Forbes pulls articles by SumoStory’s Chris Chong over client promotion claims

The founder of an Asian start-up attempting to automate the public relations industry has issued an apology to the magazine Forbes Asia after he was caught using the site’s editorial column to promote his clients.

Chris Chong, the Australian founder of press release automaton tool SumoStory, wrote six articles as a contributor for Forbes Asia’s website, four of which he used to write positively about his clients iCandy, High Spark, Air Swap and FOMO.

Forbes has now pulled his articles and his column section from the website. A spokeswoman for the US-founded magazine said: “All contributors to sign a contract requiring them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest.

“When it came to our attention that Mr. Chong violated these terms, we removed all of his posts from and ended our relationship with him.”

According to Forbes’ terms for contributing writers, the website cannot police every article published “given the volume of information posted by such providers”.

However, it says: “Notwithstanding the foregoing, Forbes reserves the right to remove information provided by other information content providers at any time in its sole discretion.”

When contacted by Mumbrella Asia, Chong simply said: “I apologise to Forbes for their involvement in the matter.”

He previously denied taking money in return for writing the articles following claims made on a US news site that he accepted US$1,100 in return for publishing them.

Two months ago, Mumbrella Asia’s attention was drawn to Chong’s article ‘How Cryptocurrency will Disrupt South East Asia’s gaming oligopoly’, whereby he wrote at length about the Australian start-up iCandy – a client of SumoStory.

Three other similar opinion pieces were also published on the site, which Chong then promoted as editorial coverage on his Twitter account.

Around the same time, an American news site The Outline, was investigating a claim by an alleged paid editorial content fixer, Varun Satyam, who said Chong took payments of $1,100 to publish articles on Forbes.

When questioned about the claims by the investigating journalist, Jon Christian, Chong subsequently asked whether he too would be willing to take remuneration in exchange for publishing stories.

In an email seen by Mumbrella Asia, Chong wrote: “I’ve seen on your LinkedIn/Twitter that you are an established freelance journalist for multiple outlets. Is there any way we can set up a partnership together to distribute content? Happy to explore remuneration. ”

When the journalist said that would be “unethical”, Chong “again became contrite”, Christian wrote on The Outline.

He quoted Chong as saying: “Forbes did the right thing. I am lucky that I got to learn my lesson early on in my career as a writer and as a PR practitioner.”

Chong on Channel NewsAsia’s documentary Millionaire Minds

The entrepreneur strenuously denied to Mumbrella Asia that he accepted payment from Satyam.

Initially Chong told Mumbrella Asia that he would address the other claims in a video blog next year.

However, an initially privately circulated video was issued today, whereby Chong apologised to “anyone who was offended” by his decision to write about clients.

During the two-minute video, now made public, Chong said he would apologise as “a journalist, a publicist and a start-up founder”.

“As a journalist, what I did was wrong,” he said. “I took advantage of my role as a contributor on Forbes, which is a prestigious platform, to promote my clients and there was a conflict of interest that should have been flagged, so I apologise to the rest of Forbes and to anyone else who was offended by me writing about my clients for Forbes.

“As a publicist, I made it very clear to Forbes that I operate a PR firm. SumoStory is a PR firm that focuses on getting start-ups covered in the news. I’m trying my best to tell their stories in mainstream media so they will get picked up and brought to a broader audience.

“Thirdly, as a start-up founder. Ultimately my performance is where and how much coverage I can get for for my clients. It was inexcusable but a pragmatic move on my part to cover and promote my clients on Forbes.”

Chong has been on the start-up scene in Asia for some time. He was the co-founder of Beeconomic, which he sold to Groupon Singapore for a reported $24 million in 2010.  He later founded GoFresh, an online grocery site that launched in 2014.

He also had a brief stint as a social media editor for the South China Morning Post, where he claimed he got the idea for SumoStory.

With SumoStory, Chong said he aimed to automate the targeting process between clients and journalists, in addition to eventually automating the writing task itself.


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