It is being portrayed as a classic battle between innocence and big business, independence and interference, the freedom of the internet versus the realities of corporate control.
But Wikipedia is not yet a Hollywood movie. It launched as an early forerunner of what is now Internet 2.0, denoting the development of the net into peer-to-peer social networking and information-sharing.
The idea is that Wikipedia is an internet encyclopaedia. There's no editor, publisher or annoying door-to-door salesperson. Instead, there's a website constantly updated by an army of aficionados whose trainspotter-like enthusiasm soon irons out any inaccuracies.
Or that's the theory, at least. Imagine the uproar when the naivety of the net is shattered by the revelation that public relations professionals have cottoned on to this new branding barometer. Those anonymous edits and posts of listings of companies and organisations are not all as independent as they seem. Trainspotters beware: corporate communicators have boarded the wagon.
The alert was first sounded by the Wikipedia Scanner. Developed as an experiment by Virgil Griffith, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology, it enables web surfers to trace the computers that make amendments and edits to web postings. Surprise, surprise: it reveals that not all Wikipedia editors and contributors are shacked up in bedsit-land, working 24-hour-days developing nerdy computer games and programmes.
Trawling the backwaters of the online encyclopaedia has unearthed a catalogue of organisations massaging entries. Workers on CIA computers have apparent ly edited entries including the biographies for former US presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, while someone at the Vatican has worked on entries about Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and various Catholic saints.
Elsewhere, a computer at Labour's Millbank headquarters was traced as the culprit that excised a section about Labour students referring to 'careerist MPs' and charges that the party's s tudent movement is no longer perceived as radical. It is even claimed that at least six of the UK's top 10 public relations agencies have been flouting Wikipedia rules that prohibit them from editing the site.
Financial Dynamics allegedly filed 25 edits, mainly concerning clients Russ DeLeon and Ruth Parasol, founder s of online gambling company PartyGaming. And in the US, someone at the Democratic Party's headquarters edited a page about US radio star Rush Limbaugh, calling him ' idiotic' and 'ridiculous' and describing his 20 mn listeners as 'legally retarded'.
Diebold, a US manufacturer of voting machines, is said to have made major alterations to entries about its involvement in the hugely controversial 'hanging chads' issue in the 2000 US presidential elections. Edits by its staff on Wikipedia include the deletion of 15 paragraphs detailing the allegations.
Earlier this year, Microsoft was revealed to have offered money to computer experts to correct entries about the company on the website. And in Australia, staff members in the department of Prime Minister John Howard have been accused of making no fewer than 126 edits on subjects including immigration policy and Peter Costello, Howard's deputy and treasurer; Costello's derogator y nickname, Captain Smirk, was removed. Computers at Australia's Defence Department were also identified as being behind more than 5,000 changes to Wikipedia pages.
Suddenly, it appears that public relations people think for a living. There's a new medium out there that's discussing and sometimes debasing their cherished corporate brands. So why shouldn't they invade the space of Wikpedia-man and put the message straight? Corporate brands cost millions to create - should their PR guardians really stand by and let them be debased for free when a little tweak or two is all that is required?
Fighting the good fight
Not surprisingly, that is not how the internet community sees things. Yet again, the innocence of the net is being colonised by corporates, as if their websites, blogs and podcasts were not already too much.
Corporate involvement in Wikipedia is a clear breach of the website's etiquette, users protest. How can a peerto- peer website be trusted if capitalism gets involved? The issue has split communicators and web commentators. Not surprisingly, both web disciples and representatives of companies with strong value-based beliefs are vehemently against the practice.
Wikipedia itself takes the practice very seriously. A worker on the CIA network who added the exclamation 'Wahhhhhh!' before a section on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's plans for his presidency received a stern warning reading: 'You have recently vandalised a Wikipedia article and you are now being asked to stop this type of behaviour.'
'There would be a rule at Standard Life that we would not get involved in anything like that,' says Scott White, director of communications at the Scottish insurer. 'You have to abide by the spirit of these things and their values, and if they have a rule about corporate postings we would not infringe it. At Standard Life, the integrity of what we do is core.
If you have integrity, you also have honesty and trust. 'Whatever a PR company might want to do, the important thing it has to have is invisibility; public relations firms sometimes forget that. They try to shine and they get rewarded for that but the best PR is invisible.'
David Bick, chairman of financial and sports public relations company Square1 Consulting, adds: 'None of the people who work for me would ever do that. But if someone did, he or she would be fired because it is not a PR company's role. If you are going to do something, you have to do it publicly. It's not a PR firm's role to post on websites anonymously - its role is to present a company's case.
'We have to protect an organisation's integrity. If someone else has a view, that is his or her view. Officially refuting something is fair enough but it has to be done openly and honestly.'
No blanket ban
Joel Cere, EMEA vice president of netcomms at Hill & Knowlton, feels companies should not shy away from editing entries, but that doing it anonymously fuels suspicion of unethical behaviour. 'To modify a fact such as the date of an acquisition, for example, it is fine to edit by providing references to improve factual accuracy,' he points out. 'To deal with perceived bias I would recommend neither editing nor deleting but rather adding information to the existing entry so that both views can be aired.'
Public relations companies might be reluctant to condone this kind of activity in public. Off the record, however, there are plenty of mutterings about Wikipedia being just another medium where corporate brands need to be protected and enhanced.
Although Australia's Defence Department acted immediately to block staff from editing the site, it also pointed out that many of the edits were either factual or unrelated to the government. Australian opposition leader Kevin Rudd said it was legitimate for staff to make factual changes, though it was wrong for public servants to reedit history.
Andrew Smith, who has spent almost 20 years in high tech public relations and writes a blog entitled 'The new view from Object Towers', unsurprisingly comes down on the side of PR. 'I have always thought the blanket ban on PR agencies editing Wikipedia is a bit Draconian,' he says. 'Surely there would be no issue with PR companies doing this, providing it was done transparently so their interest was declared and they could back up the rationale for the suggested changes? Then again, it is Wikipedia's show, so if PR agencies knowingly flout its rules and get caught, they have only themselves to blame.'
Another blog, Southpawpunch, writes: 'I have noticed the sparkling blandness of some Wikipedia entries about major controversial figures or companies...and the wars that the edit history shows have broken out behind the scenes as changes are made and then overturned in quick succession.'
Whichever side of this debate corporate communicators decide to take, this new medium is clearly here to stay. And it is only one of many social networking sites that are much more difficult for public relations firms to control than conventional media.
According to Paul Holmes, who writes a blog called 'A manifesto for the 21st century public relations firm', 'The most sophisticated and savvy firms are coming to terms with the reality that a new era is upon us, and in this new era they are no longer in control of their brands the way they once were.
'A decade ago it was still possible for marketers to believe their brands were defined by what they said about themselves in their advertising, on their websites, and in their press releases. Today they must come to terms with the fact that their brands are defined by what others say about them, in private, after they have left the room.'