Ronn Torossian, who recently resigned in disgrace as CEO of 5WPR, was among the many reasons I was ashamed to say I worked in PR. Torossian’s firm was reputed to be a “smile and dial” PR shop, hiring young and frightened millennials named Meghan and Christopher who pestered reporters with questionable promotional pitches hoping something would stick. The firm had an eclectic book of business that included, controversial evangelist Benny Hinn, Eric Trump Jr., baby bottle company Perry Mackin, and an assortment of Israeli companies.

The media repeatedly referred to Torossian as “high powered,” which might explain how he survived a slew of bad publicity that would have felled most other executives. One incident that immediately comes to mind was the time Torossian sent an email to his former head of HR with the subject header, “YOU STUPID C**T.”

Hamilton Nolan, who formerly worked at the trade publication PRWeek before landing at Gawker, eight years ago today deftly captured Torossian’s essence:

Hamilton Nolan

“(Ronn Torossian) embodies the public’s worst ideas about what a PR person is: loud, brash, more flash than substance, dirty, manipulative, amoral and, in the end, not particularly bright. The real movers and shakers in the PR industry achieved their positions partly by keeping their mouths shut. That doesn’t make them better people than Ronn, but it does make them wiser.”

Torossian is a litigious sort, and Nolan was among the few with the courage to publicly criticize him. But in the wake of Torossian stepping down as CEO (but remaining as chairman) of 5WPR after it was revealed he secretly owned a news site that promoted himself, his agency, and clients with a fake editor and phony bylines, critics feel emboldened.

One such critic is Richard Edelman, CEO of the firm that bears his name and one of the PR industry’s few thought leaders, who said he was “nauseated” reading about Torossian’s fake news publication. Edelman said Torossian’s phony news site was “a mistaking of competitive zeal for contempt of truth. It is a perversion of media that takes advantage of the weakness of the system to issue disinformation worthy of the Kremlin.”

Edelman’s constitution has possibly weakened over the years, or maybe he has selective memory recall. His firm was an early pioneer of “fake news” and hiring Beltway swamp creatures to represent corporations.

In 2006, BusinessWeek exposed Edelman as the backer of a group called “Working Families for Wal-Mart,” which promoted itself as a “grass-roots” organization but was run by Edelman staffers or people connected to them. The sister of an Edelman staffer was co-author of a blog called “Wal-Marting Across America,” that chronicled the experiences of a man and a woman traveling across the U.S. in an RV singing Walmart’s praises while staying in the chain’s parking lots.

Walmart was an Edelman client. Asked about the deceptive representation of “Working Families,” a practice known as Astroturfing, Richard Edelman told the New Yorker, “I do believe that it is a real group of people, as far as I know.” In fact, “Working Families” was housed in Edelman’s Washington office.

Edelman, whose firm is the biggest in the U.S., ultimately fessed up to his firm’s dishonesty. “I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset,” Edelman said. “This is 100% our responsibility and or error; not the client’s.”

Was Walmart troubled by having its reputation sullied by the deceit? Not at all. The Edelman executive overseeing the Walmart account was a former Bill Clinton aide named Leslie Dach, who Walmart months later named Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Government Relations, reporting directly to then CEO Lee Scott. Edelman remained a Walmart client.

This New Yorker story provides a detailed case study as to what happens when a corporation gives a Beltway political operative control of its communications apparatus.

Facebook is another example. Although the media represented Sheryl Sandberg as Facebook’s COO and supposedly the executive who provided the company with “adult” supervision in its early years, she was in fact a glorified sales and marketing person who was far more effective promoting her brand than Facebook’s.

In 2011, Sandberg hired Burson-Marsteller, another giant PR firm, to secretly smear Google for that company’s alleged user privacy violations. At the time, Facebook was under fire for repeated user privacy violations of its own and was close to signing a consent decree for repeated transgressions. As I noted in this commentary for Business Insider, Facebook’s end game was to end their ignoble reign as a poster child for online privacy violators by dragging Google up to the public podium with them.

Sandberg first gained national attention serving as chief of staff for Lawrence Summers when he was Treasury Secretary under the Clinton Administration. Burson’s CEO when Facebook hired the firm was Mark Penn, a close aide in the presidential campaigns of both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Overseeing the Google smear campaign without identifying to reporters who they represented were Jim Goldman, a former CNBC reporter, and John Mercurio, formerly of the National Journal.

It was the second time Burson was exposed for engaging in a Google smear campaign without disclosing its client representation. In the first instance, the undisclosed client was Microsoft, which Penn subsequently joined as a vice president, reporting directly to then CEO Steve Ballmer.

Was Sandberg chastened after Facebook’s clandestine smear campaign against Google was exposed? In 2018, it was revealed that Facebook hired a Republican opposition firm to smear George Soros because of the financier’s criticisms of the company’s failure to prevent the dissemination of propaganda on its site. As is the way in politics, Sandberg deputy and former Clinton Administration aide Elliott Schrage took the fall for the Soros smear campaign and other PR debacles under Sandberg’s watch.

In 2018, Breitbart identified dozens of former Obama and Hillary Clinton staffers working in senior positions at Facebook. Internally, the were known as FOS (Friends of Sheryl) and were deemed untouchable.

Another critic feigning outrage about Torossian was the board of the New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, which declared: “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 firm’s direct role in perpetrating disinformation while pretending to be a legitimate industry news site.”

When I worked in PR, the late Jack O’Dwyer, who published an eponymous PR industry newsletter, wrote a series of investigative stories critical of PRSA’s leadership and questioning its finances and expenditures. PRSA responded by banning O’Dwyer from covering its 2011 Assembly, a move that was criticized by the National Press Club.

I always found it comical that the trade group representing PR professionals couldn’t manage its own public image.

Public relations can be an honorable and rewarding calling. Among the professional accomplishments I’m most proud of was representing former NYSE chief Dick Grasso, who publicly credited me as playing a critical role in his successful campaign discrediting former New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the ethically-challenged reporters who embraced and published the AG’s lies and misinformation about him. I proudly and effectively represented other individuals who were unfairly maligned in the media.

Jay Carney Screen Shot

Among the reasons I got out of PR was that it had become increasingly difficult to find clients that didn’t regard PR people as “liars for hire.” Former Beltway operatives control the communications apparatus of major corporations, including Amazon, whose top PR person is former Obama spokesman Jay Carney. John McCain and other Republicans publicly called a Carney “liar” when he worked in politics, but that didn’t hurt his standing with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. As I’ve previously written, ethics often don’t matter in corporate America, particularly to those at the top of the management heap.

Admittedly, most PR professionals view their profession considerably different than me. In a recent commentary, PR pro Robert Hastings declared “the PR profession is by far ethical and honest” and “hold ourselves and our clients accountable to our standards.”

Repeating a lie often enough in hope of making it true is a propaganda tactic, not the ethical underpinning of an industry code of conduct.

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