
When the 1,000 men, women and children living in a tent city near Ludlow, Colorado, first saw the National Guard approaching in the fall of 1913, they greeted them with rousing cheers. But the guardsmen had not been sent to protect the striking coal miners from the daily attacks of vigilante gunmen stationed outside the camp — they were there to protect the investment of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corp., owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who happened to be bankrolling both the vigilantes and the guardsmen.
Six months later, on April 20, 1914, those remaining in the camp were sprayed with machine-gun fire by the guardsmen, and the tent colony was torched, killing at least 66, including two women and 11 children who suffocated in a pit they had dug beneath their tent to escape the bullets. The strike failed, but the bloody Ludlow Massacre was a public relations disaster for Rockefeller — one so bad that it required the birth of modern corporate PR to remedy the situation and salvage Rockefeller’s charred legacy from the smoldering ash of the miners’ tents.
True corporate spin doctors like Ivy Lee did not emerge until events like Ludlow demanded their talents.
“[S]ince the dawn of representative democracy, corporations and political elites have used public relations and lobbying to subvert and subdue democracy,” argue David Miller and William Dinan in A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power. Still, while publicists had occasionally penned puff pieces to defend company interests from muckraking journalists in the late 19th century, true corporate spin doctors like Ivy Lee, sometimes called the father of public relations, did not emerge until events like Ludlow demanded their talents.
Lee, a Princeton economics grad, had been a muckraking journalist himself, until the long hours and low pay drove him and a friend to open one of the nation’s first PR firms — dedicated to bringing the journalistic principles of “accuracy, authenticity and interest” to the embryonic PR field. For Lee, it was about transparency and helping companies get out in front of potential controversies. For example, U.S. railroad companies had long failed to acknowledge fatal accidents on railway lines, but Lee made sure that reporters were briefed and allowed to inspect the accident scene and question officials, successfully deflecting unwarranted criticism in the press.
But Lee was also a student of what he called the psychology of the multitude and believed that publicity worked best when trained professionals played on “the imagination or emotion of the public.” Presentation was paramount, and the facts, well, they were flexible. As the philosophical Lee put it, “What is a fact? The effort to state an absolute fact is simply an attempt to … give you my interpretation of the facts.”
Ivy Lee’s interpretative skills would be tested like never before in the wake of Ludlow. Earlier, John D. Rockefeller Jr., obsessed with burnishing his father’s robber baron image, had testified before Congress about the miners’ desire to unionize to win better wages and working conditions. Asked two weeks before the massacre if he would stick to his anti-union principle even “if it costs all your property and kills all your employees,” Rockefeller had chillingly replied, “It is a great principle.”
After Ludlow, with Rockefeller under siege from well-known union activist Mother Jones and informed by the popular writer Upton Sinclair that “I intend to indict you for murder before the people of this country,” clearly it was time for the wealthy industrialist, in modern PR parlance, to implement a crisis-management plan. Lee, whom Sinclair dubbed Poison Ivy, was brought in to interpret the facts surrounding Ludlow. A subsequent publicity sheet claimed — falsely — that the massacre had been the work of “well-paid agitators sent out by the union,” that Mother Jones was “a prostitute” and that the women and children who’d suffocated in the pit had been the victims of an “overturned stove.” The whole episode, according to an official statement from Rockefeller, was “to be regretted,” but the “defenders of law and property … were in no slightest way responsible for it.”
And that was just the start of Rockefeller’s rehabilitation. The following year, after the miners had returned to work, the industrialist made a well-publicized visit to Ludlow, where he ate with the laborers and announced a plan to address worker grievances. And over time, Lee’s client was recast as a humanitarian and philanthropist, a reputation he still enjoys today. Lee’s reputation, however, would take a hit shortly before his death, in 1934, after it was revealed that he had met with, and dispensed PR advice to, Adolf Hitler and head Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Despite the black marks on Lee’s record, his innovative PR legacy is — rather fittingly — open to a host of interpretations.