The event happened in the aftermath of a string of allegations of poor ethics by Chime’s Bell Pottinger, including its ‘manipulation’ of Wikipedia pages on behalf of its clients.
Earlier this month, Tim Allan’s Portland faced similar allegations by Tom Watson MP in The Independent. Last spring, a senior PR professional was accused of ‘cleansing’ numerous companies’ entries on Wikipedia.
Lord Bell apologised to Wales for anonymous editing of content without declaring an interest. At first glance, this is a case of a non-profit site – whose mission is ‘to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content’ – versus devious spin doctors motivated by filthy lucre.
However, a more complex picture emerges.
Wikipedia celebrated its 11th birthday at the weekend. It is now published in 270 languages, is the fourth most popular website in the world and appears on the first page of Google in most searches. As such, it is more influential than any newspaper and takes up an increasing amount of effort for anyone managing a reputation.
And yet, as Lord Bell points out, it is far from perfect. While Wikipedia can damage reputations quickly and globally, the right of reply and the editing process are often arcane. There is no list of the site’s authorised editors and, unlike most media, it is almost impossible to regulate or sue for defamation.
Bell Pottinger presented a series of case studies where its clients had suffered malicious and bizarre smears on Wikipedia that had taken years to resolve, even through the correct channels.
At a time when mainstream media are under the Leveson spotlight, the dearth of regulation and accountability of equally powerful web challengers is a big issue.
At the seminar, Wales helpfully unveiled some key tips for PR professionals using the site. He even conceded that Wikipedia could improve its own transparency and response times.
The CIPR is setting up guidelines on how the PR industry deals with Wikipedia and PRWeek is due to publish an investigation on this in the 3 February issue. In the light of recent developments such a code needs to be thorough and rigorous.
In the meantime, the best advice for PR executives is the basic moral guideline identified by Wales on Friday: ‘Lying is wrong’.