History of the Press Release

August 30, 2019   |    Like this? Share it.

By: Katherine Hulit

A lot of our work at WordLab involves writing press releases. A press release is a statement issued by an organization or individual sent to directly to the media to provide information or issue an official statement. As I often do, I got to thinking:  Who was the first person to write a press release?  

Luckily, we live in the age of information, and a quick Google search yielded the results I was looking for. The first press release was written by Ivy Lee, the father of modern public relations. Lee represented many major railroad companies during the early 20th century. Railroad travel was not as safe as it is today, and trains would often get into major accidents, sometimes resulting in large numbers of passenger deaths. That’s where Lee came in, to manage the crisis communications for these major railroads. And it was during one of these crises that the first-ever press release was born.

In 1906 a passenger train on the Pennsylvania Railroad derailed off a bridge in Atlantic City, causing over 50 deaths. It was a common practice during that era to try to cover up tragedies and accidents, but Lee decided to take a different route and be transparent about the details of the incident. He called a press conference and invited the press to come down and look at the crash themselves. Lee also wrote and released statement on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad containing all the basic facts of the accident, to ensure that accurate news was reported.

Part of what made Ivy Lee such a savvy public relations strategist was his background as a journalist. A former New York Times reporter, he knew that a good journalist would get the story no matter what. By issuing press releases and calling press conferences, organizations can gain some control of their narrative in the media.

While seemly commonplace now, this proactive approach to message management was revolutionary at the time and set the foundation for the entire public relations industry.  Learning the history of the press release has helped connect me to a larger legacy of public relations. Much like Ivy Lee did when he wrote the first press release, the staff at WordLab tackle challenges from a new perspective allowing our clients stories to be expressed in innovative ways.