ST. PETERSBURG, FL: A new search tool that can identify which organizations edit Wikipedia entries has raised questions about the PR industry's involvement with the influential site.
The WikiScanner tracks anonymous edits and is able to link them to certain organizations through IP addresses. The site, which is not affiliated with Wikipedia, launched earlier this month, and several PR agencies have already come under fire for changes made to their clients' entries.
For example, Freud Communications' London office was caught making edits on behalf of clients.
The changes tracked back to the firm included correcting the number of restaurants Pizza Hut operated in the UK and adding details about a Carphone Warehouse promotion, noted Oliver Wheeler, a director at Freud Communications.
"All I can see were two occasions, so it's not something that was rife in the agency," Wheeler said. "They were very factual changes, which I still think was a perfectly justifiable thing to do."
Even so, he has since implemented a policy asking those within the agency not to alter Wikipedia entries and advises clients to proceed with caution.
"If we see something that is a glaring error, we might raise [the issue] with our client and suggest that somebody there might want to change the factual information," he explained. "But I'm not prepared to take the risk that we would be accused of interfering with Wikipedia in any other context."
The WikiScanner also returns hits for numerous US PR agencies, but it is unclear exactly which entries were altered and for what purpose.
Wikipedia's policy regarding corporate-backed edits is unclear, but the sense from volunteers who police the site is that such changes threaten the online encyclopedia's credibility.
The WikiScanner's eagerness to expose PR gaffes is consistent with this attitude. Its creator, Virgil Griffith, has said on his Web site that he developed the tool in part "to create a fireworks display of PR disasters in which everyone brings their own fireworks and enjoys."
Other agencies are taking heed and telling clients that defying Wikipedia's community spirit will likely ignite backlash. Gur Tsabar, VP for new-media strategy at Ketchum, said the firm's protocol is to advise clients to make suggestions in the site's discussion and talk pages, but not directly to the entry, while being completely open about their affiliations.
"Wikipedia is not an easy place to understand unless you dive deep into it," Tsabar warned. "It really has its own culture, it has its own way of being, and it has tons of levels of participants."
Even though the WikiScanner singles out Wikipedia, the PR industry's days of veiled plugs and lurking in the background are over. Social media as a whole has set a higher bar for transparency, said Bob Finlayson, SVP of consumer technology at Ketchum.
"You might think you're not going to get caught today, but tomorrow someone is going to come up with a new technology and you're going to [get] caught," he said.
But some PR pros contend that anyone who makes the effort to alter an entry has - at some level - an interest in the organization or subject. Mike Driehorst, messaging strategist at Hanson, said he's altered entries for clients, but only to add factual information, and he's up-front about his identity.
"But people can overdo it," he said, referring to promotional or editorializing content. Yet if the changes are factually based and verifiable, it shouldn't matter who makes them, Driehorst added.
Even though the media and blogs have chronicled the most egregious PR Wikipedia edits, clients still routinely want to control their entries, said Todd Defren, principal at Shift Communications.
"I am sure that only a small percentage of the PR pros - in-house or agency - who dare to mess with Wikipedia today are now also aware of this new 'gotcha' technology - but they will learn, to their peril," Defren said.
Wikipedia and WikiScanner did not return requests for comment by press time.