Two recent crises hit close to home for the PR profession.
On February 16, Keith Kelly broke the news in Crain’s New York Business and AdAge that Ronn Torossian, CEO of the 5WPR Agency, secretly purchased an industry newsletter, Everything-PR, and used it to hype his firm and bash rivals.
For years many in the profession assumed that the Everything-PR site was a legitimate industry news vehicle. Founded in 2009, the site says it is “dedicated to reviewing the activities and accomplishments of public relations companies and services, promoting the firms and industry professional we believe to be noteworthy….”
The only problem was that since 2014, when Torossian purchased it, there usually was one agency and a sole PR professional deemed noteworthy. The pro was Torossian and 5WPR was the agency. On the other hand, agencies and communicators who were rivals of Torossian and 5WPR were denigrated routinely.
At the same time as Kelly’s article appeared, the war rooms over at CNN were busy. The issue was dealing with revelations of misconduct, ethical lapses and a widely-known-if-never-acknowledged affair. The stars of this salacious soap opera included Jeff Zucker, president of CNN; Zucker’s lover, CNN CMO and CCO Allison Gollust; star anchor Chris Cuomo and a Jane Doe, who accused Cuomo of sexual assault.
Ronn Torossian, 5WPR
The reaction to Kelly’s story was swift. PR legend Richard Edelman wrote on his blog: “When I read Keith Kelly’s article last week about the fake news outlet, Everything-PR, and its proprietor, Ronn Torossian, I was stunned and nauseated.”
The New York Chapter of PRSA issued a rare rebuke from its board. “In addition to being a cowardly and blatant violation of PRSA's Code of Ethics, Ronn’s actions are a stain on our profession and undermine our role as guardians of facts and integrity for those we serve. We strongly condemn his and his firm’s direct role in perpetrating disinformation while pretending to be a legitimate industry news site," the board said in a statement.
The news shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Torossian has long been notorious for his aggressive tactics and questionable clients. One of his longtime clients was the pornography site PornHub. It’s now a former client. In addition, he’s represented Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In mid-December, a Kelly story included a reference to the fact that Torossian owned Everything-PR in a story about Torossian’s relationship with newly elected New York mayor Eric Adams. The previous week, The Daily Beast blasted Torossian, labeling him “Toxic.”
What is surprising is that the most recent brouhaha actually brought forth an apology from someone who appears genetically unapologetic. In a statement after Kelly’s Crain’s NY Business article mid last month, Torossian, for the first time, admitted owning Everything-PR.
His apology is a classic lesson in how to do apologies wrong. He didn’t apologize for lying. Instead, he was sorry for the “lack of transparency.” He then went on to brag about himself and his agency. He noted how he built his firm from scratch, for example. Yet he never acknowledged the potential harm he had inflicted through Everything-PR on rival PR firms or PR pros.
In addition, since Mr. Torossian seems to think that any press is good press, he continued to issue self-aggrandizing press releases. Just one day after the crisis broke, he offered a series of releases, including offering Peloton crisis communication advice. Essentially, he seemed to be milking the scandal for all its worth.
Whether the Everything-PR crisis has a lasting impact on Torossian’s or 5WPR’s reputation or finances is as yet unknown. But if nothing else, it has elevated the discussion of ethics in the PR industry, of which we can never have enough.
When the news broke that Jeff Zucker was leaving CNN, the broadcasting world collectively gasped. Zucker was legendary for his success in building CNN’s ratings and creating such hit shows as “The Apprentice” and “Fear Factor.” His firing was blamed on Zucker’s failure to disclose a romantic relationship with CMO/CCO Allison Gollust. Company policy holds the parties in such a relationship must disclose it. But, as with any good soap opera, there was more to the story.
The relationship with Gollust was widely known within CNN, so the timing was suspicious. Zucker’s departure came just as the network was navigating the purchase of CNN parent WarnerMedia and its reorganization into Discovery Communications. Zucker reportedly clashed with his soon-to-be-new bosses. But as always there was even more to the story.
Late last year, CNN received a letter from a Jane Doe, accusing then-CNN anchor Cuomo of sexual assault. The missive noted that Cuomo offered to buy her silence with a clattering CNN segment about Doe’s employer.
Cuomo already was under criticism for violating journalistic ethics in his very visible interviews with his brother, then-governor Andrew Cuomo, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
In addition, more allegations swirled at CNN. These claimed Gollust, Chris Cuomo and Zucker coached governor Andrew Cuomo about his responses following a report from NY attorney general Letitia James about sexual claims against the governor.
The Jane Doe letter was the tipping point. A week after it arrived at CNN headquarters, Cuomo was gone. But the lawyers were not. The investigation subsequently unearthed evidence of the Zucker and Gollust affair, which was used as evidence in the couple’s eventual departure.
While the story has the makings of a Netflix special, the impact on CNN’s reputation seems devastating. That CCO Gollust was part of the crisis likely prolonged it and influenced the flawed strategy of keeping much of it under wraps. Attorneys are assembling evidence for the inevitable lawsuits and staff are dismayed at the loss of colleagues, but also at the revelation of ethical lapses. Stay tuned for more of “As the CNN World Turns” .