From launch to shutdown in less than one day – the rise and fall of celebrity chat app Sociabl

When Sociabl launched on Monday, the tech sector waited with bated breath. But things quickly turned sour. Nic Christensen looks at what went wrong.

Sociabl was meant to be a positive news story – not that you’d know that from the torrent of negative stories on everything from news.com.au, to Mashable, Smart Company, Crikey and Business Insider.

It had all the required elements of a major tech launch: Young founders? Check. A cool new app promising to connect celebrities with their fans? Check. A multi-million dollar superyacht to host the media launch? Check. A string of celebrity endorsers? Er, this may be where Sociabl ran into trouble.

In fact, founders 21-year-old Brandon Reynolds and 22-year-old Jarrad Hrotek ran into real trouble on Monday when Reynolds appeared on Channel Nine’s Today Show where he was interviewed by stand-in host David Campbell, who was touted as an endorser of the app – which allows people to pay to chat with celebrities for a fee – when in fact the presenter knew nothing about it.

Engulfed in a storm of negative coverage: Reynolds and Hrotek.

Engulfed in a storm of negative coverage: Reynolds and Hrotek.

It appears that Sociabl had not spoken directly with Campbell about adding his name to the app alongside a number of other celebrities, many of whom also claim they had not agreed to be involved.

The five minutes Today show interview doesn’t make for pretty viewing.

Campbell doesn’t hold back as he questions 21-year-old Reynolds. “My name came up in the app…and I’m like, I’ve never heard of this app,” Campbell tells his interviewee.

“Welcome”, Reynolds responds awkwardly before Campbell goes on to question how they can use his name in their promotional material.

In a post written on Medium yesterday, Reynolds and Hrotek now blame Nine and Campbell for what they claim are “false and defamatory reports”.

The Sociabl founders allege: “Jake Challenor, the CEO of David (Campbell)’s record label and digital team had, through an agreement with Sociabl, agreed to have David Campbell, Jimmy Barnes and Reece Mastin, all which are his clients, on the app. This is brutal, honest truth.

“David, though, was not looking for a positive interview about Sociabl and our growth to launch, David was looking and the Nine producers were now interested [sic] in finding anything they could to put together a better story — because what’s better than a good news story? A controversy.”

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Reynolds ‘welcomes’ Campbell after he claims he didn’t know he was on the app.

During the interview, however, Campbell also questioned Reynolds, who conceded that it was “unfortunate” that Campbell’s name had been used without his express permission before going on to note that other major celebrities such as Will.i.am were still involved ahead of a global launch in April and urging him to check with Polo Molina, his US manager Will.i.am’s manager.

The Today Show did just that: Molina denied involvement.
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As with many TV interviews that go wrong Sociabl’s founders note how a 25 minutes interview was heavily edited down into what they describe as a “a 3-minute shocker portraying myself, Sociabl and others in a completely false, misleading and defamatory light.”

That might well be the case but unfortunately this was not the only discrepancy that emerged as the media quickly turned its spotlight on the young tech start-up.

Singer Jimmy Barnes denied involvement, telling news.com.au: “These people have completely lied about my involvement. I think they’re just using my name to try to fool people into buying a dodgy product.

“It’s wrong and I have nothing to do with it. If the people behind this don’t stop putting these stories out there then I’ll have to make them stop.”


Markson: we originally had Malcolm Turnbull.

High profile publicist Max Markson, who Sociabl paid to spruik the media launch event, tells Mumbrella this is also a misunderstanding: “They talked to Jimmy Barnes’ wife about it but not to Jimmy…and when David Campbell said he knew nothing about it it all just imploded from there.”

Sociabl’s original media release had promised a big media launch which the start-up would host aboard multi-million dollar superyacht Masteka II and which would be attended by no less than Industry and Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

As Crikey reported yesterday neither politician attended nor did Pyne’s reported stand-in, Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy.

“We originally had Malcolm Turnbull but he had to pull out because he had to go America to deal with President Obama,” said Markson.

“Turnbull’s office then sent a note to Brandon, which I sighted, that said ‘Christopher Pyne’ so that’s why Brandon thought he had Christopher Pyne.

“Simultaneously, Brandon had been talking to Bill Shorten’s chief of staff and they agreed that Shorten would come and so he thought Pyne and Shorten will come and that’s why we announced they were coming.

Shorten's letter to Sociabl. Click to enlarge.

Shorten’s letter to Sociabl. Click to enlarge.

“When they both pulled out, Pyne put in Wyatt Roy and we spoke to their office last week and they were fine but then on Monday they pulled out at 11 o’clock this morning. They had seen the TV show and didn’t want to be involved.”

Sociabl’s post on Medium does not address why Shorten failed to attend but does note that he signed a letter congratulating them on the launch.

The letter appears to something of a form letter congratulating the founders before going on to talk about Labor’s policies on innovation.

Other Labor politicians who were promised as attending, but failed to show, included Deputy Leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek, Labor factional player Senator Sam Dastyari and Senator Deborah O’Neill. However, other celebrities such as footballer Brendon Fevola did attend the event.

Brendon Fevola

But in the aftermath of what appears to be wave of negative media Sociabl’s future looks increasingly uncertain, in its own words it has “been asked to temporarily remove some of our clients from the app. In the interest of all our clients we’ve removed all celebrities from the app until further notice.”

Despite Will.i.am’s management statements to the Today Show, Sociabl notes that it is still in contact with Molina and has published emails on Medium that show they have been invited to the TRANS4M charity event to be hosted next month at the star’s creative compound in Hollywood.

What those emails don’t do is show Will.i.am or many of the other stars that were touted by Sociabl – for example, Layne Beachley, Shane Warne, Ian Thorpe, Pete Evans – knew they were being signed up. Or that they agree to allow Sociabl to promote their involvement in the app.

Asked today if Markson would continue his involvement with Sociabl, Markson responded: “They haven’t fired me yet and I haven’t resigned the account yet.

“I will only continue as long as everything stacks up. I was acting on (Reynolds’) behalf and being told that he had done all this or was doing all this and I take my client’s word on this.”

As it currently stands, Sociabl’s website is now shutdown, it has pulled all the celebrities/clients that were meant to be at the heart of its product and Google search is unlikely to prove a friend to the app in the foreseeable future.

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Closed: Sociabl’s website with a link to the Medium piece.

The closing statement on Sociabl’s website ends with this plea from Reynolds: “I ask the Australian community, instead of trying to tear down this exciting new project by poking holes wherever you can… help celebrate growth and progress to create something that has never been done before.”

Reynolds’ call is unlikely to be heard. Sociabl is likely to go down as one of the least successful tech launches in Australian PR history – a case study in what not to do.

Nic Christensen is the media and technology editor of Mumbrella. 



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