Singapore-based publisher SPH Media has admitted it inflated circulation numbers to between 85,000 and 95,000 through various means, including printing copies meant for circulation and then destroying them.

The publisher, which owns newspapers like The Straits Times, Berita Harian and Lianhe Zaobao, also counted the number of subscriptions twice and used fake accounts to buy subscriptions.  According to reports, circulation numbers were also randomly shared with advertisers and lapsed contracts were also counted in the final tally.

This practice, which was uncovered internally in March 2022, has seen certain senior employees from SPH Media either punished or sacked. It is unknown which of SPH Media titles were affected.

SPH Media became a company limited by guarantee in December 2021, becoming a separate entity from the Singapore Press Holdings. The publisher receives public funding of up to US$180 million annually over five years as a trust and is required to provide half-yearly progress updates to the government.

Leela Nair, the managing director for Asia-Pacific at Ebiquity tells Campaign Asia-Pacific it is vital for marketers and agencies to be able to trust the numbers provided to them by media owners so that they can make informed decisions about their marketing spend.

“It goes without saying that this erodes trust at a time when marketers are looking to build partnerships,” says Nair.

Agreeing, Ben Poole, the head of office at 55, adds that this relationship is especially important for a medium that is fighting to retain its share of spend.

He urges SPH Media’s sales teams to communicate transparently to its customers about what has happened, and how SPH Media will deliver marketing return on investment moving forward. 

“On the buy side, third-party verification will continue to provide the check and balance required to make sure brands are getting what they pay for,” adds Poole, who is the former managing director for APAC at Reprise.

Ranganathan Somanathan, the co-founder and curator at RSquared Global Ventures, points out doctoring data severely dents the trust and accountability that was attributed to a publisher like SPH. 

He notes if the contracts have language around circulation to justify the media pricing, such advertisers might be in a position to demand a proportionate refund. In absence of any such language in the trading agreements, there is very little legal recourse to recovery.

“The environment of eroding readership compounded with the erosion of trust has a potential risk to seriously impact advertiser confidence in investing in SPH titles,” says Somanathan, who is the former CEO for Singapore and Malaysia at Omnicom Media Group.

“Owning up to the error, transparently fixing the internal process and proactively engaging the stakeholders will be critical for SPH to recover from this situation. On a parallel note, it is a good time for Audit Bureau of Circulation Singapore, to review it’s audit protocol to prevent such instances from occurring in the future.”

However, Elaine Poh, the managing director and head of domestic business at Publicis Media, says it is important to remember that advertisers and agencies evaluate print media buying opportunities based on various factors and data points, not just reach alone.

This includes the composition of readers against the target audience, the role of the media in the entire strategy, measurable outcomes, ad formats that best deliver the creative message, for example.

“Publicis Media evaluates cost efficiencies using readership data from third-party verified research providers, such as Nielsen Consumer Media View, as it is a better representation of reach due to the pass-on nature of print media,” Poh tells Campaign Asia-Pacific.

“While a publisher’s circulation data can be used as a reference, it is not a key deciding factor when recommending any specific publisher(s).”



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