This is the story of a local train crash, and how its aftermath changed the way companies communicate with the public.
On Oct. 28, 1906, a three-car train was about to finish its journey from Camden to Atlantic City when it approached a drawbridge spanning a small waterway.
As its wheels hit the bridge, something went terribly wrong.
The first two cars of the train careened into the water. Victims were, in the words of the Atlantic City Press, “entombed in cars” with no method of escape, and 53 of the 87 passengers died.
The ill-fated train was operated by the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The company had recently hired a public relations consultant named Ivy Lee.
And Lee convinced the rail giant to do something unusual.
Lee told the Pennsylvania Railroad that it should write its own version of what happened and volunteer that information to the press. It was an unusual approach. But Lee thought his client should get out in front of the story.
Two days after the tragedy, the New York Times printed Lee’s statement.
The company said it had not pinpointed the cause of the crash, but doubted there was any “defect in either the drawbridge or its mechanism.”
The company said it suspected an issue with the cars. The company even said why it had come to this conclusion: The electric signal system couldn’t give conductors the go-ahead unless the rails had properly locked back into place. Thus, the railroad felt the bridge couldn’t have caused the crash.
By volunteering all of this information to the media, Lee had changed communications forever.
He had issued what is widely considered to be the first press release.
Now, one of the main contentions in this release would turn out to be wrong. The train cars were not to blame for the crash. Nor, it seems, was the conductor. An inquest determined that the bridge had not returned to the proper height, creating a misalignment. Because the signal system wasn’t calibrated to account for the height of the rails, it reportedly did not offer a warning.
Although Lee’s statement contained this inaccuracy, history would smile upon it.
The Pennsylvania Railroad received wide acclaim for its “openness and honesty,” according to the News Museum. As scholar Ray Hiebert later explained, before the 1906 wreck in Atlantic City, the Pennsylvania Railroad had barred reporters from accident sites and volunteered little information about their causes. Lee’s approach represented a sea change.
It wasn’t simply the fact that Lee convinced the Pennsylvania Railroad to issue a press release. He also ferried reporters to the crash site so they could gather information.
Lee’s ideas became massively influential — and so did he. He is widely considered a progenitor of modern public relations and crisis management.
He worked for John D. Rockefeller Jr., refurbishing the family’s image after the bloody Ludlow Massacre. Lee’s firm also advised the Red Cross, the YMCA, Harvard, Princeton, American Tobacco, Bethlehem Steel, and Chrysler (among many others).
Shortly before his death Lee faced a congressional inquiry connected to his work for a German company in the early days of the Nazi regime — work he broke off when he discovered the company’s connection, he testified.
For better or worse, his early work with the Pennsylvania Railroad marked a turning point. Ivy Lee convinced corporations to tell their own stories.