11/27/2014 05:55 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST

Bell says positive employee-planted reviews will stop, but critics unsure

Bell Canada says it has warned employees to stop planting glowing, five-star reviews about a Bell app on Apple’s iTunes. But some critics aren’t convinced the solution is so simple.

More than 24 hours after Bell fessed up to CBC News that some staff planted positive reviews to bolster a Bell app, the problematic posts were still prominently featured on the Apple iTunes App Store. The workers’ reviews do not reveal any affiliation with Bell.

When CBC asked Bell why the rave reviews were still online, spokesman, PaoloPasquini replied at 1:04 p.m. ET today: “The posts contravene Bell’s policies so we are in the process of having them removed, as you may have noticed already.”

At 5 p.m., CBC could still find the Bell employee-penned reviews on iTunes.

The reviews were first uncovered by marketing watchdog, Scott Stratten, with UnMarketing. He noticed a barrage of five-star reviews for a new app, MyBell Mobile, on iTunes. He cross-checked reviewer user names and matched half a dozen with Bell employees on LinkedIn.

Bell’s Pasquini has maintained that the employee reviews were the result of “an overzealous effort on the part of our service team to highlight the [Bell] app.” He said that Bell workers were reminded today they can’t plant reviews for their own company: “We’ve sent a clear reminder to the team about our online approach.”

A high-level mistake

David Christopher, with internet watchdog OpenMedia, wonders how high-level staffers could have made such a big mistake. He said most of the reviewers “were really senior within Bell, and people with that level of responsibility within an organization like Bell should have known much better than to engage in this.”

The reviewers included Steph Steen, a marketing manager at Bell. She posted that she liked the app’s new look and found it “Faster and easier to use!”

Tori Brown wrote: “Awesome app! Love it!” According to LinkedIn, Brown is a senior project manager at Bell.

Other excited reviewers were Charbel Nassif, a performance manager and Michael McEnery, an associate director at Bell.

“Clearly, when you look at the seniority of the people involved, this came from the top. And I think Bell really needs to take a roots-up approach to making sure that this kind of behaviour just doesn't happen again,” said Christopher.

Everybody does it?

Technology analyst, Carmi Levy doesn’t believe the employee-written reviews were an isolated incident.

The writer with notes that he has no inside knowledge of what went on at Bell. But he said employees talking up a company app is standard practice: “The dirty little secret of the online app industry is that this kind of behaviour is rampant. Marketing teams of companies large and small are constantly being encouraged to go online and do whatever it takes to support their side.”

He added, “I don't want to seem like I'm picking on [Bell] in this case because every company does it and everybody knows it.” 

CBC asked Bell if any staff members had ever before written positive reviews about a company product online without disclosing their affiliation. The company did not respond.

CBC did find two positive reviews that appear to be written by Bell employees for a new Virgin Mobile app.

Levy said the only way to avoid tainted reviews is to read them with a critical eye: “You're supposed to know as savvy online citizens that when you read a product review, you take it with a very large grain of salt, because you simply never know who's actually behind that particular comment.”

Globe and Mail omission

The Globe and Mail also covered the Bell employee-review story and admits it too didn’t reveal its ties to Bell. The newspaper posted an online-only story emphasizing that BCE (Bell) “is warning its employees not to write customer reviews about the company online.” 

The story did not state that BCE owns 15 per cent of the Globe and Mail.

After CBC pointed this out to the Globe, Paul Waldie, editor for Report on Business replied: “We make a point of noting BCE’s ownership stake in our stories and that should have happened in this case. We have added that to the story and will be adding [an] editor’s note as well.”