Ivy Lee, one of the alleged “Fathers of PR,” twice confessed that he had no idea what PR was.

“I have never been able to find a satisfactory phrase to describe what I try to do,” he told an IRT New York subway rate hearing in 1927.

Seven years later he told a congressional committee investigating his work for the I.G. Farben trust, a close ally of the Hitler government, that his firm was “not an advertising agency. My business—I do not know how to describe it.”

Rosanna Fiske, Ivy Lee
What is PR?
So PR Society chair Rosanna Fiske had no idea what deep waters she was getting into when she embarked in November on a quest to define PR, saying she was never able to explain to her parents what she did for a living.

One of PR’s problems is that it works closely with three occupations that know exactly what they are doing—law, marketing and finance. They can eat the lunch of PR pros who don’t quite know what they are doing.

Corp. PR Disappears; Specialties Form

PR is no mystery to this writer. What PR pros do or don’t do is only too visible. Since Wikipedia either skips or has deficient entries on major PR topics, we will make up for that with histories on odwyerpr.com.

The two major developments in recent decades are the virtual disappearance of PR at corporations and institutions and the emergence of a dozen well-defined PR practice areas in PR firms.

PR, like law, medicine, engineering and other occupations, has matured by building expertise on specific topics such as healthcare, tech, financial, food, travel, etc.

The O’Dwyer Co. for 20 years has pioneered in identifying firms with such practices, tracking the amount of their revenues in each area, clients, personnel, and giving the firms a platform to describe their skills via our online and print directories.

This has helped to drive business to such firms.

Specialty rankings grew to 594 for 2010, up from 496 in the previous year. The rankings included 90 in healthcare and 84 in tech.

PR firms are expanding in number and size while corporate “PR” depts. (by whatever name) are not. Companies similarly closed their ad depts. in the 1950s because creativity was found to reside in the agencies.

The message of PR should not be that PR pros are ethically superior to businesspeople, which they’re not, or that they serve as the “conscience” of clients, but that they have developed specific areas of marketing and other promotional expertise that can help clients, particularly those that can’t afford adverting.

Corps Ditched “PR”

Corporations started ditching the term “PR” in the 1970s. Only a few blue chips still have such titles. Members of (PR) Seminar, the annual gathering of “PR” executives of major companies and a few top PR firms, favor titles such as corporate communications, corporate relations, marketing communications, public affairs, etc. The group even dropped “PR” from its name three years ago.

The name changes signaled something much deeper—a removal from openness and availability to reporters. While almost all companies in the 1960s and 70s had someone available to chat with media and most had programs that sought to build personal ties with reporters, almost none now do.

Reporters who try to contact a corporate PR dept. are confronted with a box on the company website where they can post a question and hope for an answer. Individual contact names will not be provided. Phone calls will be answered (if at all) by a junior staffer who will subject the caller to the third degree.

Press conferences, once a staple of PR, have virtually disappeared.

PR Is “Dept. of War”

PR majors who think they’re going to be “peacemakers” and “conciliators” in the business world are going to find they have joined the “War Dept.” of companies and institutions.

Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld told the Arthur W. Page Society April 8, 2010 that she considered the “corporate affairs” dept. (meaning PR) headed by Page member Perry Yeatman to be her “secret weapon” and that it played a crucial role in Kraft’s hostile takeover of Cadbury. Rosenfeld favors “communications” as long as it “furthers the business agenda of Kraft.” She added: “Well-executed work that communicates but that doesn’t further the business agenda…simply does not qualify as great communications.”

Monitoring what employees say in e-mails or otherwise is also a major task for the institutional PR pro.

The Village Voice in 2010 outed what it called “48-pages of corporate terrorism”—a PDF for Viacom employees that said that anyone who breathes a negative word about the $14 billion entertainment giant will be “disciplined.”

Only the “officially designated spokesperson” may deal with the media or “post on the internet or otherwise publicly share” info on Viacom, the PDF said.

PR Society Exercises Tight Control

Virtually the same policy is in effect at many places including the PR Society where VP-PR Arthur Yann or one of his staffers must be told about any media inquiries concerning the Society before comment is made. This applies to all members including the elected chair and board.

PR Society press and information-blocking policies multiplied in 2011. Photos and recording of the Assembly by reporters had been banned for the first time in 2010. In 2011, reporters were banned altogether from the Assembly. This reporter was blocked also from any sessions at the 2011 conference and from entering the exhibit hall. Reclusive Fiske addressed only two of the 110 chapters, a record low.

On July 28 she turned her teleconferences into “listen-only” mode after a delegate asked her about the salaries of staff executives as reported by this website.

In another dubious first, no minutes of any of the four board meetings in 2011 were published nor have the minutes of the Oct. 15 Assembly been published.

Financial PR figure Ted Pincus, who spent much of his last five years as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, noted that PR pros had turned voice-mail and e-mail into barriers of communications rather than facilitators of it.

Wendell Potter, 20-year PR executive at CIGNA, wrote as much in Deadly Spin, saying that lawyer-vetted e-mails had become the standard method of discourse between PR pros and reporters.

Lee Not a Good Example for PR

Steven Bomba’s 1982 master’s thesis drew on Lee’s own papers and testimony from the Nuremburg trials to skewer Lee as believing that U.S. Jews exercised unseemly control over the U.S. press, financial industry, department stores and movies. ["Howling with the Wolves" by Steven Bomba is $44 plus the state sales tax from whatever state it is purchased. 800/521-3042 (University Microfilms Int’l). E-mail orders may also be sent to [email protected]. Specify 1318561. Shipping/handling is included in price.]

Lee went to at least one mass rally for Hitler, writing that it was “a great show,” and met him for a half hour on one occasion. Hitler, he wrote, “is personally an industrious, honest and sincere hardworking individual.”

Lee’s son, James, worked in Berlin with the Hitler government, authoring a 35-page booklet called “Driving Your Own Car in Germany.”

Lee told the congressional hearing the booklet had nothing to do with politics. It was classic misdirection—not exactly lying but shifting attention from more important issues such as Germany’s re-armament and the persecution of the Jews.

The Farben chemicals trust included Bayer, Hoechst and BASF.

Lee worked for Hitler long after attacks on the Jews had begun. An anti-Nazi rally calling for a boycott of German goods was held in Madison Square Garden on March 27, 1933 and in 70 other locations throughout the U.S.

Hunter College Prof. Stuart Ewen was especially tough on Lee in his 1996 book "PR! A Social History of Spin."

Lee’s “deluge” of pamphlets, circulars and letters for the Rockefellers during the 1914 Colorado coal miners’ strike, during which 14 miners, miners’ wives and children were murdered were called only fit for the “waste basket” by the Toledo Blade.

Testifying before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations in 1915, Lee answered “none whatever” when asked whether he checked the facts given to him by the mine owners. He said he had “no responsibility for the facts and no duty beyond compiling them and getting them into the best form for publicity work.”

Poet Carl Sandburg called Lee “ a hired slanderer” and “paid liar” while journalist George Creel said Lee was “a poisoner of public opinion.” The nickname “Poison Ivy” followed Lee to his grave.