Certain clients sing the praises of self-promoting publicists, others rue their existence. But are they good or bad for PR? Opinions vary widely, as Hamilton Nolan learns
Morris Reid has achieved a fair amount of professional success, first as a Clinton administration aide, and now as MD of the public affairs firm Westin Rinehart. But he sure can say some funny things. For example: "The crisis engulfing Armstrong Williams," Reid opined after the pundit payola scandal broke, "is just the tip of the preverbal (sic)
To be fair, Reid didn't say those words personally. They were attributed to him in a press release touting him as an expert commentator. The release was distributed- and written- by his PR firm, 5WPR.
5W is a mid-sized agency that receives more than its share of media attention, thanks largely to the efforts of its 30-year-old founder and CEO, Ronn Torossian. A tireless self-promoter, Torossian is fond of tagging every press release with the uniquely unverifiable slogan "5WPR, the fastest growing public relations firm in the US."
Releases from 5W pour forth at a rate that puts most larger agencies to shame. They announce everything from client wins ("STACIE J, JUST FIRED FROM THE APPRENTICE NAMES 5W PUBLIC RELATIONS AGENCY OF RECORD") to growth (5W Public Relations Moving Office Headquarters 10,000 Square Feet in Midtown") to employment opportunities ("PR AGENCY WITH BLUE CHIP CLIENTS HIRING AT ALL LEVELS - PLEASE FORWARD").
Occasionally, a release simply heralds one of Torossian's opinions on current affairs, such as one this past December titled "LIZZIE GRUBMAN: AN EMBARASSMENT TO THE PR INDUSTRY." That particular proclamation stirred up a tiff that caused Manhattan attorney Ben Brafman, a newly minted 5W client, to drop his account at the agency. (Brafman told PRWeek, "Any time there was a controversial piece involving either Ronn or one of his clients, I became inadvertently involved...and from my perspective, it just didn't make any sense.") But it also earned Torossian a couple of mentions on the New York Post's Page Six.
Still, Torossian, who ultimately declined comment for this article, remains popular with many of his clients.
"I love Ronn Torossian," says Reid, the "preverbal" pea in the pod. "The reason I'm with the firm is because he represents the same energy and passion that I try to bring to my own business...He's a 24-7 type of guy, just like I am."
Knowing where the line is
For those who believe P.T. Barnum was the original PR man, self-promotion is a natural element of the business. But many in the industry feel the more blatant form of the practice falls somewhere between a necessary evil and a black mark of unprofessionalism. So where, exactly, does personal publicity cross the line into outright hucksterism?
MWW CEO Michael Kempner, who was Torossian's boss immediately before he formed 5W, acknowledges that agencies must promote themselves in order to remain visible. "But... there is an important distinction between promotion and over promotion, between marketing and baseless hype," Kempner adds, "and despite what some of the more aggressive self promoters in our industry may believe, all press is not good press. When business ethics and values take a back seat to growing a business at all costs, self promoters become a major accident waiting to happen."
Torossian, who was profiled in The New York Times in late February, is drawing so much media attention that he is starting to be mentioned in the same breath as his ostensible nemesis Lizzie Grubman, the platinum-haired nightlife queen whose firm is featured in PoweR Girls, a reality show that debuted on MTV this past Thursday.
"Both Ronn and Lizzie are very, very, very talented publicists, and are very good self promoters," says G.S. Schwartz and Co. president Jerry Schwartz, who supervised Torossian when he worked at the firm for more than a year in the late '90s. Schwartz asserts that the recent whirlwind of press surrounding the PR industry, while not positive in its content, will ultimately benefit the profession by raising its profile among the general public. But in his own business, he is more demure. "I personally am not a believer in getting more press for ourselves than our clients," he says. "We don't cross over into the line of treating ourselves like we're clients."
For some PR pros, particularly smaller or newer agencies, strategic self promotion is seen as a necessity. When Mike Paul founded MGP & Associates after working at two huge agencies, he realized that he needed new tactics in order to compete.
"Burson's brand is global. Hill & Knowlton's brand is global. Of course that philosophy works for them, in that 'Hey, we don't lead by touting our senior counselors' or our employees' names, we lead with our name because we already have one,'" he says. "Well, guess what? Nobody besides the clients that I worked for [when I founded MGP]... knows who the heck I am, and I don't have that brand."
Paul settled on a method of self promotion that he believed - correctly, as it turns out - would ingratiate him to both the media and potential clients at the same time. "I'm not going to say yes to every media opportunity. But the media opportunities I will say yes to are going to fit my new business goals," he says. "My goal with any interview I have now is to give a snapshot of what happens behind closed doors. What I try to do is paint a picture of what I would do if that person were my client."
Like Torossian, Paul pops up frequently on TV shows and in news articles as an expert on reputation management. But he says that he remains vigilant about overexposing himself.
"When you are positioned as a character, if you will, by the media- and I've already seen Ronn and Lizzie positioned that way - then obviously you've got to be careful not to go in
One man who has navigated the treacherous waters of the New York media longer than just about anyone is Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates. After more than 50 years in business, he had the honor last fall of being used as gossip-page fodder by Ronn Torossian, who issued a release calling him "old and tired" and urging his clients to defect to 5W.
"I'm not going to comment on his type of self promotion," says Rubenstein with a small laugh, "but I personally try to avoid promotion that's off the charts, that's too extreme, that's too self-centered. I think your work should speak for itself. That's self promotion."
He adds that most of his clients are satisfied with his relatively low-key strategy. "My clients generally would prefer you to stay in the background," he says. "There's a distinction, I think, between being a spokesman for somebody and being a spokesman for yourself."
Grubman did not respond to an interview request for this article. And Torossian uncharacteristically cancelled a scheduled interview because he objected to PRWeek contacting his clients without going through 5W first. In an e-mail message, he asked, "Would you not agree that PR firms would be harmed tremendously if reporters didn't go through their PR firms?"
But Torossian need not have worried, because clients who decide to hire 5WPR seem to be those who are truly seeking what such an agency is selling.
Jameel Spencer, who recently became chief brand strategist for Roc Brands, was a 5W client in his former position as CEO of the Bad Boy-affiliated Blue Flame Marketing and Advertising. He calls Torossian, whom he originally met while playing basketball, "one of my most trusted business counsels," and adds that he continues to seek his advice even in his new position. He also credits 5W with raising the status of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' brands within the business community.
"The beautiful thing about Ronn is that the sweaty, hairy guy on the [basketball] court that's extra aggressive is what you get," Spencer says. "[Like] Dennis Rodman: Everyone hated to play against [him]. But if he was on your team, you loved him."