A Lesson in Public Relations & Ethics … Source- Wikipedia

122449148Bell Pottinger just got caught with its PR pants down as Wikipedia launches an investigation into the U.K. firm for violating the social encyclopedia’s editorial policy.  According to Wikipedia, the PR agency made over 1,000 edits to its clients’ entries – using several false accounts – removing negative information and replacing it with positive content.

Very often in the PR world, clients come to us with one of two requests regarding Wikipedia – 1) We don’t have a Wikipedia page, can you help us create it? or 2) We have a Wikipedia page, and it’s not all good news, can you help us change it?

This is why at SHIFT we have a standard policy that we will not create, edit or touch our client’s Wikipedia pages.  Why?  Besides being unethical, it’s against the rules of the Wikipedia playing ground, which ask that content be factual, non-promotional and created and edited by sources other than those working for a company or representing a company.  (And duh, we represent!)

Another reason we created this policy is because we found this was not always the case for our competition.  Too many PR agencies don’t know the Wikipedia policy or worse, don’t think it’s a problem.  As Bell Pottinger has come to find, it is a big problem.

Social media has created a seemingly limitless opportunity for brands to connect directly with their target audiences and with that comes the responsibility of being able to identify clear boundaries.  It is our job as PR professionals to advise our clients on what is ethical, transparent and in their and our best interests.  Sometimes this means saying “no” and providing counsel on the best route to online Zen.  We’ve run into these same questions and complaints from clients about Glassdoor.com, Amazon.com reviews and the like.

As the PR agency, we can help to shape our client’s message and influence the perception of the average Wikipedia user through company-generated content (e.g. corporate blog), third-party interviews (media, bloggers) and conversation (Twitter chats!).  It’s not our job, however, to misrepresent our clients by manufacturing false praise online.

What do you think of what Bell Pottinger did?  Does your agency have a Wikipedia policy?  Please let me know in the comments!

By guest blogger Amanda Guisbond, @agbond

Posted on: December 8, 2011 at 1:26 pm By Todd Defren
21 Responses to “A Lesson in Public Relations & Ethics … Source- Wikipedia”


  • Natasha says:

    The Public Relations Society of America advises PR professionals to protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information as well as work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession. One of the core guidelines of the PRSA is that practitioners should decline to represent clients requiring actions contrary to the Code.

    Therefore, even when an organization expects it PR department or an external PR firm to to clean up its online reputation, practitioners need to know where to draw the line. For example, is it ethical to delete negative comments made on a company’s facebook page about a product or service?

    Referring specifically to the Wikipedia issue, public trust in corporations and public relations can be eroded if the popular online encyclopedia becomes a playground for PR firms masquerading as legitimate non-promotional sources.While public relations companies should help to enhance their clients reputation, they shouldn’t do so in a way that can jeopardize their own standing in society.

    Clients will become more and more demanding of PR as both positive and negative information becomes increasingly easy to share across the globe. Practitioners need to know when to say “no”.

    • David King says:

      Natasha, Keith Trivitt from the PRSA posted a comment below that seems to support that editing Wikipedia is unethical, but less than two months later PRSA is being quoted in the media with a seemingly opposite point of view – neither of which quite hits the head of the nail.

      PRSA is the defacto trade organization for the PR field and has an incredible level of responsibility as a result. We expect a lot and public statements from the PRSA on ethics carry a particularly heavy responsibility that needs to be partnered with great care and expertise in making them.

      It’s very difficult for me to educate clients on ethical best practices for Wikipedia, when many trusted sources of information make public statements with confidence, though they have no editing history, no Wikipedia experience and few ties to the Wikipedia community.

      I guess what I’m getting at is I wish the PRSA wouldn’t be so quick to jump on what one agency or another says and instead took the time to investigate the issues. The Wikipedia community has been discussing establishing best practices with the PRSA for years and Jimmy Wales has already set forth a best practice as well. Your presence has already been requested on Wikipedia for years.

      I’d be happy to show you how to start a conversation on Wikipedia to create a code of ethics for PR professionals developed through community consensus, rather than lobbying against the community’s rules, which has made many on Wikipedia defensive.

  • Monica Belgum says:

    I agree that what Bell Pottinger did was unethical. Editing information on clients’ Wikipedia pages is almost always unethical. The only time that I could think of that it would be appropriate for a PR agency to alter a Wikipedia page would be to delete libelous content on their clients’ pages.

  • Tom Crilley says:

    This is an ethical issue that comes up again and again in public relations, yet people still don’t have it figured out. Ghostwriting is a facet of the world PR professionals have to work in every day.

    There will always be clients who need you to write positive content for their company, whether it’s because they’re trying to hide something negative or they just don’t have enough time (cc: personality/ability)to do it themselves.

    Bell Pottinger stepped over the invisible ethical line by doing this for a client. Ghostwriting is fine, but only if it’s done with full disclosure and the rules of the forum allow it.

  • It’s really quite simple. Wikipedia is not “owned” media for any brand or company. In other words, the Wikipedia entry doesn’t belong to the brand. It isn’t their page. So it is not a place for marketing/corporate messaging.

    Nor is it “earned” or “paid.” Wikipedia is clear about its policy and there are avenues for getting content corrected if it is factually incorrect.

    A hands off policy on Wikipedia should be standard for every PR agency.

  • David King says:

    I don’t mean to hijack the comment string, but also wanted to share what I posted on Wikipedia on this issue, in which I linked to Shift’s post here. Last comment I promise.

    “Skomorokh I came across this post suggesting that you should have asked for my opinion on the Pottinger situation. I didn’t particularly agree that any obligation as such was appropriate, but did want to let you know I posted a blog on it here. The marketing community has responded in one of two ways.

    1 is to ask if Pottinger really did anything wrong or if the rules are just confusing. I’m embarrassed that people would ask this question. It reflects a lack of knowledge about the details of the edits Pottinger has made and the level of ignorance about how to engage with Wikipedia ethically within the marketing community. This ignorance lives on despite extensive documentation on Wikipedia and the community’s best efforts. I feel obligated to inform the Wikipedia community the best I can that his actions are not reflective of the field as a whole, though many marketers do contribute unethically in milder cases, sometimes unknowingly.

    2 is a hands-off policy. Like this one. I don’t believe a complete hands-off policy best serves Wikipedia’s interests either. This leaves many Wikis to serve the whims of a community that is also often bias, posts misinformation and creates content that is not in keeping with Wikipedia’s policies or serves its encyclopedic interests. As is suggested in my original post, I think there are better ways for us to work together and mend years of inappropriate contributions by both well-meaning and unethical marketers. Wikipedia has policies about forgiveness right? But we need to earn it first and this kind of thing doesn’t help.

  • Adam Green says:

    I have definitely had this happen to me before: “Can you create a Wikipedia page for my company and write good stuff about me?” The answer is always no for the same reasons you’ve outlined here.

  • M. Drozdowski says:

    Wikipedia is one of those double-edged swords for PR firms. On one hand, you cannot ignore it, as there is a risk that your client’s article might be edited maliciously. On the other hand, neither can you go in and wantonly astroturf the entry.

    I’m with David – you CAN be strategic about Wikipedia, however, it requires absolute adherence to their policies and complete transparency. My firm has interacted repeatedly with Wiki editors on a number of articles, however, we’ve always clearly declared a COI and were completely up front about what we wanted to do and why. We’ve also absolutely followed Wiki policies to the letter, staying far away from weasel words and making sure that anything we contribute is honest and verifiable (with lots and lots and lots of citations, references, etc).

    If you’re looking at Wikipedia as just another marketing outlet where the client and you as the agency have control over the process and content, you’ll be in for a rude awakening. If approach Wikipedia strategically, ethically, and with optimum transparency, you can successfully help establish a presence there for your clients.

  • Amanda – Good of you and SHIFT to not go down the potentially dark and unethical road of manipulating clients’ Wikipedia or other online entries to reflect a more positive voice and perspective. That’s a form of Astroturfing, which the PRSA Code of Ethics (http://ow.ly/7U6mr) specifically advises against and which we would hope the PR industry has long realized is simply unethical, not a best practices and, quite frankly, outdated and ineffectual in many regards because it puts the firm at great risk of being caught and publicly shamed, as Bell Pottinger has found out.

    Bell Pottinger’s use of “dark arts” tactics in relation to online reputation management is perhaps the most egregious of the firm’s claims. That is because the practice of setting up fake blogs or posting fake online reviews on behalf of clients (astroturfing) is illegal under the EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices. In the US, this unethical practice falls under the FTC’s online endorsement guidelines.

    It’s not just that these tactics are unethical and potentially illegal. It is also that they are amateur, crude and very often do not work. Not only is it a disservice to a client for a firm to boast of its success with such outdated tactics, but it also takes the PR industry back several years in terms of our professionalism and value to businesses.

    It is through ethical business practices such as this that SHIFT counsels its clients to engage in that will help the PR industry build its value to the business community and enhance its reputation. Unethical and misguided tactics only serve to deminish our role and value.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director

    • David King says:

      Too often we paint this picture that editing on Wikipedia is black or white. Good or bad. Because the field lacks the expertise to understand what’s going on, we have a reactionary response to news like this.

      The FTC doesn’t prohibit us from editing Wikis, it prohibits us from making online endorsements without disclosing our commercial interest. There’s a lot of ways to disclose your conflict of interest on Wikipedia and even the basic primary conflict of interest policy on Wikipedia provides instructions and examples of how to do this.

      Just yesterday a Wikipedia administrator on the arbitration committee (think high council, Wikipedia style) offered to review, edit and post any free content I provide to him on behalf of a corporate client. What’s unethical about providing encyclopedic, well-verified content the Wikipedia community actually thanks me for knowing exactly who it came from and under what context?

      This PR firm didn’t get in trouble for having a conflict of interest, they got in trouble for doing so anonymously, for impersonating a volunteer contributor, for removing encyclopedic content about human rights violations and slandering an environmental activist on their client’s behalf. It’s about how and what they contributed, not that they contributed at all.

      Ethics on Wikipedia is so much more complex. We should be learning how to do it ethically, not giving up on one of the most influential websites on the planet.

      -David King

  • Simply ignoring Wikipedia does not sound like a very intelligent strategy from Shift, in fact I’m quite surprised by your statement. Of course there are a host of rules of engaging with Wikipedia which makes it even more important to provide strategic council to your clients. Where our job is reputation management we cannot simply ignore an important platform simply because its a bit complex for us to understand.

    Engaging in Wikipedia and misrepresenting your client on this platform are different things, I think your post neglects that angle.

    • Amanda Guisbond says:

      Thanks for your input, Chris, much appreciated. I’d love to know your thoughts on how PR firms can specifically support a client’s Wikipedia presence and/or any experiences that have been successful? Part of this post was to incite a discussion around best practices for dealing with Wikipedia so counterpoints are welcome!

  • David King says:

    Where’s Tod? What ever happened to the 2008 post “Wikipedia 101 for Marketers”?

    What about these instructions on Wikipedia for COI contributors: http://enwp.org/WP:PSCOI

    This news isn’t a reason to develop a hands-off policy. How can we be hands-off on a website that’s been ranked as the most influential on the planet? A website that’s in 95% of the first page of search results?

    This is reason to hire an actual expert that knows how to contribute to Wikipedia ethically (that’s me). That you TRUST to know what they’re doing.

    The firm didn’t get in trouble for having a conflict of interest, they got in trouble for violating dozens of legal, ethical and Wikipedia rules. For not disclosing their identities, creating sock-puppet accounts, editing controversial content, nominating an article they wrote to be protected from editing.

    As a marketer, Wikipedia is almost all I do. My entire job. The Wikipedia community knows this too. In fact they just published a post from me in Wikipedia’s community paper – the SignPost – and many Wikipedia admins added great comments to my blog on “Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers,” as well as my suggestions on how we can improve collaboration between COIs and the volunteer community.

    Next time your clients ask about Wikipedia, send them to me. ;-)


    • Amanda Guisbond says:

      That’s very interesting, thanks for sharing, David. I’d love to read the blog post, Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers, can you please send a link to @agbond?

      • David King says:

        It starts here “Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers”: http://socialfresh.com/why-wikipedia-needs-marketers/

        Then the conversation continues on the Wikipedia Signpost here from more of a specific policy perspective: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2011-12-05/In_the_news

        As well as various Talk pages

        You can also see a list of some of the specific things Pottinger did wrong on my response to the news here

        I see now the 2008 post actually mentions that Shift had a hands-off policy back then too. You were just offering guidance to clients.

        Adding to Chris’ conversation string, I think the challenge is that Wikipedia is very complex, yet the budgets are small. It’s not a viable revenue-generator for agencies to acquire the expertise in-house.

        I see agencies that dabble in it themselves and often embarrass themselves and/or their clients. They put a $30,000 monthly budget at risk by taking on a $2,500 project budget they didn’t have the expertise to execute on.

        As long as you disclose your identity on your user page and on each page you edit, joining the conversation on Talk pages and noticeboards is safe and encouraged. Companies need a hands-off policy on live Wikis, unless they have access to an expert.

        In Microsoft’s case, when they hired a supposed “expert” the person they hired had zero experience actually working for a conlict of interest party on Wikipedia. Zip.

        So my suggestion to Shift would be to learn how to use the Watch feature, Talk pages and noticeboards for your clients, but don’t touch live Wikis yourself or encourage clients to do it themselves. That’s what I’m here for.

        Happy to help. I’d even come by and do a training if you like. For free. Next time I’m in CA.

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