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Telco storm brews over social media smears

SINGAPORE — The major telcos here have been dragged into a controversy over the conduct of social media agency Gushcloud, with M1 and StarHub asking the authorities to look into allegations that Singtel, through the agency, incentivised social media “influencers” to conduct a smear campaign against them.

SINGAPORE — The major telcos here have been dragged into a controversy over the conduct of social media agency Gushcloud, with M1 and StarHub asking the authorities to look into allegations that Singtel, through the agency, incentivised social media “influencers” to conduct a smear campaign against them.

Singtel has distanced itself from Gushcloud’s actions and clarified that it did not issue the brief that asked the influencers — a term used to describe people having a substantial reach and following on social media platforms — to complain about the other two telcos’ services or network connections. The brief, written by a Gushcloud employee, has since been circulated online.

Singtel said it uses different digital agencies for its campaigns and Gushcloud was among the agencies that it had hired in June last year.

“It is Singtel’s policy to focus on the strengths and differentiators when marketing our products and services. It is not our practice to run negative campaigns against any individual or organisation. This is not the way we manage our marketing promotions. We will remind our agencies to strictly adhere to this policy when running campaigns for Singtel.”

Both M1 and StarHub said they were taking up the matter with Singtel and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA). An M1 spokesperson said: “Such practices are unethical and we intend to seek clarification with the relevant operator on this matter. We will also request the IDA to look into this pursuant to the Telecom Competition Code and will explore further action if necessary.”

StarHub chief marketing officer Jeannie Ong said the company is “deeply disturbed by the tactics employed and the possible damage to our brand”. “We will be engaging with both the IDA and the relevant operator on this issue,” she said.

The IDA said it was aware of the matter. A spokesperson said the authority has always encouraged its licensees to “focus on promoting the availability, price and quality of their own services or equipment, and refrain from negative campaigns against their competitors”.

She added: “This will allow end users to make informed choices. Operators should abide by the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice when conducting marketing activities.”

On Saturday, prominent blogger Wendy Cheng, who is involved in a long-running spat with Gushcloud, had posted the agency’s brief, which promised incentives — including cash, discounts on mobile phones and VIP invites to Singtel events — for its influencers if they drove new subscribers to Singtel’s Youth Plan by complaining about the services of M1 and StarHub. It also provided templates for the influencers to voice their dissatisfaction.

Ms Cheng, better known by her moniker Xiaxue, also put up screenshots of subsequent social media postings by Gushcloud’s influencers criticising the services of M1 and StarHub.

Singtel did not respond by press time when asked if it is still hiring Gushcloud for its campaigns, and whether the Singtel logo, which was found on Gushcloud’s brief documents, was used without its permission.

Contacted yesterday, Gushcloud co-founder Vincent Ha said the agency is investigating the matter. On Saturday, Gushcloud said on Facebook that it was an internal brief and apologised for any misunderstanding.

“The brief is not meant to be read in isolation without the full context and verbal briefings given by Gushcloud. Singtel’s brief for the campaign was to focus on key differentiators in the services and strengths,” it said.

The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice states that advertisements “should not unfairly attack or discredit other products, organisations or professions directly or by implication”.

The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore, which handles complaints about advertising practices, is an advisory council to the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE).

CASE executive director Seah Seng Choon said: “As far as this matter is concerned, we are not certain whether the information put out by Gushcloud is an advertisement, because it is not clear whether Singtel authorised all the content released by the bloggers contacted by Gushcloud.”

Still, experts stressed the need for marketers to be above board.

PRecious Communications founder Lars Voedisch said while there is an unspoken rule that companies should highlight their strengths instead of running down their competitors, they can criticise their rivals’ products as long as it is done transparently.

Direct Marketing Association of Singapore chairperson Lisa Watson said it is “not proper marketing practice” to engage bloggers to complain about companies. Stressing the importance of credibility and trustworthiness, she said: “You might, as a marketer, get away with (transgressions) once or twice, but eventually it is likely you are going to be found out, and (will) pose far more damage than good.”

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