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. Our industry is still recovering from the dark arts campaign conducted by Bell Pottinger on behalf of a client seeking to undermine a sovereign state. Now, we discover that one of our own in the industry has long been operating a website to savage competitors while touting its own work and clients. Employees of the firm posed as journalists; simply unacceptable.
I found Torossian’s apology hollow and unbecoming. He offered flimsy excuses such as “lack of transparency” and “ethical lapses.” He talked about building his firm 5WPR from the ground up and “apologized for mistakes” along the way. It is more than that. It is an outright betrayal of the professional ethics of public relations and casts doubt on all practitioners. It is 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.
The aggrieved parties include Ken Frydman, Richard Rubenstein and Aaron Kwittken. It is possible that the Federal Trade Commission will act based on false claims. The governing body of PR, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), has issued a scathing rebuke of Torossian’s behavior.
We need something more. In the wake of Bell Pottinger, I wrote that the industry was failing on ethics just as we were emerging as the vital partner of the C-suite. The agencies need to lead this effort because the problem starts with us. Dan, as one of the founding fathers of modern PR was an early voice on the role of ethics and Edelman was the first firm to have a Code of Ethics. We will double down to make certain our people walk the talk and I will review our own training materials to ensure that Edelman team members are guided by the Page Principles, the best articulation of industry standards. PRSA should incorporate these principles into their APR accreditation program. Universities should review curriculums to ensure their PR and crisis communications courses have a sharper focus on ethics and consider working with agencies to develop a course on the Page Principles. Agencies, working with the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), should lead a study of mid-career professionals to gauge how they perceive our profession's commitment to ethics. We need to do this now for our current and future leaders in the profession.
Clients beware the siren song of the subterranean and subtle. The best campaigns are premised on transparency and action, with substantive change that improves society, well expressed in communication. There can be aggressive advocacy but conducted in the open and premised in fact. There are no short cuts; the public debate must occur.
Richard Edelman is CEO.