In June of this year a joint statement was issued by 11 PR firms promising to not try to edit Wikipedia articles about their clients without going through “proper channels.” Some of the biggest names in the business were part of this initiative, including Burson-Marsteller, Edelman and Ketchum.
So it is nice to know that the PR folks are going to play by the rules when it comes to Wikipedia. But that begs the question as to why they felt the need to make this pronouncement. I think we all can guess the answer to that one. And in fact in the statement made by the PR consortium they commented “We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of WikiPedia editors.” In other words, PR people have used whatever means at their disposal to circumvent those editors and change the content on behalf of their clients.
Here are some examples:
The most widely cited agent of Wikipedia deception is a Texas based agency called Wiki-PR. If you look up Wiki-PR in Wikipedia you’ll see this. “Wiki-PR is a consulting firm that formerly marketed the ability to edit Wikipedia. It was then banned, including all of its employees, contractors, and owners, by the Wikipedia community for unethical editing.” What the Wikipedia investigation reported to uncover was hundreds of sockpuppets created by this agency to edit its clients’ pages.
A pretty substantial UK PR firm, Bell Pottinger, was caught in 2011 editing its clients’ Wikipedia entries, an act which Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales suggested was an example of the agency’s “moral blindness.”
In 2012 another UK firm, RLM Finsbury, a WPP agency, removed negative information from Wikipedia about the Russian oligarch Alisher Usanov. At the time, Usanov was listing his mobile phone company on the London exchange.
Back in the U.S., the PR firm New Media Strategies employed by Koch Industries, used the sockpuppet MBMadmirer to edit the Wikipedia entries of Charles Koch, David Koch and the page titled “Political Activities of the Koch Family.”
But it is not only PR agencies who are at work on the popular crowd-sourced online encyclopedia. Jamie Bartlett, author of a technology blog in London’s Telegraph, notes that “plenty or people and companies edit their own pages, a practice known in the Wikipedia community as Wikiwashing.” (Wikiwashing: how paid professionals are using Wikipedia as a PR tool.)
An earlier story in the Telegraph pointed to the case of UK MP Chuka Umanna. Seems as though Umanna’s Wikipedia article was amended and the new version compared him to Barack Obama. An investigation to trace that update led to a computer in Umanna’s office.
Bartlett also noted that “a new cottage industry has grown up around Wikipedia, the professional editors.” One such individual is Mike Woods, whose Web site is www.legalmorning.com. Among Woods credentials is an AAS (?) degree in law enforcement from Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Woods describes himself as “an expert Wikipedia article writer with over 10,000 edits and 100’s of pages created.” His pitch: “I know what it takes to make an article notable for inclusion and can get your page published today.”
So what is Wikipedia doing to deal with its PR problem? Most of the instances of sockpuppetry described above were uncovered as part of a Wikipedia investigation. When they are found, the fraudulent accounts are deleted. In November of last year a cease and desist letter was delivered to Wiki-PR, although it appears they have neither ceased nor desisted. The Wiki-PR home page continues to identify itself as “the easiest way to accurately tell your story on Wikipedia.”
Following the statement issued by the PR firms in June of this year, Wikipedia issued new rules that require editors who have a conflict of interest to disclose that fact.
If you are being paid by someone to write or edit information about that individual or organization, that is considered a conflict of interest. Wikipedia’s policy, in that instance, is that the party with the conflict of interest, that is the paid promoter, cannot edit Wikipedia entries directly but rather must use the service’s “talk” pages to recommend changes that will be considered by the Wikipedia editors.
For PR people the stakes are pretty high. Do a search for just about anything and the Wikipedia page is likely to show up as the first or second result. So you can be sure that an agency’s perceived ability to improve a company, organization or individual’s appearance and reputation on Wikipedia may be a key decision making point in determining who gets the job.
From the perspective of the PR community, Wikipedia’s rules are confusing and their responsiveness is slow. A survey taken by Penn State Assistant Professor of Public Relations Marcia DiStaso in 2012 found that only 21% of PR people were aware of and understood Wikipedia’s policies. While the survey didn’t ask why, I would suggest that the results may have more to do with inexperience than with lack of understanding. It’s not that hard to figure out.
You can make the case that no one knows more about a company or organization than that entity itself (and its paid communications contractors). That no doubt is true. But that hardly means they are going to take an even-handed approach to self description. As a pretty frequent user of Wikipedia do I trust PR people as a source? I think I’d prefer my sources to be a bit more unbiased.