Let’s pretend that you’re a blogger. You’re given the chance to review new, hot hardware from a major company. All that’s required is that you participate in some tasks, but these tasks would fit into your coverage so you agree. In return you get to be one of the first to go hands-on with devices and give your opinion on them. Sounds like a good deal? Well that’s what a couple of Indian participants in Samsung’s Mob!ler program thought too, until Samsung threatened to leave them stranded in Berlin, Germany.
“This event was off the charts”
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First let’s start with the facts. Programs such as Mob!lers (or Mobilers, for my sanity) are in place by many companies. In fact, I’ve even participated in one, for a company called STI, where I’ve done reviews of Kia and Mazda cars. But there’s one factor that differentiates programs such as STI from Mobilers – Only one of them expects you to become a shill for the company.
The story that follows is one of those that’s going to be hard to believe. We’ve done our very best to verify the facts, and we’ve heard the same tale from multiple sources and the end result has been the same in each case. That said, let’s go back in time a few weeks.
Samsung launched its Mobilers program in India. Clinton Jeff of Unleash the Phones and another blogger who asked to remain unnamed were two of the ones who were chosen as winners of a contest and given Mobiler perks. Now before you go calling foul, bear in mind that programs like this are imperative in some countries. Without them the bloggers will often not get early access to devices, or in some cases will be among the last to see them. Engaging with the programs means that they get access and they get to bring news to their respective audiences.
Jeff, however, reports that they made it abundantly clear to Samsung that they were first and foremost independent bloggers and that they had no intention of acting as brand ambassadors for the company. Even with this restriction in place, the two were invited by Samsung to attend this year’s IFA conference in Berlin, a large trade show that’s important to European and Asian mobile device coverage. Though surprised by the invitation, they took up Samsung on its offer to fly them to the show and to cover their hotel.
An important point – In the invitation email, Jeff reports that he was asked whether he’d like to attend as a reporter or as a promoter. He was insistent that he would only accept the offer if he was allowed to do so as a reporter.
Again, a reminder – Behavior such as Samsung’s is not uncommon in the world of tech coverage. It’s perhaps considered more normal in some parts of the world, but even we here at TNW are regularly offered to have our travel and accommodations covered in hopes that we’ll write about a specific brand during our overall coverage of an event.
Now back to the bloggers — In the days and weeks leading up to the IFA trip there were a couple of things that happened which should have raised flags, but the preemptive, no-compromises statement about the two refusing to be brand ambassadors should have kept them covered. One such flag, for instance, was Samsung contacting Jeff and asking for his clothing measurements.
“What? A uniform? A quick call to Samsung India to find out what was going on. Oh it’s just for a closed door event? No proper answer, I sent my sizes wondering what was going on.” – Clinton Jeff
Jeff tells me that there were a couple of other clues as well, such as Samsung insisting that they record themselves dancing in front of landmarks, a la “Where the Hell is Matt“, as well as encouraging them to bring a local gift that would be exchanged with other Mobilers. But Jeff went along with the requests, thinking that it would perhaps be a fun activity that he’d be doing with others in the Mobiler program. It wasn’t until after a 12-hour day of flying that the alarm bells went off.
“As soon as we stepped in [to the hotel], there was a Samsung Mobilers booth waiting for us. They gave us our key, a Samsung shirt that we’d have to wear for “orientation” the next morning, and we’d have to be down in five minutes to go for the uniform fitting.” – Clinton Jeff
They were instructed that they were to arrive at 8 AM the next day to sign an NDA. While this isn’t an uncommon ask, it’s the kiss of death for a tech reporter who’s hoping to break news about new devices. But what’s more, the 8 AM session was for “orientation”. Samsung told them that, over the course of the event, they’d “have to be in uniform, in the Samsung booths, every day. Showing the products to members of the press.”
“This was really a shocker. For a month before departure we were continuously reminded that we were being sent to IFA to cover the launch of the Note 2, every little detail was taken care of and we were even updated on a daily basis with the situation of the stay , tickets etc.”
The red flag just became a stop sign.
Jeff told Samsung again, in no uncertain terms, that they were not there to be product demonstrators for the brand. They reiterated that they had agreed to the trip so that they could cover Samsung, but also the other brands that were launching products. They were shuttled off to a meeting where they once again stated ,this time to a stern-faced PR person, that they had no interest in playing Samsung’s employee for the event. They were told that they had some free time while the company made its decision, so they headed to the local Starbucks to grab a pre-show coffee.
Then things got nasty.
“We got a call from Samsung India saying ‘You can either be a part of this and wear the uniform, or you’ll have to get your own tickets back home and handle your hotel stay from the moment this call ends…
A few minutes later, we got a call from the Samsung India guy who said that our flights on the 6th have been cancelled, and that they’re bringing us back on the 1st instead. But this is only if, and only if, we agreed to wear atleast the samsung branded shirt at the unpacked event, and not blog about any of this incident.
“None of this should leave Berlin. Or Reach India” – Clinton Jeff
This might come as a surprise, but we blogger types aren’t exactly rolling in cash. Jeff tells me that he’s no different. His weak local currency, combined with high rent in South Delhi, has prevented him from saving much money. In short, they were trapped and their tickets were essentially being held for ransom. In fact, emails between Jeff and I were exchanged prior to his return home and he practically begged me to not run the story until he returned, stating without any uncertainty that he’d be trapped in Berlin.
In short, their hands were forced. They attended the event, in the Samsung shirt, but did opt to not stand and demonstrate the phones “while getting dirty looks from some of the other Samsung mobilers who were present in their white pants, Samsung shoes and the Samsung shirt, all stationed next to a device, presenting it to press. And presenting it to us.”
But the hits just keep on coming. The next morning, Jeff awoke to the following email:
Instead of being in Berlin until September 5th, covering the rest of IFA, they were to be shuttled home as soon as possible. They had only been in country long enough to cover Samsung’s Unpacked event, but missed almost everything else from the show. They didn’t have tickets in hand, and had no assurance that they’d get them. The only confirmation that they had was that their initial return tickets had been cancelled.
In the end it’s a cautionary tale – There were a few instances in which the bloggers perhaps should have seen too many flags raised and backed out of the event. But when the bloggers had been covering bases and stating their position time and again, Samsung had every opportunity to explain its position and cancel the trip as well. Instead, it opted to play hardball, threatening to leave two bloggers stranded thousands of miles from home, in a foreign country.
So take care, bloggers and those hoping to be. The next time that you’re offered a trip in exchange for coverage, you might find yourself being fitted for a uniform, signing NDAs and demoing products upon which you’re supposed to be reporting. While this will hardly be the end of the Mobilers program, in India or elsewhere, Samsung’s scummy tactics should serve as a warning to anyone who thinks the Korean manufacturer is playing fair.
We’ve emailed representatives from Samsung, and told them the story that we are working on. It’s been a few hours, as of the time of this publishing, and we’ve still not gotten a reply. We’ll update this story when or if we do. But for now, Jeff tells me that another company has offered to fly him home and get him to a hotel, so he’s still able to cover the event as it should be.
Update: Samsung has issued a statement expressing its regret and claiming there was a “misunderstanding” between the two Indian bloggers and its Mob!lers coordinators, stating that meant they were “not sufficiently briefed on the nature of Samsung Mob!lers’ activities at IFA 2012.”
The full statement:
Samsung Mob!lers is a voluntary community of active Samsung mobile device users, who are offered the opportunity to participate in our marketing events across the world. At these events, all activities they undertake are on a voluntary basis. No activities are forced upon them.
We regret there was a misunderstanding between the Samsung Mob!lers coordinators and the relevant blogger, as we understand he was not sufficiently briefed on the nature of Samsung Mob!lers’ activities at IFA 2012. We have been attempting to get in touch with him.
We respect the independence of bloggers to publish their own stories.
But there’s a part that’s missing — Samsung also apologized to Jeff, in a private section of the email. Read the story here.
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Image credit: Vernieman via Flickr