Call for transparency as agencies slam Bell Pottinger's Wikipedia use

Agencies have spoken out about their approach to Wikipedia as the PR sector's use of the online encyclopedia comes under renewed scrutiny.

Jimmy Wales: not impressed by Bell Pottinger (Rex Features)
Jimmy Wales: not impressed by Bell Pottinger (Rex Features)

Bell Pottinger hit the headlines last week amid accusations of extensive manipulation of Wikipedia entries from anonymous accounts linked to the agency (see below).

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told the BBC he was 'highly critical of their [Bell Pottinger's] ethics' and that he had 'never seen a case like this before'.

David Carter, Fleishman-Hillard associate director, public affairs and corporate comms, was equally damning of Bell Pottinger-style tactics. He said attempts to 'manage controversial content' unscrupulously could 'plant a ticking time bomb that could ultimately damage trust more than leaving site content to develop organically'.

Will Hill, head of crisis and issues management at Bite, said: 'If there is a need to lie about who you are representing, an agency needs to ask some fairly serious questions about their client's business practices and whether they should be working with them.'

The CIPR Social Media Best Practice Guide advises consultants to 'be transparent' and upfront 'about who they are and their intentions' on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia guidelines ask users to avoid editing topics in which they have a vested business interest, and Wales has threatened to ban agencies that ignore rules, telling PRWeek in 2007 that 'contributors can't be paid for what they are doing'.

Nevertheless, several senior figures insisted that agencies had the right to protect clients' reputations on Wikipedia.

Alex Woolfall, who left his role as head of issues and crisis management at Bell Pottinger to become head of corporate - EMEA at Porter Novelli, said it was 'inevitable' that companies wanted to correct 'inaccurate or biased' Wiki entries.

He admitted, however, that failing to be open and transparent was 'a hiding to nothing'. Woolfall added that the 'underhand tactics' to change inaccurate information would be reduced if Wikipedia could speed up the process of resolving disputed content.

GolinHarris' head of digital, Alan Parker, said: 'Wikipedia has a responsibility to have more editors in place to review changes and investigate whether they are legitimate.'

A Wikipedia spokesman said: 'The key thing is to be absolutely upfront about who you are and what you're doing.'

 

WHAT HAS CHANGED?

The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claim that the following Wikipedia entries were amended by accounts linked to Bell Pottinger:

  • South African arms manufacturer Paramount Group and its executive chairman Ivor Ichikowitz.
  • The environmental campaigner Clare Rewcastle Brown, who is Gordon Brown's sister-in-law.
  • Rupiah Banda, the former president of Zambia.
  • Boris Berezovsky, founder of the law firm Carter Ruck.
  • The Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
IN NUMBERS

10 Accounts with links to Bell Pottinger have been suspended*
200+ Edits by Bell Pottinger on the ten accounts being investigated*
17m Number of articles on Wikipedia - 3.5m of which are in English**
325m Number of people using the website**
*Source: BBC. **Source: Wikipedia.


Chime staff to be trained in ethical use of website

Lord Bell accepts Wikipedia's offer, as ten accounts linked to Bell Pottinger are suspended.

Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell has accepted an offer from Wikipedia's founder to provide training to his employees over the ethical use of the online encyclopedia.

The offer comes as Wikipedia investigates allegations of content manipulation by Bell Pottinger, after it was uncovered that an account named 'Biggleswiki' changed entries for numerous Chime clients.

The account had reportedly made 'hundreds' of amendments, adding positive or removing negative information from entries concerning or making reference to Bell Pottinger clients.

As a result, Wikipedia has suspended at least ten accounts linked to the firm.

The online encyclopedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, said he had offered to 'pop by their offices' to give a speech on ethical editing.

Lord Bell accepted the offer, adding: 'If we've done things that are not in the spirit of the site, we'll say so and acknowledge it, and improve our processes.'

Bell also revealed, as part of an internal investigation into his employees' attempts to secure the Uzbekistan business, that he is set to appoint a compliance officer, to 'make sure we will comply with the statutory and voluntary codes'.

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