History’s First Press Release

Pennsylvania railroad

After a Penn Railroad train ran off the rails, PR pioneer Ivy Lee gained the upper hand over reporters covering the story with a subtle account of the accident that minimized the reputational damage to his client.

Is Public Relations Just Fake News In Disguise?

The modern era of managed information began with a succinct press release written by a former newsman on behalf of his industrial client, a northeastern railroad that had just suffered a derailment resulting in multiple deaths. To be sure, ten eyewitnesses if asked to describe the accident would have ten different accounts of the exact same facts. But the one that made it into the New York Times that day is the only one that counts.

The first press release of the modern era was crafted in 1906 by Ivy Lee, one of public relation’s original founders, for his client the Pennsylvania Railroad. Following a derailment that resulted in multiple deaths, Lee arranged for reporters to be transported to the accident scene – under his watchful eye – and at the same time released an account of what happened, complete with asides, misdirections, and human interest.

What ran in the paper that day wasn’t Fake News, but it wasn’t a totally innocent, unbiased account of what actually happened either. It was a subjective report presented as an objective story on behalf of a client in exchange for income.

#FakeNews isn’t a new concept. Public relations is, among other things, an extension of the psychology of people, and towards that end its best known component is shifting public opinion from Point A to Point B beneath the radar. Like any profession its goals aren’t always in everyone’s best interest. Lowlights include the extensive campaigns, presented as news, that promoted smoking, especially when it came to converting women’s attitudes towards the habit.

All news is not created equally, and the concept of so-called Fake News is somewhat of an oxymoron. News that’s fake by definition isn’t news at all – it’s propaganda. The intention of the current campaign, though, is to create the idea that news in and of itself isn’t true. In other words, to shift opinion that casts doubt on journalists and the media.

In a consumer culture we seldom come to a conclusion strictly on merit, as opposed to being nudged in ways subtle enough as to escape detection as a motivating factor for any particular decision that is made. Ford. Or Chevy.