Analysis: Does BN Group’s removal of releases from newswires highlight credibility cracks?

Over the last week, Bellagraph Nova Group which made headlines for seemingly wanting to buy a football club and taking cosied-up shots with President Obama, has retracted several press releases from PR Newswire. One of these releases flaunted an alleged private meeting with former US President Barack Obama titled "Welcome to NETX - Global Conglomerate Bellagraph Nova Group launches latest technology platform focusing on AI + robotics + healthcare" which was disseminated on 10 July.

According to media reports on The Business Times and The Straits Times, the releases by BN Group were distributed by PR Newswire in the past few months. The press release, which has since been removed, said that NETX "was born" as a result of the founders' "historic meeting with Barack Obama". The release added that founders Terence Loh, Nelson Loh, and Evangeline Shen hosted a closed door discussion with Barack Obama to discuss their views on how technology will bring about the next industrial revolution. Meanwhile, BT reported that BN Group sent out a note on PR Newswire on 25 August indicating that "journalists and other readers should disregard" its statement made on 10 July. A quick check by Marketing found that all press releases by BN Group have been removed from PR Newswire, except for one dated 23 July, titled "Bellagraph founder Eva hosts Obama Foundation Young Leaders Forum and attends charity dinner auction".

The retraction by the company comes shortly after BN Group was recently found to have doctored images featuring Obama and its founders. Reuters previously reported that Nereides Antonio Giamundo de Bourbon, head of investor relations, said the company had "altered photos of Obama". He added that some of the photos published in press releases on BN Group's website and sent to media had been "edited" to make it seem as though Obama was in a private meeting with its executives, Reuters reported. BN Group also previously made clear of its intentions to acquire English soccer club Newcastle United and claimed to be located in Paris. The news was then picked up by various media outlets. Its claim, however, was proved to be questionable when Reuters reported that no company by the name of "Bellagraph Nova Group" had been registered in France.

Following the recent media publicity surrounding BN Group, BT reported that local and regional investors are mulling pulling out "millions of dollars" invested in entities under the Novena Global Healthcare Group. Quoting its sources, BT said the total sums invested could total up to US$20 million. Novena Global is under the Dorr Group, which according to BT is a holding company and investment avenue for Terence Loh and Nelson Loh. The company eventually merged with consumer lifestyle multinational firm Bellagraph Group to form Bellagraph Nova Group in June this year. Italian luxury brand Bulgari has also denied claims that it has relations to BN Group, after its Bulgari Hotel Shanghai was named in marketing assets and interviews as the destination of a "luxurious anti-ageing" clinic founded by BN Group, ST reported.

Meanwhile, a check on BN Group's website found that it is now password restricted. Its Instagram account currently has no posts and the bio says: "[Temporarily] closed due to maintenance, apologise for the inconvenience caused. Will open up once done".

The role of newswires in a digital news generation

Since the issue has come to light, Marketing has reached out to several newswires on their processes to ensure credible news is shared on their platforms, as paid newswires play a role in helping companies expand their news dissemination network. Paid newswires also offer journalists another avenue to source for press releases and high-resolution images and assets to aid in the news creation process. 

Although PR Newswire did not respond to Marketing's queries at the time of writing, the terms of use on its website state that the company "does not guarantee the accuracy, timeliness, integrity, quality, safety, appropriateness or any other aspect of any information or content provided by PR Newswire". 

Posted information and data may not be complete, timely or accurate, and should not be relied upon. We will, however, use reasonable efforts to correct any error of fact, timing or omission brought to our attention.

"You hereby acknowledge that the views expressed by contributors are their own opinions, not the views of PR Newswire, and that different contributors may espouse conflicting opinions," the website said.

Meanwhile, Ben Chodor, president of Intrado Digital Media, the company that owns GlobeNewswire said it has a very strict vetting process for any organisation that wishes to distribute their corporate news through GlobeNewswire. This vetting is completed on every account before they are able to distribute a press release. "It goes without saying though - that while we have incredibly stringent due diligence measures in place - individual businesses are always responsible for behaving both legally and ethically in all communication that they put forth," he added.

When asked about the checks it puts in place when evaluating the credibility of clients, Chodor explained that it applies the 3Cs for each client looking to distribute news - company, contact and content. Firstly, Chodor said it is important to verify the company and ensure it is a legitimate organisation. GlobeNewswire then contacts the company to confirm it is authorised to distribute news on behalf of the organisation.

"Lastly, we review the content they’ve distributed in the past, along with asking them to share any sample content they wish to distribute to validate that it is suitable for wire distribution. Like all reputable wire services, it is important we do our due diligence and provide validation for those looking to utilise our services," he added. Marketing has also reached out to ACN Newswire and Media Outreach for comment. Business Wire declined to comment on Marketing's queries.

Should newswires be held accountable?

According to Lewis MD, Singapore Pamela Tor Das, paid newswire services are not to be confused with journalism. In the contractual agreement with such services, the onus lies on the newsmaker to ensure its content is factually right, non-malicious and so on, terms are stated on various paid service portals. She explained that such newswires tend to have fixed tie-ups with news portals that publish the content as is, but also reach out to various other news media outlets which may consider the news from an editorial point of view, if that is a piece of content they want to run.

"In such arrangements, in the spirit of upholding journalistic integrity, most would expect the editorial team at the media outlets to fact check the content they receive," she said, adding:

The incident does pose a question as to whether paid newswire services need to review their processes as such instances can impact the partnerships built with media outlets.

Agreeing with her is GM of Red Havas Kenny Yap, who said like most newswires, PR Newswire is a news distribution channel and ultimately, it is up to the media to evaluate the newsworthiness and if it is a story they want to publish. "However, if there is an increase in the number of news releases distributed by PR Newswire or newswires found to be inaccurate, it will definitely affect their reputation and likelihood of media running their releases," he added.

BN Group's massive crisis communications fail

It is safe to say that the media publicity surrounding BN Group is certainly doing the company no favours, and the fact that it has locked its website does not reflect well on BN Group either - especially as more and more news emerges on its business practices. "Describing it as clumsy would be a compliment," said Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and MD of PRecious Communications, when asked about BN Group's handling of the recent news.

"Having worked with various brands of all sizes for over two decades, I am speechless. There are so many red flags in the whole setup that should question the overall professionalism of the organisation," he added. For starters, he said it is "incredulous" that an altered image with such a high-profile politician such as Obama made it through an internal approval process. "Who would have the authority and idea to go ahead with such a tactic in the first place? Obviously, the most basic rules and processes of corporate communications were completely ignored and that shows a systematic issue rather than the wrong doing of one individual as it was claimed," he said.

When it came to how BN Group handled the issue once it was outed, Voedisch said it "contravened fundamental approaches of crises communications" - get it fast, get it right, get it out and get it over.

BN Group took too long to react and it did not really fix the issue. The explanations do not really sound convincing either.

Voedisch also highlighted BN Group turning its website most communications channels off in the middle of a "PR disaster". He explained that disappearing during such a crisis does not help in defending a corporate image or taking active control of the situation. "Trying to retract a newswire release that has been sent weeks before is an alibi action, but does not really have much of an effect," he added. To come back from this scandal, BN Group needs to shed some light on what the group is all about, the history, ambitions, successes and mission, Voedisch said. According to him, most great recovery stories start with a genuine and humble apology - of what went wrong and what they’re doing to do better in the future.

Meanwhile, MD of Mutant Communications Lina Marican explained that BN Group has managed to do the opposite of what any crisis communications playbook would suggest. There were several red flags beyond the doctored photograph, which any journalist would inevitably question. "It appears BN Group doubled down on its outrageous claims, including the one about owning 10,000 jets - for perspective, Singapore Airlines in comparison has a fleet of 138 aircrafts - via owned platforms and a newswire to evade fact checking," she said.

Marican explained that hiding behind a now password protected website and an Instagram account that is “temporarily closed for maintenance” only further damages the brand that was built off the back of its own, inaccurate claims. The entire business is now in question as its brand perception has dropped from a billionaire powerhouse to a sham company overnight, she added. "While fabricated statements should not have been distributed in the first place, taking down misinformation was its only choice," Marican said, adding:

If it wants to salvage the situation, the company needs to provide further explanation in the form of a holding statement, while concurrently conducting an internal review to investigate things further.

Regardless of who is responsible, Marican said the leadership team should step up to rebuild their credibility. "If they are genuine, they should invite some top journalists in to show them what is behind the curtains, and admit that mistakes were made. There will be tough questions, but the power of having a credible, earned news source behind them to tell the truth will be the right step forward," she said. Ultimately, Marican believes that brands are responsible for uploading announcements on newswire platforms and they need to be held accountable for inaccuracies.

The latest controversy surrounding BN Group is also an example of an organisation that has perhaps taken the need to be authentic in its publicity lightly, Tor Das said. While the public does not have sight of its internal approval processes, Tor Das said this incident reinforces the critical need to have these in place and in ensuring organisations work with a reliable consulting partner.

"PR contributes strongly to building trust between an organisation and its audiences. Long gone are the days of propaganda, where organisations assume that the public consumes content at its surface value. For years, authenticity has become the core of what we communicate," she added.

Meanwhile, in a statement to BT on the condition of anonymity, a PR professional who worked with Novena Global for less than a year said at times she felt like she was "caught between a rock and a hard place" working at the company. However, she "could not turn away business", BT said. The pressure to put out "unproven claims" was too much to handle and she eventually left the company, BT added.