by Amy Keller
Updated 11 months ago
From left: Ryan Banfill, Michelle Ubben, Ron Sachs and Alia Faraj-Johnson [Photo: Scott Holstein/Rowland Publishing]
When Ron Sachs launched his Tallahassee-based public relations firm in 1996, his first order of business was rebranding himself. A controversial editor at his college newspaper, Sachs had worked as a newspaper and TV reporter before going into politics and honed his communications skills working for two Democratic governors and the statewide teachers union.
But with a new Republican majority running the Legislature at the time, Sachs knew he had to change the perception that he was just a Democratic hack — and began a transformation that has seen the one-time liberal firebrand make nice with an array of causes and politicians across the entire political spectrum.
Sachs' first step upon going into business for himself was to avoid all partisan political work — no election campaigns and no partisan political issues. "I had a big enough challenge as (Lawton) Chiles' former communications director. It would have been as if we'd erected a giant neon 'D' on top of my building for the perception that I was a Democratic communications company," Sachs says.
Jeb Bush's eight years in office were a challenging time. "Most of that time, our company got very little opportunity to work with state government," says Sachs. He attributes the lack of state contracts to bad blood over Bush's loss to Chiles in the 1994 governor's race and Sachs' role as Chiles' chief image maker in that campaign.
With no work from the state, Sachs' firm began carving out niches in corporate branding, marketing, crisis management and other areas. Among his successes are a 1998 campaign to inform voters on amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission, work on asbestos compensation reform and efforts to help repeal an automatic 20% phone rate hike included in a bill in 2003. At the county level, the company has designed several campaigns to help rally public support for passage of sales tax referendums.
From his business beginnings as a one-man office operating with only enough savings to keep himself going for four months, Sachs, 60, has grown revenue to between $4 million and $5 million a year. In the process, Ron Sachs Communications also has taken on issues and clients that he might have thought unlikely back in his Chiles days.
In 2009, for example, the firm did more than $130,000 worth of work for the conservative-leaning Associated Industries of Florida, according to AIF's tax records. Sachs also produces and co-hosts a web-based weekly public affairs program called "The Bottom Line" for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
And 2½ years ago, Sachs' firm was retained by Florida Energy Associates, an anonymous group of oil and gas producers, to "promote a conversation" in Florida about potentially removing the decades-old prohibition on drilling for oil and natural gas in Florida's offshore waters. That dialogue died out after the BP oil spill, and Sachs later did work for former Gov. Bob Graham, co-chair of the Oil Spill Commission investigating the disaster.
His staff reflects his effort at moving in a bipartisan direction. Alia Faraj-Johnson, a former spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush who joined the firm in 2007 as vice president and now is a partner and executive vice president, was a particular coup, Sachs says. "Hiring her, Jeb Bush's communications director, was the first time we could send an official signal to the world — that while I'm a Democrat who worked for a prior governor, it's a business, not a partisan business; it's a communications business."
Other key members of Sachs' team include Michelle Ubben, a former Orlando Sentinel reporter who's also run communications for several state agencies and the Florida Senate; Ryan Banfill, Chiles' former chief speechwriter and press secretary; and Lisa Nason, who was director of communications for the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development in the Bush administration and a communications executive for Enterprise Florida.
Sachs takes a pragmatic view of his evolution, likening his role to that of a lawyer. "An attorney doesn't have to necessarily agree with his client's decision to take them on as a client." Likewise, "we don't have to philosophically be completely in sync with an issue we take on," Sachs says. "Our job is to articulate the issues as clearly as possible to a mass audience."
While he insists he's proud of his Democratic Party roots, Sachs says he's pleased that he's "evolved" past his straight party-line vote days. Though still a registered Democrat, he says he supports and votes for the candidates he likes best, regardless of party affiliation.
Sachs says that ambiguity suits him just fine. "I kind of like where I've evolved to being politically ... not being buttonholed," he says. As for Chiles, Sachs thinks his former boss would approve: "I think he would wink at me and understand because I think he was the same way. I think he was a Democrat all his life, but some of his best friends were Republicans."
Coming of Age
As editor of the Florida Alligator at UF in 1971, Sachs printed a list of counseling and abortion referral services, violating a state statute. Sachs, a journalism student, was arrested, and the Alligator was booted off campus. "It was the civil rights, women's movement, environmental movement, anti-war time of coming of age and it seemed to me to go against everything I was learning in journalism school to tell a newspaper it can't print something." In the wake of his actions, the 103-year-old state law was declared unconstitutional.