What do Anheuser-Busch (BUD), The American Bible Society, Snoop Dogg, and the folks who brought you the Girls Gone Wild soft-porn videos have in common? The same public-relations guy: Ronn D. Torossian.
Even in an industry fueled by hype, Torossian stands out. He claims to have evangelist Pat Robertson and Israel's Prime Minister on speed dial. He carouses with celebrities. He courts controversy--sliming rivals, scrapping with journalists, lobbing public insults on behalf of clients. And, at 33, he has built his New York-based 5W Public Relations into one of America's fastest-growing independent agencies. "It's easy to hire [firms like] Burson-Marsteller or Edelman," Torossian brags. "It takes guts to hire 5W."
Torossian has anointed himself the brash new face of PR. And it's true that few seem better equipped to navigate a celebrity-obsessed culture. One of his biggest coups was getting a newborn Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt photographed in a T-shirt sold by a Denver retailer, 5W's client Belly; the photo then made the cover of People magazine. Torossian--loud, crass, buzz-obsessed--also echoes the raw, unvarnished discourse of the blogosphere, which he claims to understand better than anyone. Brian Connolly, who founded the irreverent PR blog Strumpette, says Torossian represents "what the industry has become."
Perhaps, but Torossian and his 85-person agency face a conundrum. The tactical provocations may cut through the media noise. They also could sabotage an agency that has worked with the likes of McDonald's (MCD) and Coca-Cola (KO) but failed to sign many blue-chip companies (though Torossian says there are several he can't name). Torossian's rivals quietly suggest he is more fad than change agent and that modern PR is less about generating buzz than backroom strategy. Not that Torossian, a guy who has been known to issue press releases about himself, expresses any self-doubt. "One of the reasons I've grown so quickly is that I'm bright," he says. "Another is that my competitors are not so bright."
Torossian started 5W--who, what, where, when, why--in early 2003 and soon caused a stir with his choice of clients. As he's a rap fan with hip-hop connections, it was no surprise that he began representing the likes of Sean John Combs. But the Christian Coalition? As always, he has a press release-ready explanation, paraphrased here: Both religious groups and hip-hop artists have been mischaracterized as extremists when, in fact, they are warm family people who want only to win. (Torossian says he no longer represents the Christian Coalition but still provides consultation. The group did not return calls for comment.)
As the business grew, a handful of corporate clients signed on. The agency is a minnow next to an Edelman (revenues: about $375 million). But Jack O'Dwyer, whose industry newsletter produces an annual ranking of PR agencies, this year put 5W at No. 22 out of 140 indie firms surveyed and says 2006 billings surged 85%, to $9.3 million.
Almost from the start, Torossian has made a point of taunting his rivals, calling them "dinosaurs," "old men in suspenders," and "brain-dead." He has taken regular jabs at New York PR king Howard Rubenstein. And in an e-mail to Rubenstein's son Richard, he called him a "daddy's boy," though Richard, 42, has long had his own firm. "He's posturing as a streetfighter," says the younger Rubenstein. Another rival points out that trash-talking the competition can build buzz but eventually could backfire. "These tactics are great for your first $5 million," says this person. "It starts to hurt you during the second $5 million."
Torossian brings similar combativeness to client crises. When Trinity Broadcasting Network President Paul Crouch was battling allegations of a homosexual tryst with a former employee (who had earlier received a settlement), Torossian publicly told Crouch's accuser he should keep his mouth shut. And when a Florida judge ordered Girls Gone Wild boss Joe Francis to surrender to U.S. marshals earlier this year on contempt charges (he's now in a Nevada jail, awaiting trial on tax evasion charges), Torossian was quoted calling the order an example of "judges gone wild."
Torossian's admirers say his bombast serves clients in an era when celebrities and bloggers can have more sway than journalists. "Of all the people I interviewed, he had unlimited energy," says Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, a fringe activist group. "And he got me an article in The New York Times!" Torossian also earns praise from Jeff Caswell, who runs marketing for Evian North America. "He has a different way of looking at public relations," says Caswell. That means anything from "seeding products with celebrities" to knowing which blogs are influential.
Still, it can't be easy juggling such an eclectic roster. Torossian risks alienating corporate clients by continuing with Girls Gone Wild. And one can only imagine how Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson to infuse education with "God's glory," feels about sharing billing on 5W's Web site with LifeStyle Condoms and Pamela Anderson. When asked, Regent put the query to Torossian, who told BusinessWeek: "Clearly, many of our clients have nothing to do with one another."
Yet some of 5W's listed clients seem anxious to distance themselves. "They are not currently representing us," says a McDonald's spokeswoman. Anheuser-Busch declined to comment. One ex- client says: "I saw more press releases on him than any work for my firm." Torossian seems aware he may have, well, a PR problem. Days after saying "I've met every major hip-hop artist," he has a new angle: "Ninety-seven percent of my revenue comes from corporate clients. In two years of representing Ice Cube, I've met him twice for 12 seconds.... We are not a celebrity agency." Could PR's enfant terrible be growing up?
By Diane Brady