Exclusive: Keith Kelly on His 5WPR Investigation
The former NY Post media columnist talks about his Crain's New York piece on 5WPR's sneaky trade media move.
Ronn Torossian, the founder of 5WPR, has been referred to as everything from “the bad boy of buzz” to an “incompetent superflack” whose rather counter-intuitive new-business pitch was that it “takes guts” to hire his firm.
Over the last few months, it has been revealed that Torossian purchased the PR trade news site Everything-PR.com years ago, surreptitiously using it to promote his firm and bash rivals.
While he wasn’t the first with the story, former New York Post “Media Ink” columnist Keith Kelly easily had the most in-depth piece in Crain’s New York, which touched off a ton of discussion. The original piece ran about three weeks ago and, more recently, Torossian has ceremonially stepped-down from the CEO role, maintaining the titles of founder and chairman.
The keenly insightful and devastatingly handsome editor-in-chief of A Penny Ahead — who also has impressive taste in music and spectacular culinary abilities — contacted Kelly via LinkedIn and email, who responded generously and with additional depth to the story.
The following has been lightly edited from the original correspondence for length and clarity. Hyperlinks have also been added where appropriate to allow Pennyheads to dig a bit deeper.
How were you tipped? When did you first become aware of the site's ownership?
I actually started working on the story in between writing the twice-weekly “Media Ink” column at the New York Post, probably two years ago. I'd bang out the column and in some down time try to work on this story.
The story grew more tangled and complicated the more I poked around. It grew to be too large to fit into a 20-inch “Media Ink” column. There were a lot of tentacles to it. I actually tracked down the former editor in chief Phil Butler and his wife Mihaela Lica Butler over a year ago. I was chagrined when the NYT actually beat me to the punch on naming Phil Butler as the former editor-in-chief who verified that the site had been sold.
<Ed. note>For convenience, here’s the relevant snippet of the Times piece.
Mr. Torossian purchased a website called Everything PR in 2014, the site’s former editor in chief, Phil Butler, told The New York Times. A former 5WPR employee said Mr. Torossian operated the site, where he regularly promotes his firm’s work.
For instance, under the headline “Pornhub Is Necessary Viewing for PR Professionals,” one story concludes: “Pornhub has brilliant PR. Their PR agency in the U.S. is 5WPR.”
But that only scratched the surface. The site was actually owned by Mihaela. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that the NYT did not have that crucial bit of info. And they also did not have the wholesale erasing of the byline names. While he started scrubbing the site of some of the more obvious stories of his firm trashing rivals or boosting his own firm, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine had screen grabs of some of the stories.
Prior to this, how and to what degree were you aware of 5WPR, its CEO, and his reputation?
I heard quite a few terrible stories about people who were treated poorly while at 5WPR. And also that Torossian would would often grow extremely angry when people resigned. And of course, also that he owned Everything-PR.com. But it was not until I tracked down Butler on the island of Crete that it was confirmed for me. And I quickly realized that all the bylines were erased.
But whoever erased the bylines for Torossian on Everything-PR.com overlooked for awhile the "comment" section following articles. So while the story on the archived site would have a fake byline, the comments by the author below the article would often have the name of the original author, Phil Butler, Mihaela Lica Butler and quite a few others who contributed to their site over the years. Eventually, the site’s administrator fixed that, but not on the Internet Archives site the Wayback Machine.
5WPR does seem to have some great reviews on Glassdoor. But more than one former insider said Torossian would insist that employees flood Glassdoor with favorable reviews. He also has a tendency to start issuing a flurry of releases through PR Newswire whenever some bad news hits as started happening in mid-December when The Daily Beast, The New York Times, and a freelance feature I contributed to the Post all appeared.
We’ll get back to the Everything-PR issue in a bit, but it’s worth talking about those pieces. They brought in an important, concurrent dimension to the Torossian story — the heavy involvement in New York politics.
Though Eric Adams [the incoming New York mayor and retired NYPD captain] had a lot of political connections from his Brooklyn and NYPD days, he did not have deep ties to the media and entertainment and tech world. And into the void jumped Ronn Torossian.
Torossian knows the owner of Zero Bond, an exclusive members only club in the trendy NoHo area of Manhattan. Torossian, a member, got Adams in and began hobnobbing with the media elites who went there — everyone from former mayor and media mogul Mike Bloomberg to Paris Hilton.
But Torossian himself was apparently was not well-vetted. Adams’s transition team was apparently not aware that one of Torossian's lucrative longtime clients was the pornographic web site Pornhub. There was also a devastating story on an alleged shakedown of an orthodox Jewish rabbi.
After the mid-December stories on Torossian surfaced, Adams began distancing himself. Torossian was never a paid advisor and was really only involved in glad-handing and getting him into Zero Bond. He apparently was not involved in campaign strategy or policy decisions, so it was only a minor embarrassment to Adams.
The Public Relations Society of America quickly condemned 5WPR’s undisclosed ownership of Everything-PR. What did you think of their response?
The New York chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, two days after the story ran the Crain’s web site, issued a blistering condemnation calling him a stain on the industry and an agent of "disinformation" and that he was cowardly for secretly bashing PR rivals while boosting his own firm and his firm's clients. Over the following weekend, the Hispanic Public Relations Society bashed him and, in the past week, Richard Edelman, the CEO of one of the largest PR firms in the nation, Edelman PR, also condemned Torossian’s secret ownership of the industry news site. [Ed. note: The author of this newsletter was a proud employee of Edelman for thirteen years and maintains friendly correspondence with current employees and leaders there.]
They say it takes years to make an overnight sensation. You’ve been at this story for some time.
For at least two years, Torossian denied to me that he owned the site. But suddenly, at some point in recent weeks, on the "About Us" tab on the Everything-PR web was a shocking admission. There, hiding in plain view was a one line admission that Everything-PR was "operated" by the PR agency 5WPR. Bam. It was an explosive admission that everyone else had missed. And now, by his own admission, he did indeed own the site. Or at least he admitted he "operated" the site. He of course, did not admit he had bought the site in 2014 and had "operated" it for nearly eight years. But suddenly every whisper and allegation was confirmed.
It is still a bit of a bafflement as to why he did. Did he suddenly realize the jig was up after the mid-December stories? Was he advised it could be a problem legally? Did the Federal Trade Commission reach out and give him a warning that owning the site without disclosing it was a form of deceiving the public. Nobody knows.
Amazingly, after the Public Relations Society of American (NY chapter) blasted him, I again sounded out Torossian for comment. And he decided to try something new and different. THE TRUTH!
This included a full blown acknowledgement that he bought the site in 2014. He said it was an "oversight" that he did not acknowledge it at the time. To me, eight years seems like a terribly long time for him to not acknowledge his "oversight." It smacks more of deliberate deception over eight years that he only acknowledged because, well, he had been caught and outed. And his statement admitting ownership went further, admitting he had "ethical lapses" in the early days of building up his firm but that did not reflect who he or his firm is today.
Public relations suffers from the classic shoes-for-the-cobbler problem, with a terrible reputation of its own. In that context, how did you approach this — "Wow, this is really, really unusual" or "further evidence of bad-industry-behaving-badly?"
To me, this seems more than just the normal example of a PR firm trying to color news or serving as a spin doctor for a client. It is out and out deception over a long period of time.
We've all heard the the old saw: the cover-up is always worse than the crime. That I think is what triggered such an infuriated reaction from the PR industry. It was important that it was not just a single aggrieved PR agency that had been slimmed in Everything-PR.com and voiced suspicion that Torossian was probably behind it. It was no longer a suspicion or an intramural fight. For the story to get the traction that it did, it was important for a responsible journalistic outlet to investigate and substantiate the story.
And I know my recent stories in Crain's and an earlier one in December in the NY Post were certainly not the only stories to call out Torossian. I have a couple of big future stories that I am working on myself right now for Crain’s — but won't reveal the outlines just yet. If they are substantiated, they will also be big stories. I also know that Insider.com and The New York Times also have reporters investigating 5WPR and Torossian. If stories I am hearing stand up, there could be bigger headaches for Torossian ahead.
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