Bell Pottinger's woes are a lesson for PRs
Clare writes for CorpComms Mag, follow her tweets here @ClareJHarrison
This week has seen Bell Pottinger under fire after senior executives were filmed allegedly boasting of their use of the 'dark arts' to boost client reputations.
Part of the controversy surrounded allegations that executives at Bell Pottinger claimed they could manipulate Google searches and re-write Wikipedia entries for clients. The revelations have heightened scrutiny on the industry and raised the question of whether PRs should be editing Wikipedia entries at all.
After reading the initial article in The Independent, blogger and SEO consultant Tim Ireland searched the editing history on Wikipedia for some of Bell Pottinger's clients. He then identified one user that was frequently associated with companies from Bell Pottinger's client roster.
'I spotted the pseudonym 'Biggleswiki' as a likely candidate and traced it to an IP address associated with Bell Pottinger,' Ireland tells CorpComms Magazine.
The blogger says Wikipedia had automatically attached the IP address to the edits on the Wikipedia pages allowing him to make the connection with the PR firm. He then emailed Bell Pottinger suggesting that the account belonged to someone working on behalf of the agency.
Among the allegations were the removal of a reference to a university drugs conviction of a businessman who was a client of Bell Pottinger and the editing of the entries for prostate cancer expert Professor Roger Kirby. The Biggleswiki user had added Kirby and edited the entry on the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to include comments made by Kirby concerning Megrahi's cancer.
James Thomlinson, head of digital at Bell Pottinger, told The Independent: 'Biggleswiki is one of a number of accounts that the digital team have used to edit Wikipedia articles. I would like to point out that while we have worked for a number of clients like The Prostate Centre, we have never done anything illegal.
'We have never added something that is a lie or hasn't been published elsewhere and we have never tried to 'astroturf', ie create fake positive reviews to sell a product. If we have been asked to include things about clients that are untrue we have always said no and pointed to Wikipedia's strict guidelines.'
But some argue that PR companies should never update their clients' Wikipedia pages, especially when they aren't being transparent about their true identity.
'Wikipedia is not a promotional tool. There is a distinction between reference and promotion,' Ireland says citing Wikipedia's terms and conditions.
Wikipedia's guidelines state that a conflict of interest (COI) represents an 'incompatibility between the aim of Wikipedia, which is to produce a neutral, reliably sourced encyclopaedia, and the aims of an individual editor'.
It adds: 'COI editing involves contributing to Wikipedia in order to promote your own interests or those of other individuals, companies, or groups. Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.'
Hannah Miller, digital group account director at SEO Agency 4Ps Marketing notes the risks to editing pages overzealously. 'If the automatic bots or human moderators identify your content changes as sales messages they will remove your content immediately.'
Stuart Bruce, an independent communications consultant, flatly advises against the massaging of Wikipedia entries by PR firms: 'PRs should never make edits to Wikipedia pages because they are not impartial. But my sense is that this kind of editing is worryingly common among PR firms.'
Bruce thinks a lot of firms do not realise they are in danger of flouting the terms and conditions on the site when they update the entries of their clients.
In instances where there are genuine inaccuracies on Wikipedia, Bruce suggests using your company blog or social media newsroom to get the page updated.
'You just flag up what is wrong with the Wikipedia entry on your company blog or social media newsroom, go onto the Wikipedia discussion pages and the editors will change it. You don't need to resort to subterfuge.'
And Bruce says this option works for all kinds of companies. 'It doesn't matter if it's an unpopular or controversial company, the editors will change it because they want the post to be accurate. They just really don't like PR people playing around with it.'
Bruce points to The Independent allegation that Bell Pottinger removed a mention on Wikipedia of a previous drug conviction for one of its clients. 'If that's true then it's unjustifiable because its the removal of a statement of fact. The entry on prostate cancer could be legitimate if it was done in the right way.'
But for companies looking to build up credibility on Wikipedia as authors, Miller advises editing other pages on the site in which you are an expert. 'Keep one login and build up a good reputation. Try editing other pages as well but make sure what you are changing is accurate.
'The biggest issue to overcome is understanding how pages are created from a technical standpoint, but by using the guides and the wiki community this should be easy to master. From then on its quite a simple process to make edits, however, you may to ensure you understand copyrights of images if you wish to make edits beyond text changes,' Miller says.
Bell Pottinger's own Wikipedia page has been subject to change this week with a whole new section since the allegations appeared. The entry now also references The Independent report in which Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, branded Bell Pottinger as 'ethically blind'.