Thursday, September 25, 2014

Business Wire - A Division of Publicly-Traded Berkshire Hathaway - Creates a Tangled Web of Deception

Note - this blog was updated on October 1, 2014, following further conversations with several increasingly-senior executives at Business Wire, including two calls with BizWire COO Phyllis Dantuono


The Scottish 19th Century Poet Sir Walter Scott might have had Business Wire in mind when he wrote:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!

It turns out that, over at Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE BRK), Business Wire - at least when it comes to "practising to deceive" - has been "practising" overtime. At least that is my personal perspective, based on an increasing body of experience with the firm, related to the issue below.
One reason any PR professional might choose to use Business Wire – a Berkshire Hathaway Company – and one reason why so many PR people are willing to pay a premium to use this most expensive of news-release distribution services, is their claim that when you do place a release with BizWire, at least 294 news aggregator websites will (because they're under contract to Business Wire) pick up your release and run it online.   These nearly 300 news aggregator sites are primarily the online sites of news media outlets - national, state and local - and all this implies that your press release will appear on these sites, and be searchable at those sites.

That is the promise they offer. More important, that is the result they show in their NewsTrak dashboard.  This seemingly useful tool comes with each release, and purports to document just how often the release has been accessed, as well as offering links to online news sites where the release has been posted.  

Among other features, this seemingly-informative NewsTrak report shows (complete with interactive logos) that the release has been picked up by all 294 of those under-contract news aggregator sites.

I was so impressed when I first learned about this service four years ago that I blogged about this feature. I cited the advantages of a service with so many news aggregator sites under contract with them, and made the case for PR pros to use BizWire specifically for this reason:   

I also mentioned this feature favorably in a book I ghost-wrote earlier this year, "Beautifully Profitable / Forever Profitable."  

Clearly, I was a big fan of this news aggregator service (at least as it had been laid out to me in 2010).

Unfortunately, it turns out that there’s now a problem with that promise.

Today, of those 294 news aggregator sites, a vast majority of them do not actually post the releases as implied by the NewsTrak report. Some don't post the release at all. In those cases, the NewsTrak link routes you to other locations - including web pages hosted by Business Wire itself.  

For example, three Fox TV News local affiliate stations' websites are shown on my most recent NewsTrak dashboard report. However, when you click on those logo-links, instead of going to the released news story on those stations' websites, you go here: ... and when you get there, good luck finding the release.  

I have no idea what this site is, or who owns it (it may be a front for BizWire, or it could be as legitimate as the New York Stock Exchange - it's hard to tell).

If your release is there o this financial site at all, it's neither visible nor easily searchable.  Worse, if you search on the TV stations' websites for the release (using it's title as a search term), you get nothing.  

Despite the NewsTrak report's claim, the release is not where they said it would be - and, presumably, where my client was paying for it to be.

But unfortunate as this lack of performance is, for some media listed on NewsTrak, this situation only gets worse. 

For example, when you click on the Las Vegas Review Journal logo on the NewsTrak report (which I did because my client is in the Vegas SMSA), you do not go  to the Review Journal website, nor do you go to a financial site.  

Instead, you go to an internal page hosted on the Business Wire website: 

There, on that site, you have no RJ branding – just this:

Las Vegas Review-Journal - Las Vegas News, Business, Entertainment Information

Apparently, what you're really paying for is yet another posting on a BizWire web page - a placement on their own site, with no links to the RJ.

As an aside, I have published what appeared on the header of that page  because, within just 30 minutes after my discussion with Business Wire's regional manager, Jerry Johnson, my client's press release - which had been published on this Bizwire page - suddenly disappeared.  

Instead, what you now see is this:   

The content you request is no longer available. You are welcome to login to our site to see other news of interest.

That happened within 30 minutes after my call with their regional manager, a call which didn't end well.  

Several senior execs at Biz Wire, including the COO, Phyllis Dantuono herself, claims that this pull-down was either a coincidence, or the action of the Las Vegas Review Journal. 

 You may draw your own conclusion about this.

Finally, if you go directly to the RJ site, or to any of the Fox Network stations' linked news sites, or to any one of the other hundreds of sites found on the NewsTrak report, and then if you plug in the key words (i.e., the press release's headline) to their “search” function, what you get is ... nothing.  

Though they claim it as a valid "use" of the press release, on he RJ's site, there is not even a link to the BizWire created and hosted page.  

Those NewsTrak-claimed media outlets don’t acknowledge having anything to do with the release, nor do they have even a link to it on their own page or in their archives. 

Business Wire, via their NewsTrak dashboard report, tells you otherwise (by providing links that supposedly go to the releases at those sites). This tracking report claims that your release was basically plastered all over the Internet, featured on at least 300 or so news media websites.  

That’s a big part of what you pay for, and if you take the NewsTrak dashboard report at face value, that's what you've received.  In fact, this (at one time remarkable) feature has been how I have been justifying BizWire's premium rates to my clients.

But - as I learned rather painfully - what you really get from these supposed placements on news media websites is not much, apparently, at least not much of any real PR value.  And certainly what you get - at least if you believed, as I did, in the reality behind the NewsTrak report - is nothing like what you thought you were getting.

As an ending note, all of this - both what Business Wire promises and what Business Wire actually delivers - was explained to me in great detail by Jerry Johnson, regional manager of Business Wire.  He very candidly told me exactly how their news aggregator "benefit" really works.  He then tried to justify this seemingly bait-and-switch business offer (it appears to be so to me, anyway, though it may not rise to the legal definition of bait-and-switch).  

He justified this by saying “everybody does it,” an excuse my mother taught me to avoid back when I was 9 years old.  

After offering this justification, Mr. Johnson also refused to even consider a make-good. He then went further and refused to send my concerns, and my request for a make-good, up the corporate ladder to someone who might actually help me resolve this situation amicably and professionally.  

He also got nasty and vulgar, but that's really beside the point.

That refusal to even consider a make-good to satisfy my concerns that my client's money was wasted was the genesis of this blog.  

If Business Wire seems to offer one thing but actually delivers something else (and that "something" is of much less value), and if they then do not stand behind their service when a client like me complains, I felt other PR pros ought to know this, too.

UPDATE - October 1, 2014

Since I first wrote this blog, and after sending Mr. Johnson a further email trying to obtain equitable some resolution, I have spoken with a BizWire regional VP, Brenda in San Francisco.  She much more politely and professionally backed up what Jerry Johnson said about the fairly useless "reality" behind the bold promise reflected in the NewsTrak report.  

She then referred me to the corporate executive (Sandy) who apparently handles the news aggregator relationships.  She gave me a great many nuts-and-bolts pieces of information in an effort to claim real value from something that has no value.  However, in the end, she didn't dispute the fact that a link to the RJ, or to Fox News in Las Vegas, didn't actually go where they "suggested" that it went.

Then, today, I had several conversations with the COO of the company, Phyllis Dantuono.  She is a charming individual, and spent quite a bit of time with me.  

At the beginning of the call, her initial stated goal was to get me to stop reporting on this via emails to lists of public relations pros by persuading me of her personal ethics (which I have no reason to doubt) and her company's integrity as well (of which I remain unconvinced).  

In that initial part of the conversation, she also suggested that the facts I've been sharing with my fellow PR pros were somehow "libelous."  To that, I told her flat-out that the truth is a defense against libel, and that the First Amendment was on my side.

When I didn't quail at the hidden threat of legal actions, she quickly dropped that line of discussion, though I expect to hear it again if I refuse to back off.

She also said I was trying to "blackmail" her (or her company) by posting  emails to colleagues about what really happened when I tried to resolve a problem with BizWire. She specifically said that she resented this so-called blackmail.  

I countered that, since I was told there was no possible resolution (by Jerry Johnson, who was not contradicted by his boss, or by a senior corporate exec),  I was publishing the truth as I knew it with no expectation of gain. 

I wasn't threatening them with "pay me or I'll blast you.Instead, my approach has been, "since you won't resolve this, I'm going to let my colleagues know how you do business, and let them decide for themselves how to proceed."  That, I told her, was not blackmail.

She also backed off of that charge when I explained how illogical it was. 

Later in this series of calls, she re-stated her goal - this time, she wanted to satisfy my concerns (assuming that if she was successful in satisfying me, I'd drop this whole issue).  

Yet oddly, for someone who says she wanted to satisfy my concerns,  she still wasn't open to any meaningful make-good on a press release that I feel was largely a waste of my client's money.  

She did at one point offer a $200 discount on a future release, but I told her there will be no future releases.  With the transformation of their news aggregator feature from something of real value to something with no practical value (though the NewsTrak report makes it appear that they still offer value - until you check under the hood), there is no reason in my mind to pay the BizWire premium. Absent that now-nonexistent "benefit," other services can competently distribute my clients' press releases for far less cost.

She ended our calls today by saying she wanted to discuss this with others, then get back to me in a day or two.  This is when the whole situation got surreal. 

She's the COO of a multi-million-dollar company.  She's been with them for 28 years. Yet she apparently doesn't have the authority to authorize a $1,500 refund to a dissatisfied client, at least not without talking about it to others in her firm.  

The apparent fact that a division of a huge public company doesn't allow their COO to authorize a $1,500 refund is almost mind-boggling.  It also says something almost frightening about their resistance to offering meaningful make-goods to their dissatisfied clients.

But refund or not (and I honestly don't expect one - the whole question of "refunds" only came up when she asked me what it would take for me to be "satisfied"), BizWire no longer provides a valued service that was offered as recently as 2010

The appearance of the service remains, but the reality is not there.

I'll update this blog as I get additional information.  

In case you're wondering who this company is,
BizWire is owned by 
Warren Buffett. 
Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE BRK) is legendary business mogul Warren Buffett's self-described "diversified company with major interest in GEICO, life insurance, annuity sales and sales of jewelry."  It has a generally squeeky-clean reputation, based on Mr. Buffett's own formidable reputation (Forbes says his net worth is $67.4 billion dollars, making him the third wealthiest persons on earth).  However, I wonder if he knows that - through his Business Wire business unit - Berkshire Hathaway also apparently excels in deceiving - if not actually defrauding (that would be for a court to decide) - his Business Wire press release service clients

Berkshire Hathaway wholly owns BNSF (the railroad giant that merged the Burlington Northern and the Acheson, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads), as well as Lubrizol - the specialty chemical giant - Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, Helzberg Diamonds, FlightSafety International and NetJetsThe firm also owns half of John Kerry's wife's Heinz, and has strong positions in Mars, Inc., American Express, Coca Cola, Wells Fargo and IBM.  

And Business Wire.

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