A string of senior business figures have had their Wikipedia entries burnished by an anonymous 'reputation cleanser,' believed to be a senior figure in the PR industry.
The London-based fixer has changed entries for Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, Von Essen Group chairman Andrew Davis, British property developer David Rowland and billionaire Saudi tycoon Maan Al-Sanea.
The fixer has also made numerous changes to the entry for the 19th Earl of Derby who has been in a long-running battle with campaigners over his plans to build over greenfield land in Newmarket.
An investigation by PRWeek found that a total of 42 changes to various Wikipedia pages were made from the same London IP address between April 2009 and June 2011. In most cases, negative or controversial details were erased from the entries. On other occasions, positive information was added.
PRWeek’s investigations suggest that the changes were made by a senior PR professional who is well-known in industry circles. The individual in question failed to respond to calls and emails.
The entry for Carphone Warehouse boss Ross was altered to remove controversial details about his personal life, while the entry for property developer Rowland was changed to portray his decision to move to France for tax purposes in a more positive light.
On Lord Derby’s entry, opposition to his plans to develop land near Newmarket was downgraded from ‘considerable’ to ‘some’. This contrasts with The Daily Telegraph’s assertion in December 2009 that Lord Derby had ‘earned the opprobrium of the racing establishment with plans to build up to 1,200 new homes on part of his estate’.
Meanwhile, the entry for Al-Sanea was altered to remove details of a clash with Saudi Arabia’s central bank and the entry for his Saad Group conglomerate was also doctored.
The idea of PR people editing Wikipedia entries has long been extremely controversial. In 2007 Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales threatened to ban PR agencies from contributing to the site because of a conflict of interest.
CIPR social media guidelines suggest that PROs work with a Wikipedia editor to have the information corrected rather than to do it unilaterally.
Portland partner Mark Flanagan, a former head of digital in Downing Street, said: ‘I actually think it’s fine to neutralise Wikipedia entries and correct factual inaccuracies but turning someone’s entry into pure spin is unacceptable.
'It is also vital to respect the rules of Wikipedia and make sure changes are submitted to the community for their approval. Wikipedia is often the top result in search and a key factor in someone’s online reputation so I am not at all surprised this has become a hot issue.'
Wolfstar Consultancy managing director Stuart Bruce said: ' It’s not always a case of unethical practice when people do things like this, quite often it’s simply ignorance and not taking the time to find out the right thing to do.
'A PR person should always ask themselves not just is this right, but will it appear to most people to be right. And most people would say that a PR person is not a neutral source and therefore shouldn’t be editing Wikipedia pages.’
Labour digital guru Jag Singh, who headed up digital comms for the No To AV campaign, said PROs should be careful about such tactics backfiring: 'Be warned that it will draw more attention to the activity you're trying to cover up, and your likelihood of being discovered is even higher.'