Is all fair in love and PR? Some public relations industry observers say that 5WPR, the firm that represents the embattled kosher meat company Agriprocessors, crossed an ethical line when an employee apparently impersonated Agriprocessors critics online.
The controversy over 5WPR is, in the context of Jewish affairs, an odd spin-off of the ongoing saga of Agriprocessors, which has been much criticized and defended within the Jewish community since the company’s main plant was raided by a federal immigration agency in May. After years of fending off attacks largely by declining to speak to the press, Agriprocessors hired 5WPR, which also lists a number of Jewish organizations as clients, in June. But the PR firm may be creating more fires for the company than it’s put out.
In mid-July, Shmarya Rosenberg, who reports on the Orthodox world on the blog FailedMessiah, claimed that he had traced suspicious comments appearing on his blog posts about Agriprocessors to 5WPR’s New York office via the firm’s IP address.
5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian later said in a statement that “my IT department investigated accusations which we have now learned to be true,” and that a senior staff member had taken responsibility.
Experts on public relations ethics said that 5WPR seemed to be out of compliance with industry standards on ethics.
“Based on what I’ve read, including Mr. Torossian’s admission that the accusations leveled against 5W were true, I’m concerned that these practices are in opposition to our code of ethics,” said Bob Frause, chairman of the Public Relations Society of America’s board of ethics and professional standards.
Frause said that he had never before encountered allegations of a public relations firm impersonating people on the internet.
In response, Torossian wrote in an e-mail, “Considering that the EVP and #2 of 5WPR is on the Board of Directors of the Public Relations Society of America’s New York chapter we continue to follow all ethos of the PR industry which accounts for our continued growth and success.”
Of the Jewish organizations listed as clients on 5WPR’s Web site, two groups, the Zionist Organization of America and the networking organization Aish New York, told the Forward that they would continue to work with the firm.
“I’m sure whatever happened had nothing to do with Ronn Torossian,” said Mort Klein, the president of the ZOA.
Shannon Stairhime, the editorial content manager of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade association that has a set of guidelines on digital marketing ethics, echoed Frause’s comments.
“As soon as people start going out and pretending to be people they’re not, it muddies the waters of the entire industry,” Stairhime said.