About 100 years ago, I was at an annual Counselors Academy spring conference when rumblings about a whisper campaign between two major companies surfaced. I remember it vividly because I was among my peers and we were all a thither.
“For years, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, has extolled the virtue of transparency, and he built Facebook accordingly. The social network requires people to use their real identity in large part because Mr. Zuckerberg says he believes that people behave better—and society will be better—if they cannot cloak their words or actions in anonymity,” This was from The New York Times on May 13, 2011…right before all of this came to light.
Enter Burson Marsteller.
Most of you already know the story. The global PR firm was hired to create a “whisper campaign” about Social Circle, the optional feature of Google search that used publicly available information from social networks to personalize search results.
The story goes that two very high-profile and former senior reporters turned PR pros worked with media and bloggers to begin digging into Social Circle and writing negative stories about it. When pushed to reveal their client, they refused and a blogger from the Daily Beast published their email exchange.
As the group of communicators watched this all unfold, there was serious conversation about the need for PRSA to ban Burson Marsteller—and any other organization that acts against its Code of Ethics.
The Code of Ethics
It’s an interesting conundrum. PRSA is a membership organization so it’s not really their role in the industry to ban people or organizations. At the same time, there is a Code of Ethics all communicators abide by—member or not—and every one of us should be held accountable for upholding them.
Enter the 5WPR founder and CEO, who has recently been on the hot seat for his, shall we say, salacious behavior.
Everything-PR Is Not So Much
A couple of weeks ago, AdAge broke the story that years after denying he was behind a PR news site to tout itself and bash rivals, it was discovered the 5WPR founder and CEO secretly bought and scrubbed said site.
Everything-PR was founded in 2009 by a husband-and-wife team. They spent five years covering news and trends in the public relations industry. In 2014, 5WPR secretly bought the site, without disclosing ownership. They then spent the last eight years writing stories about their competitors, while touting their own great work, by fake authors.
They came clean just two weeks ago and have scrubbed all of the fake bylines, replaced simply with By EPR Staff.
I thought it’d be fun to do my own searching on the site and in the Wayback Machine, to see what they scrubbed. When looking for a top PR firm in Miami, guess who is number one? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.
It says, and I quote, “One of America’s leading PR agencies, 5WPR has recently decided they will be setting up shop in Miami. Like many recent transplants to Miami, 5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian has been spending extensive time in Miami, hence it’s natural his award-winning agency has many clients in Miami. 5W Public Relations has extensive experience in consumer and corporate PR and are a force to be reckoned with in South Florida.”
The writing in most of the articles is sub-par, at best. The ideas and how-tos are elementary, there are typos galore, and the grammar is atrocious. It’s no wonder it hasn’t gained much traction as an influential site in the industry.
Gross Behavior For Years
We really shouldn’t be surprised. From reputation alone, “Ronn is a hard-charging PR executive who built an internal firm with a well-documented, take-no-prisoners management style that rankled rivals as well as many executives who worked for him.”
In 2008, he and his firm were found to be impersonating influencers and members of certain organizations to expand their clients’ messages on the web via blog comments and fake email accounts.
They also sent three young professionals from their team to Good Morning America, pretending they were random people who had had botox treatments as teenagers. Torossian had set up a plastic-surgeon client on the show by speaking out against the practice—and the young women were there to talk about their “experiences.”
All of these things are illegal and them not disclosing their relationship with Everything-PR is also an FTC violation. But is there any recourse?
Ethics Are Never Questionable
A few years ago, I hired a former managing editor from a newspaper to come in and help us build Spin Sucks from a blog to a media entity with a community (check), professional development (check), coaching and consulting (check, check), online courses (check), and a certification (check).
We had a client who was very fond of this person because he had a lot of knowledge about how the news business works and he was fascinated with the process. He was having trouble getting a governor to work with him on tax breaks for building a new manufacturing facility there. He asked my colleague if he would pretend he still worked for the paper and call the governor’s office, on the auspice of gathering information about what they were going to do about this client’s business.
My colleague, of course, told me immediately and I called the client to say “ABSOLUTELY NOT!” Not even a question. It’s not happening.
The PR Industry Has a Perception Issue
This is why I’m always so dumbfounded when I hear stories like these out of 5WPR. I also am always shocked when the PR industry, itself, doesn’t come out against this type of behavior. We have a bad enough reputation as it is—one of liars and spin doctors—and it takes an advertising publication, the NY Post, and Crain’s New York to “break” the news.
PRWeek didn’t do anything until a week later—and then only because PRSA New York condemned 5WPR and its founder. So I contacted PRSA International to see what their stance was.
Their COO, Karen Mateo told me, “Ronn Torossian is not and has never been a member of PRSA. His firm does not have a group membership with PRSA. There is no official action that the organization can take against him. However, we did post a comment from Felicia Blow/PRSA related to the situation.”
That statement reads, “Recent events in the news have brought to the fore the critical importance of transparency and honesty in communications, and the importance of disclosing accurate information and disclosing conflicts of interest. Conversations on misinformation and distrust continue to be a big part of the nation’s discourse. As communicators, we have a unique responsibility to speak the truth and serve as honest counselors to our clients and internal/external stakeholders. For more than 70 years, PRSA’s Code of Ethics has served as both an agreement to expectations for the profession and a model for communications and public relations standards writ large. Misconduct not only results in a breach of confidence in the profession but can also erode the public’s trust.”
Lead By Example
I guess this is the problem with an industry that isn’t regulated. We can talk about the importance of an agreement we’ve all made to a Code of Ethics and we can preach the importance of disclosing accurate information, but it’s definitely preaching to the choir.
Based on his reputation, I’m pretty sure Torossian isn’t paying attention to what PRSA or PRWeek or certainly I am saying on the topic. And therein lies the problem. It’s akin to getting Trump to admit what Putin is doing is disgusting.
There are unethical people in every profession. This is just the latest example in our industry—and it contributes to the terrible reputation we have of being liars and spin doctors. It’s not fair, but for those of us who believe in honesty and transparency and living a Code of Ethics, the best thing we can do is keep doing that—and holding people like Ronn Torossian and his agency accountable.