“Embrace The idea That a Good Idea Can Come from Anywhere” 9 Leadership Lessons from Ronn Torossian, Founder and CEO OF 5W Public Relations
“Get input from employees at every level, from intern to C-Suite, as a previously untapped resource pool will open up and employees are given the chance to push themselves out of their comfort zone mentally but within their scope. There’s no monopoly on a good idea.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ronn Torossian, Founder and CEO OF 5W Public Relations — one of the 15 largest independently-owned PR firms in North America, with over $30 million in revenue and clients including Sparkling ICE, Krups, L’Oreal, Unilever, Walgreens, Zeta Global, Wendy Williams, SAP and The Trade Desk. With 20-plus years of experience creating powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America’s most well respected and exciting personalities in Public Relations. Since founding 5WPR, his firm which is headquartered in Manhattan’s iconic Helmsley Building, it has been consistently recognized as one of the PR industry’s fastest-growing and most innovative agencies, and has been named PR Agency of the Year by the American Business Awards. It comes as no surprise Ronn has been awarded countless awards and honors in recognition of his professional achievements and contributions to the public relations industry: he was named PR Executive of the Year by the American Business Awards, and was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semifinalist. Ronn authored the best-selling book “For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations.” Ronn Torossian also serves as Chief Business Officer & an advisory Board Member for JetSmarter, a private jet company which has been valued at 1.6 Billion Dollars and is regarded as the fastest growing private jet company in the world. Today, we’ll talk to Ronn about his path to success and the lessons he has learned along the way.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I wish I could tell you there was a magic formula for my success, but the truth is it has been many years of hard work and dedication — not just in the beginning when we were a small company, but every step of the company’s evolution involves commitment and determination.
Today, 5WPR has about 175 employees, but when I launched the company in 2003, it was just me with a vision, a cell phone and a 400-square foot office. 5W stands for the five W’s of marketing — the “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” and “Why” — and at 5W, we are story tellers. We work with growth companies in a variety of spaces — from media relations to influencer marketing, corporate communications to crisis management.
I am a native New Yorker, a proud product of a single parent home, and a graduate of the NYC public school system. My team and I continue to build this company by over-delivering and understanding that Public Relations is a mix of journalism, psychology, and lawyering — it’s an ever-changing and always interesting landscape, so constantly innovating and being proactive in our approach to communications, digital marketing and client services continues to set 5WPR apart. We put results first for our clients and as a testament to our commitment to that principle, we continue to grow and have the opportunity to work with amazing client partners to this day.
Sometimes I need to pinch myself that this is my real life. I am so thankful and grateful for what we have been able to achieve — and it’s awesome to get paid to do something that I love SO much.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The reality is I can’t share so much of what happens — every day we work with titans of industries and keep confidentiality. A PR Agency is a necessary tool — and we keep secrets.
An amazing story which I can share came in 2005–5WPR was representing Rasheda Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter and Muhammad came to town with very little notice, and we were tasked with finding something amazing and different for him to do.
After some brainstorming, (and arm-wrestling) we arranged a walk-on for Muhammad Ali to the set of The Sopranos. They did a few scenes (which never aired), and James Gandolfini spent time with us. He was in awe of Ali, and clearly the boss of the set much like his character. But aside from his presence and position in his craft, Gandolfini was a humble, decent man. We kept in touch after that day, and I was able to spend time with him on a number of occasions after that and liked and admired him very much.
It was an unforgettable day and unforgettable. Though I can’t expand on most of the amazing experiences I’ve had, I can say that every day, I am blessed to work with business leaders, celebrities, market movers and it’s genuinely just awesome.
Funny things? I remember one day I was on TV speaking for a client, and my kids were in front of the TV and changed the channel. I said, “Hey guys, come on! I am on TV.” They said, “Dad, we see you every day, we don’t get to see Elmo every day.” The best part of my life is spending time with my children, and everything I do is for them. And we always have fun stories.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At 5WPR, we adhere to the strict philosophy that consistency wins trust. In the era of social media, companies can’t say one thing to customers and get caught doing something else. Here’s an example. During the biggest gift-buying period for consumer companies, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, “safety reports” on toys are issued. Sometimes it’s blogs or consumer newsletters that list 20 (or sometimes even 50 or 100) companies that allegedly have safety complaints filed against them or are producing dangerous toys. Of course, the media jumps on these issues because they are looking for “toy stories” at this time of year. It’s well-done and smart PR.
But slow down — things aren’t always as they seem. Not every “safety report” is indeed an honest broker. One day in the first week of December, I got a call from a producer at one of the major national morning news shows who wanted us to comment on one of these so-called safety reports. A newsletter had said our client, a family-owned toy company, had produced a toy considered to be a choking hazard. We didn’t know anything about the report until the producer called and alerted us to it.
We called our client, who was also in the dark. We quickly discovered that, not so coincidentally, this newsletter had issued its “safety alert report” just one week after our client declined to place a full-page ad in a sister publication, as it had for the past few years. Amazingly brazen and nothing short of extortion. Pure bounty hunting: if you don’t pay me a fee, you will be deemed a safety hazard. The client was calling literally every 15 minutes: “What do we do, Ronn? What do we do? This could destroy business during our most important selling season. Retailers will pull my products off shelves and I have millions of dollars of product in the warehouse.” We called the television producer who said, “No problem — issue a statement and we’ll air it in response to the claims.” In those circumstances, who really cares about the company’s denial? If anything airs, it’s a horrible loss.
We used our relationships at the network to move up the food chain, sharing documentation, facts, and details about our client’s toys and what we viewed as the watch list’s extortion campaign, along with the original statement we’d produced one minute before the producer’s supposed deadline (but 12 hours before the story aired). The statement read in part: “As you are aware, all of our products meet strict U.S. government requirements. We have consistently and always adhered to strict testing of all of our products and never once had any product recalls. Your story is a witch hunt conducted in coordination with an organization that operates under false pretenses of giving ‘awards.”
In a situation like this, if the story ran with our client involved, even with their statement included, it would be a loss. Our client was being hijacked. In this situation, we were lucky to deal with a major national news outlet that has excellent fact checkers and producers. The story did run, and of the companies mentioned on the phony list, six were cited in the story and our client wasn’t one of them. Victory. Apparently we had shared enough details about how the product was made; the care; the lack of complaints; the repeated solicitations from this newsletter for client money; and when combined with the fact that the producers trusted and knew us, they concluded it would be best not to mention our client. And while the newsletter itself wasn’t invalidated and may still be running the same scam, that wasn’t our fight — our fight was making sure our client wasn’t included in the on-air story, and it wasn’t. So for us, it was a major victory.
We work hard, and we give a damn about what we do for our clients.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Some tips I’ve learned to help employees thrive — all learned from experience and even mistakes I’ve made along the way:
- Lead by example. Stay connected with your employees and lead by example. My team knows I work hard for the business and hard for them. Treat people the way you want to be treated.
- Make time for the little things that go a long way. Make an extra effort to do those little things: thank employees for their hard work and devotion. Treat them fairly and be good to them. Really give a damn about your people. We do.
- Hire people who represent your company and your spirit. It’s often said a company’s culture is determined by its CEO, but it’s also shaped by its most junior employees. Realize your brand is cultivated by your employees and the PR they put forward. Hire good people and treat them well. That really, really matters.
- Embrace the idea that a good idea can come from anywhere. Get input from employees at every level, from intern to C-Suite, as a previously untapped resource pool will open up and employees are given the chance to push themselves out of their comfort zone mentally but within their scope. There’s no monopoly on a good idea.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
My mother, Penny Waga, who passed away in 2013, was and always will be my hero. She taught me so much by example — from the importance of believing in yourself and the value of hard work and dignity.
My mother gave me values, courage, wisdom strength and decency. She told me every single day I can do anything I set my mind to — and she is the person for whom I am most grateful and to whom I owe any success which I may have. As my mom often said, “Enjoy this; try to make the most of it and I hope when all is said and done, you will see it is all really worth it.” Mom, thank you for everything.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am proud to give ten percent of my annual earnings to charity. I believe — and long have — that charity is a necessary component of success. I’ve incorporated that into 5WPR — we match dollar-for-dollar all donations which our employees give and I am really proud of that. Annually I give donations to educational causes, religious institutions, healthcare projects and more. I sit on multiple non-profit boards which is also very important to me. Giving back is a top priority of mine, and I am proud to be able to do so.
I also gladly serve as a mentor to multiple entrepreneurs and people I have met throughout the years. It makes me feel good and I love doing it.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
The job description for every CEO seems simple: lead your company to success and be profitable. But in my experience, it’s anything but simple. There are no manuals for how to handle the curve balls that get thrown your way. It’s constant, it’s non-stop and there’s no beginning, middle and end. It’s an ongoing journey and not easy.
Here’s some of what I have learned along the way:
- Invest in your people and give a damn about them. A cool office space and employee perks isn’t enough to keep your employees happy. Explain what success means, how business works and how to be at ease in the boardroom. Know what matters to people as individuals and what makes them tick. Make sure they trust you. Encouraging them to think about a client problem without just reverting to what you have done for someone else — is essential. As Bertrand Russell said when all other options have failed, man is thrown back onto “the painful necessity of thought!”
- Learn to cut your losses. We’ve had to resign clients when they no longer fit our business. It’s an unfortunate reality that you must eliminate aspects of your business that are no longer serving your mission. A great book — necessary reading for everyone at 5WPR — is the great business book, “The No Asshole Rule”, which discusses the necessity of avoiding assholes in the workplace. One can be tough without being an asshole — that’s a necessity for anyone we do business with or we work with.
- Handle documents with care. In today’s world, anyone can be a source, and not just because of citizen journalism. Many media outlets give and trade favors. While at a private club one day, I was amazed to find confidential materials left behind by an attorney. With no interest in the case, I sent them to a media contact. For three days in a row it was a media banner story. That writer repaid the favor many times over via soft stories for clients in that publication.
- Let your customers speak: One of the best forms of content is user or customer generated content because it becomes a conversation. When customers feel they are part of the dialogue with a brand, they feel more attached to it. And that attachment can help your corporate message spread. In today’s world, there are no filters and everyone can have a voice. Use that voice wisely and clearly.
- Never underestimate the power of positivity in the workplace: Smile when you meet someone, or just pass out random smiles when you meet someone’s eye. It does so much for you and the other person; a sincere, friendly manner is disarming and is the quickest way to relax others and draw them over to your side. Learn how to laugh. That’s a key component of success. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Warren Buffett is someone I admire. He’s perhaps the greatest investor in history, and as one of the most successful people on the planet, he is also one of the most generous, having donating billions of dollars to charity. He’s worth billions of dollars, yet still seems to have a great moral core with decency and balance. In addition to his success, he also teaches the world about the importance of living a balanced life. I have met so many great and amazing people and it’s such a blessing. Isn’t life beautiful?