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100 Years of Modern Public Relations

Somebody had to write this article.  So I did.

Ludlow Massacre Memorial
Ludlow Massacre Memorial

Last month travelling through southern Colorado, heading up Denver way, I was amazed to come across a sign on the highway that I had never expected to see. I had never been that way before so I had no idea I might run across it. In fact, if someone had told me it existed, I wouldn’t have believed them. The sign was a simple one. It said “Ludlow Massacre Memorial, Exit 27.”

Undoubtedly tens of thousands of motorists and their passengers, probably more, have passed that sign since it went up in 2009 when the memorial was recognized as a national monument and had no idea what that was all about (The memorial had been there since 1916.). But I did.

It was the place where modern Public Relations was born. And a bad birth it was too.

I had to stop. I was compelled. Never have I been so interested in going to look at a landmark.

And it was there. A tiny plot of land with an aging building and a tall monument, all fenced in. A dusty and almost empty parking lot beside. An old, etched wood sign with “The United Mine Workers, District 15” welcomed me. To my surprise, there was another person visiting the site. But it was not surprising that it was a labor relations historian doing the same as I was, although our purposes and backgrounds were different. We talked.

Ludlow mine territory
Ludlow mine territory

The Ludlow Massacre? You can research it online.

In late 1913, the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company locked out about 9,000 striking miners who were demanding better working conditions and pay. Not only out of their jobs but out of their homes as well. The workers set up a tent camp at the location of the memorial and lived there throughout the winter and all the next year until they finally caved in to the company’s demands.

Per the United Mine Workers website, “The date April 20, 1914 will forever be a day of infamy for American workers. On that day, 19 innocent men, women and children were killed in the Ludlow Massacre… The massacre occurred in a carefully planned attack on the tent colony by Colorado militiamen, coal company guards, and thugs hired as private detectives and strike breakers. They shot and burned to death 18 striking miners and their families and one company man. Four women and 11 small children died holding each other under burning tents. Later investigations revealed that kerosine had intentionally been poured on the tents to set them ablaze. The miners had dug foxholes in the tents so the women and children could avoid the bullets that randomly were shot through the tent colony by company thugs. The women and children were found huddled together at the bottoms of their tents.”

Naturally, accounts vary.

Regardless, a devastatingly cruel and inhuman action had occurred and it was picked up by the national press and rightfully inflamed hatred against the Rockefeller name and other corporate business interests across the country, eventually leading to hearings in Washington.

What could be done about such bad personal and company public relations?

A modern PR would say a “crisis management” plan needed to be implemented. Truly, an invidious beginning for a new management specialty – trying to make up for the lack of management scruples in firing bullets at and burning workers’ families.

And thus PR has been tainted throughout its whole history as simply trying to justify and whitewash corporate misdeeds.

For the Rockefellers, to the rescue came one Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a Princeton graduate and former newspaper reporter, who author and muckraker Upton Sinclair eventually deemed “Poison Ivy.” Lee started representing the Rockefeller interests shortly after the massacre. Lee had already made a name for himself in representing coal companies which had been hit by strikes.

But, too, let’s not be churlish, he had enunciated some fine PR principles in his Declaration of Principles that were published in 1906. But he didn’t always seem to live up to them. He seemed to bend them for his clients.

It should be mentioned as well, that at this time Lee also worked alongside future Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who as a former Minister of Labor, was hired by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and helped change Rockefeller’s worker policies for the better. So its hard at first blush to tell what King did and what was Lee’s idea. But I have to say that Mackenzie King became Junior’s best friend and also the longest serving Prime Minister in Canadian history. Perhaps the two are not unrelated.

Was Lee successful in changing attitudes towards the Rockefellers regarding Ludlow? It appears to be.

If the documentary done in 2000 by PBS on the Rockefellers is any indication (see video above, set to start at the section on Ludlow – an interesting few minutes), it was wildly successful and lasting. With that much money brought to bear, it is remarkable that it shouldn’t be. Didn’t old man Rockefeller become well-known for handing out shiny dimes to children? Even the sympathetic portrayal of the family and the “hardships” of John D. Rockefeller Jr. about Ludlow in the PBS special is quite PR in itself. Those poor bastards certainly came across well 86 years after the massacre.

This is only my opinion and I have not tried to do an in-depth research and analysis here. But for those that care, my sympathies lie more with workers and families freezing in the Colorado snow, being shot at and burned by minions of those too wealthy and disinterested to care. All because they wanted a few extra pennies for risking their lives in the mines. How reprehensible.

My grandfather was a coal miner.

As a PR, the truly interesting thing is that neither the PR industry nor even sadly the United Mine Workers of America, as far as I could find, did anything special to commemorate the Ludlow anniversary this year – its 100th. No press release even.

Out of sight, out of mind. Now a lonely couple of signs on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway. Lee certainly did a good job.

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