Bell Pottinger’s flirtation with front-page fame late last year was interesting for a variety of reasons. What particularly intrigued me, though, were the improbable claims the agency made of its ability to ‘polish’ inconvenient Wikipedia entries.
This caused considerable consternation in the PR community, and with good reason. Yet my conversations with PR people revealed a distinct lack of clarity regarding the issue, centred on two particular concerns: Whether a paid PR firm should attempt to directly edit entries, and what the substance of those edits might be.
In PR terms, Wikipedia’s importance should not be underestimated. The site’s pages often play a defining role in determining an organisation’s reputation. So it is good to see that a number of PR people are making a concerted effort to develop a better working relationship with Wikipedia. Phil Gomes has started an industry initiative (the gloriously named Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement) that has already begun talking directly to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and there have been numerous supporting posts, such as these from Stuart Bruce, Stephen Waddington and Peter Himler.
Wikipedia’s stance on PR people is not comprehensively elucidated, but appears to assume that the PR industry is incapable of editing objectively. Given the general perception of public relations firms, that should not surprise many. But the converse implication, that activists, NGOs and, indeed, just about anyone else are presumed to be more truthful seems rather fanciful.
Unfortunately, it appears that the industry is again being tarred by the actions of a few unscrupulous firms. Yet Wikipedia’s own reputation is at stake here, because it cannot help the site to continue carrying outdated, unverified, and even inaccurate information. And Wikipedia’s zero tolerance approach to “paid advocates” may encourage the very behaviour (unethical astroturfing, for example) that it rightly opposes.
Regardless, the PR sector has an educational job to do. My conversations with PR people indicate a general lack of understanding of how to influence the site’s editing process. CREWE’s efforts will hopefully raise awareness of these issues, and of the fact that the vast majority of the PR industry is serious about being transparent and credible. I guess we should be thankful that the Bell Pottinger sting has brought this topic out into the open.