The World’s First Publicist Worked for Big Oil

by | Jan 1, 2020

In Season 3 of the Drilled podcast we look at Big Oil’s big propaganda machine, the specific spin masters who built it, and why it’s still so effective today. First up, in episodes 1 and 2, is Ivy Ledbetter Lee, widely considered the father of modern public relations (yes, yes Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, also sometimes claims that prize, but he started his firm 25 years after Lee).

Lee worked for coal companies and railroads and then in 1914 went to work for the Rockefellers. In response to an ongoing strike at a Colorado mine owned by the family, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had sent in armed guards, who teamed up with the Colorado national guard to bust up the protest. The men invaded a camp of some 1200 miners and their families, and began setting tents on fire, and then shooting at protestors. Ultimately 22 protestors were killed, including 11 children and two women, who were suffocated by smoke when they got trapped in a pit, trying to hide from the gunfire. The incident came to be known as the Ludlow Massacre. The Rockefellers were just a few years out from the break-up of the Standard Oil Trust, and the Ludlow strike quickly made the son as unpopular as his father. They were in great need of a new image, and Ivy Lee was just the man to give it to them.

Lee went on to work for Standard Oil and the Rockefellers for the rest of his life. After WWI he helped them bring oil companies together into the first industry PR group, the American Petroleum Institute, back in 1919. In 1929, when Standard Oil signed a partnership deal with German chemical manufacturer I.G. Farben, creating Standard-IG Farben, a joint venture that aimed to develop petrochemicals and synthetic fuels, Lee picked up IG Farben as a client too. And when Adolf Hitler began consolidating power in Germany, Farben asked Lee to come to Germany. The $4,000 a year they were paying him was increased to $25,000 a year, and they offered his son a full-time job in Germany, too, for $33,000 a year, big money at the time. Lee met with minister of propaganda Josef Goebbels, and with Hitler himself, along with various other Third Reich leaders, and advised them on relations with the press and with America in general. When the Nazis were planning to kick out the foreign press, Lee advised them against that idea, and suggested they build relationships with the foreign press instead.

Lee also advised them that Americans would never go for the Third Reich’s stance on Jews, but it’s unlikely that he realized at the time how far that thinking went or what it would lead to in a few short years. Lee was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about his involvement on “Nazi propaganda” in 1934. The transcript of that testimony is here, but we’ve pulled out a few choice bits below, along with some examples of historical documents from an archive of Lee’s papers at Princeton University, which our senior editor Emily Gertz combed through for these episodes. You can listen to episodes one and two anywhere you get your podcasts, or right here on our Podcasts page.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.