Ronn Torossian: How Crisis PR Can Help Small Businesses and Major Corporations During A Pandemic
What does a feisty start-up restaurant do when forced to close during a pandemic? How does a CEO keep a corporation afloat during a global crisis? How do businesses respond to an ever-changing landscape during the current coronavirus?
These are questions that crisis PR expert Ronn Torossian has been dedicated to answering for nearly two decades and is eager to use his expertise to help us navigate the choppy waters during these extremely troubled times of the coronavirus.
As part of my series about the things that we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Torossian, the CEO and Founder of the highly-respected 5W Public Relations, one of the 15 largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States.
With more than 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, he is a prolific and well-respected public relations professional. His company employs more than 200 professionals in the company’s Manhattan headquarters.
His clients span many areas, including corporate, technology, and consumer, and he and his staff have extensive experience helping guide these small businesses — and major American and global brands — during both a healthy economy and a crisis.
The roster of his client experience includes L’Oreal, Unilever, Walgreens, KRUPS, Welch’s Fruit Snacks, as well as many celebrities and other high-profile business leaders. He has also represented top global brands, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Microsoft.
Torossian has lectured on PR at Harvard Business School and has appeared on CNN and CNBC, while also being named to PR Week’s “40 Under 40” list.
He is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and is the author of the industry best-seller, For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations.
He lives in Manhattan with his children and is actively involved in many charities.
Here is an in-depth talk with Torossian on how we can use his experience in crisis PR to help our small and large businesses, companies, and brands during the difficult times we are facing as individuals, small and large business owners, and CEOs.
What’s the first piece of advice that you have for small business owners and CEOS during this pandemic?
It depends on what industry they’re in. It depends on the specifics of the business. But I think in terms of crisis there’s a number of different fundamental rules.
First, hopefully, you have a crisis preparedness plan in place. If you don’t have one, then you better move VERY quickly to put one in place. Good CEOs during these times communicate. I believe that good business owners during this time are making tough decisions and they are moving quickly.
This pandemic is moving quicker than anybody could have imagined and they have to think both big and small. I’m sitting here in New York City right now and when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all offices need to be closed, so you need to think about how you’re going to get your mail and get checks in the mail. You need to think about who’s answering your front desk phone if you don’t have access to your phone.
There’s a variety of different things that exist on a day-to-day basis and some people are going to survive and some people won’t. This is a very difficult time for American business and a very difficult time for worldwide business.
Sage Advice For Business Owners
What is one piece of advice that may help a cross-section of these business owners?
In times of crisis, I think the best thing people need to do is everything they can to survive. Things are changing minute by minute, hour by hour. Companies cant plan for Q4, they need to plan four hours and four days from now.
You have been talking about human impact and health concerns. Talk about the whole uncertainty aspect.
I think what obviously scares small and midsized business owners, in the last week I’ve spoken to countless CEOs, multiple billionaires, attorneys, restaurant owners, apparel companies, politicians and retailers. Of course, the one common aspect of the fear — because we don’t know when this is going to end. We are all pondering, ‘Is this going to last another week? Is this going to last another month? Is this going to last another six months?’
So, I think those good decision-makers and good CEOs need to be thinking about both short-term and long-term. I think that good CEOs are going to make difficult decisions now. Difficult decisions must be made! Priorities must be established. Do you have plans for everything from operations to staffing? And the staff you needed yesterday might not be the staff you need tomorrow. Do you have banking mechanisms in place? If you don’t, you’re going to have a hard time. Make sure that you have outlets to cash and finances.
You have to think about what reality looks like. I think it’s important to make decisions during these times and to understand the new reality of what we’re dealing with.
Everything is unpredictable right now. So, if a business owner or CEO has plans in place and they do have these mechanisms, that certainly puts them in a better position than somebody that doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean their business isn’t going to go under or that it’s going to thrive or anything in between.
No, it doesn’t. It just means maybe you’ll have a better chance. Again, these are unique times. From a business standpoint, this is already worse than 9/11 and 2008 put together. Leaders must be flexible, must move quickly and must make decisions. Not making a decision is also making a decision. We need to move forward and work hard — this isn’t going away.
How major is the impact of this?
From a business standpoint, the coronavirus could be more devastating than the 1987 stock market crash, 9/11 attacks, and the 2008 financial crisis put together for certain industries. Certainly for restaurants, hotels, and airlines. This is a devastating time.
I think that smart business owners will move very quickly, will communicate, and will understand that they have to do everything they can to survive. It is clearly a scary and difficult time for everybody.
Making Plans Despite Massive Changes Underway
With things changing so quickly even if you do have all these plans in place, they obviously have to be fluid.
We have our clients holding multiple calls a day to discuss strategy. Right now what we are recommending that our clients engage in senior management calls at least once a day. As a matter of fact, I can tell you that we usually do senior staff meetings every two weeks, while now we are doing them twice a day. I’ve set these meetings and I know that many of our clients are the same. Businesses must communicate today to employees, clients and everyone in the supply chain.
What else is going on when it comes to business plans?
Nobody is making plans for next year. Every plan is for right now. Every plan that I’m seeing now in terms of management decisions is for now. It’s day by day for every business owner that I know. I represent a $200 million revenue technology company that has been in business for 25 years. And I spoke to the CEO of that company this morning and yesterday afternoon and he literally told me ‘We were looking at everything hour-by-hour.’ It’s a very unique time in America; it’s a very unique time in business.
Does attitude have anything to do with this? If you throw up your hands and close your doors and say ‘This is it, everything I’ve worked for.’ Whether we’re talking about 20 employees or 10,000 employees, does that have a lot to do with it?
I think the reality is that, yes, attitude matters. But I can tell you if you throw your hands up right now, I think a lot of businesses would be in a lot of trouble right now. But I think that the tougher and more resilient you are, the more likely that you’re going to survive. Do I think that it’s very hard for restaurants, and travel companies, and certain industries? Yeah, there is no question it’s VERY difficult.
You should have a positive attitude, but you shouldn’t be blind. In other words, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said something the other day that we could be looking at 20 percent unemployment. You can’t be blind to the fact that these are VERY unique times.
I think any business owner who stands up and says, ‘Ah, we’re going to be fine. Don’t worry about it.’ No, I don’t think that that’s dealing with reality. But I don’t think a positive attitude today is enough. Businesses must plan, react, and make decisions.
I think you have to have a positive attitude but also fight. I will tell you that the CEO’s I’m speaking to are working harder than they have in years. I founded this company in 2003, and we currently have over 200 employees. I have not worked this many hours a week since I started the company. And every CEO I know is working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. or later. I worked all weekend, and so did many of our clients. Every CEO is working longer hours than they have in many years. I think every business today has to be treated like a start-up. This is not an easy time. You’ve got to fight for everything. Work really hard, push really hard and communicate.
We know that restaurants, hotels, and airlines are struggling, do you see any businesses coming out better off or not having to fight tooth and nail?
Oh sure, there are many companies that are doing very well. Direct sellers on Amazon are doing very well. Cleaning companies are doing very well. Security companies are doing very well. Virtual companies are doing very well. Supermarkets stores and chains are doing well. We have a big CPG (consumer package goods) client in the food and beverage space who had their best month since this happened that they’ve ever had. Again, you’re talking there’s plenty of household products. We have picked up multiple clients due to the pandemic — from crisis communications activities to clients wanting to integrate into the news cycle.
Most of us can’t get these items.
Everybody would love to own Purell today, right?
The other day I received a gift package with two tiny bottles of Purell in it and you would have thought I had won the lottery.
People today are treating Purell and Bounty like it’s Gucci and Louis Vuitton. So, you’re talking about brands that people want — businesses that are doing well, I think security, technology, remote companies, security companies, and virtual companies. But would I want to own a nightclub today? No, I don’t think the nightclub industry is the industry that many people want to be in these days. Will people be eating at buffets again in 2020? No way.
Major Challenges During the Pandemic
What is your biggest challenge during the current crisis?
For me, it’s really difficult to find any balance between business and family. I pride myself on being a great parent. I think there’s a lot of us who aren’t spending as much time with our kids right now as we would like to. I don’t know. This is a hard time to be a great parent and to be a great business owner. It’s also hard. It’s also a hard time for our kids. This is a really difficult time for everybody.
What advice do you have?
I think good crisis management requires that you have to own up to it, understand it and adapt to it. You have to deal with the reality of the deck that you’ve been dealt. This is a really hard time and you cannot treat it as business as usual! There’s no question people will be broken over this. We respond quickly and urge businesses to do the same. Communicating is key.
It's also important to keep marketing and selling. Shutting everything down is a mistake. People are buying from home — are you prepared for that? Home goods, cleaning, and many other sectors can adapt and win.
Does staying calm help?
Sometimes staying calm helps and sometimes yelling helps. It depends. There’s peacetime success and there’s wartime success. I think many businesses today are in the equivalent of war for survival or war for growth. Even businesses doing well, you’re adapting to a completely new reality.
This requires a different type of leadership. There are wartime CEOs and there are peacetime CEOs. And to succeed during a crisis is different. This is not just a crisis; this is a catastrophe of the highest level. This isn’t a basic crisis; this is a crisis beyond anybody’s imagination for every single industry. People must recognize and realize that.
Every industry? Even the ones that are currently in demand?
Even if you own Purell, this is a crisis, because they have a crisis if they can’t deliver enough product. Even if you own Fresh Direct, you still have a crisis. Your business might be booming, but you’re saying to yourself ‘Where can you find extra employees overnight? And how can I get enough product back on shelves?’ So, yes for every business, this is a crisis.
When you talk to owners of small companies and CEOs of big corporations a 7 a.m. or midnight, what is the main thing that you’re working on with them?
I think the hardest thing for people to understand is how quickly this is moving. You speak to somebody at 7 a.m. and a few hours later it’s different. I have a client I spoke to this morning and then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that offices in the city and state needed to be closed, and became a completely different reality. They’re adapting their organization to deal with it.
This is moving so quickly; with travel restrictions, social distancing, and self-isolation. Everybody’s watching TV, consuming media, and you have to make decisions, you have to communicate, you have to work really long hours.
What is your reaction to the creativity some companies have put in place with curbside service for everything from groceries to new cars, e-commerce, specialized ads, and marketing techniques, and other innovative ways to remain in business during the pandemic and beyond?
Creative businesses, smart entrepreneurs, fast-thinking companies will do everything they can to adapt to this terrible situation. From the consumption of media at an all-time high to the supply chain becoming front-page news, the world has changed. Businesses are moving quicker than ever before — literally minute to minute, hour to hour.
As a marketer, I see companies taking steps they would never take before. Interestingly, we have seen clients increase sales efforts, including search engines and have increased email campaigns while decreasing other efforts. This is a historic time for so many reasons.
With the new restrictions in many states closing schools, offices, businesses — other than medical, grocery, gas stations, banks and necessary emergency services, how does this change everything in the pandemic?
New restrictions which closed many businesses have been a radical change. There are certain businesses that are changed forever and others for whom things will recover quicker. Everyone today is largely in the same boat, focused on his/her health, and focused on the health of their business. Unfortunately, there are also some businesses which may never come back — buffet-style food, certain restaurants, and who’s going on vacation in Italy this summer? But other businesses will survive and even thrive.
Learning From Difficult Times
What have you personally learned about yourself from handling your own business and helping your clients during these remarkable times?
Our clients and staff have responded so well. I have learned so much — from simple things like mastering Zoom calls to re-learning 3rd-grade math. Our clients rely upon us thankfully for so much and I have been blessed to speak to multiple clients daily. I have learned more about friendships after speaking to many of my friends daily.
I have learned the importance of protecting the ship (i.e. my business). Every business owner needs to protect the company so that when this storm passes, every employee has a ship to return home to so that we can set sail and return to where we started and go further than before. It is vitally important to focus on protecting capital, assets, and resources of the business. Cash is important. And always remember the human element of the great people who work for and with us.
What life lesson do you have to share that is particularly helpful during times of crisis?
Life lesson? Always laugh. Even when things are terrible, laugh. It's always important!