Agencies blame Wikipedia after latest editing dispute

Finsbury has reportedly cleaned up the Wikipedia entry of billionaire oligarch Alisher Usmanov, causing a debate about the role of PR agencies that use the site.

Finsbury has reportedly cleaned up the Wikipedia entry of billionaire oligarch Alisher Usmanov, causing a debate about the role of PR agencies that use the site.

The Monday edition of The Times revealed that the firm led by Roland Rudd had anonymously edited the billionaire's Wikipedia entry. 

In particular, the agency reportedly removed from the Wikipedia entry all mention of a “freedom of speech” dispute after Usmanov is said to have issued legal threats against bloggers.

The agency is also understood to have removed details of Usmanov's Soviet-era criminal conviction, which was later overturned by the Uzbekistan Supreme Court.

Usmanov is Britain's second-richest man, and he is best known for his large number of shares in the UK Premier League soccer club Arsenal. 

The news follows a number of high-profile issues of agencies cleaning Wikipedia entries on behalf of clients. Earlier this year, Portland was found to have cleaned client Stella Artois' entry of all references to its “wife-beater” nickname. 

PR industry commentators have put the blame at the feet of Wikipedia itself and its “cumbersome” editing processes.

Diffusion co-founder Daljit Bhurji commented:

“In my mind, there is a distinction between PR agencies editing Wikipedia to remove negative but true statements and editing Wikipedia to rapidly remove factual inaccuracies that harm reputation,” said Diffusion co-founder Daljit Bhurji. “I think recent guidelines have gone too far in saying that responsible agencies should be unable to do the latter, in an open and transparent way.”

PRCA Director General Francis Ingham added that the site's internal process for amending inaccurate or inflammatory material was “opaque, time-consuming, and cumbersome.”

“While we would not condone PR professionals anonymously amending Wikipedia entries, we understand why frustration sometimes drives them to do so,” said Ingham.

Ingham added that “too many of the people who edit Wikipedia still do not understand PR.”

‘Too many of them continue to have the knee-jerk reaction that information from a PR professional must intrinsically be wrong,” said Ingham.

Ingham urged Wikipedia to implement “radical reform” to its editing process.

The company apologized for the edits after being approached by The Times. It said: “This was not done in the proper manner nor was this approach authorized by Mr. Usmanov. We apologize for this, and it will not happen again.”

“It is a disappointment that PR firms or lobbyists think that this is what they have to do when we're here, we're free, we're open,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told the newspaper. “We have a community very keen to correct errors.”

Newgate Communications executive chairman Jonathan Clare said Finsbury has “done the right thing in that they have apologized, but it does get to the heart of the accuracy and lack of control of social media.”

Jane Wilson, CEO of the UK-based Chartered Institute of Public Relations, said in a statement: “Wikipedia's rules on conflict-of-interest editing are clear. Public relations professionals should not directly edit Wikipedia for a client or employer, and should instead suggest amendments for consideration by Wikipedia's community of editors – a point that today has been clarified by [founder] Jimmy Wales and also recognized by the team at Finsbury.”

This article originally appeared on PRWeek UK, PRWeek's sister magazine under Haymarket Media.

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