Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales would seem to be a man of his word. Barely one month after offering to advise Bell Pottinger after details of its undisclosed editing of Wikipedia pages emerged in The Independent, and he was presenting to 60 of the agency's employees on how to use the online encyclopaedia within its guidelines.
At the same time, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has scheduled a meeting with Wikimedia UK, a regional branch of the foundation that runs Wikipedia, to discuss how the two entities can work together.
Ostensibly the initiative between Wikipedia and the CIPR is about giving better guidance to PRs. But the Institute hopes the traffic will not be all one-way as frustration grows within the PR community with Wikipedia's prohibition of direct page editing by 'paid advocates'. It wants to share the experiences of its 9,000 plus members in an attempt to help shape Wikipedia's policies and guidance.
The moves to engage with Wikipedia came after the online resource suspended ten accounts associated with Bell Pottinger after a report in The Independent claimed the agency made hundreds of alterations to entries about its clients.
The action prompted a flurry of criticism of Wikipedia's current guidelines from both sides of the Atlantic. Phil Gomes, a senior vice president at Edelman in America, wrote an open letter to Wales, claiming that on a certain level Wikipedia wants to have it both ways.
'It wants to be thought of as an available and authoritative resource...but what is the most desirable condition for an entry? Outdated but not touched by corporate communications professionals?' he asked, explaining on an associated podcast: 'There are areas where Wikipedia has been doctrinaire to the point of harming the accuracy of the edits of its pages.'
His letter added: 'The small concession to PR on the FAQ (that a company can fix minor errors in spelling, grammar, usage, or fact, etc) takes a lot for granted and helps neither a PR representative nor Wikipedia.
'For example, too often, a company representative will go native when it comes to separating matters of fact from matters upon which reasonably people might disagree. On the other hand, activists (hardly of a neutral point of view) appear to enjoy much more latitude.'
The basic problem, from a corporate's point of view, according to David Wilson, group managing director at Bell Pottinger, is that journalists use 'Wikipedia entries as a statement of fact'.
Moreover, research conducted by CorpComms Magazine on 11 January, indicated that, on that date, the Wikipedia entry for 62 of the FTSE 100 companies appears in their top three Google results. Furthermore, the Wikipedia entry for more than 30 per cent of FTSE 100 chief executives ranks highly on Google and, more often than not, appears above the official biography on their company website.
PR agencies frequently offer to tidy up Wikipedia entries as part of their service to companies, but the scope of what is permitted by the site's rules is limited, as Wales himself conceded.
'The problem with the current approach is what counts as a minor factual update [which is permitted] or asking the community first is a bit hard to judge. Wikipedia editors don't have the same priorities,' argues communications consultant Neville Hobson. 'There will be a Wikipedia entry that says there are 13,000 company employees when there are 33,000. And there may be lots of externally verifiable evidence to back this up but the Wikipedia editor will argue that this isn't a valid edit.
'It's a nightmare to navigate Wikipedia's tortuous pathways. When I have a problem, I have to go through the Wikipedia process but it's an awful experience.'
Historically, Wales has claimed the current revision process to be a proven process and points to examples of wrongdoing by PR firms. 'But if you are not an editor it is impossible and the level of arrogance sometimes is astounding. The problem is that Bell Pottinger has sullied the picture for everyone,' Hobson complains.
Hobson is participating in the current Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE) discussion page on Facebook, that was created on 5 January. But Hobson is unsure of how much success the PR industry will glean from the current debate. 'From talking to Jimmy Wales [on Twitter] it's clear that he is pretty rigid on his issue of what Wikipedia can do,' he says.
As part of his presentation to Bell Pottinger staff, Wales gave a half-hour guide to how communications professionals can ask for misleading content to be removed or altered without breaking its editing rules. Emailing email@example.com or raising issues on community noticeboards should achieve a solution within hours or at most a day, he claimed.
Wilson felt Wales effectively admitted that some of Wikipedia's guidelines were not fit for purpose at the seminar. 'We highlighted a number of the inaccuracies on talk pages.
'The process of correcting inaccurate, damaging or defamatory information is sometimes very slow. We had one client who tried for two and a half years to get libellous and defamatory information off the site,' says Wilson.
There are signs that Wales may be coming around to seeing their point of view. 'Our policy around editing by paid advocates is a bit mushy at the moment,' Wales admitted during his visit to Bell Pottinger.
Conflict of interest
Wikipedia says that anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to articles, except in certain cases where editing is restricted to prevent disruption and vandalism. It allows users to contribute anonymously or with their real identity. The caveatcomes where paid representatives are concerned.
The site'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.'
The site also expressly rules out 'Astroturfing', where fake profiles are used to edit Wikipedia pages to give the impression of grassroots support for a cause company or person. An internal Wikipedia investigation traced 19 such fake identities to Bell Pottinger's offices. But the agency is unlikely to be alone.
Since Wales criticised Bell Pottinger's use of fake accounts in December, countless profiles have been deleted on Wikipedia, a sign that perhaps, that the practice of editing pages by PRs was more common that many had been led to believe. Some PRs complain that, if they are open about their identities, their amendments are ignored even if they follow the procedures set out by Wikipedia and are only sto correct inaccuracies.
Wilson articulates the frustration felt by some in the PR community that campaign activists appear to have more leeway to spin stories by using pseudo-names. Anthony Silverman, a partner at Stockwell Group, says he has long been opposed to Astroturfing but says the culture of pseudo-names on the site is a problem for Wikipedia. 'My preference would be for transparency and openness for all. At the moment the site suffers from a huge problem around authenticity and a lack of verification,' he says.
Wikipedia prides itself on neutrality, but it is incredibly difficult for the site to claim neutrality on any issue, argued independent PR consultant Stuart Bruce on a recent podcast. 'Personally I don't have a neutral view on anything; the more you know about any issue the more opinionated you will become,' he said.
Ironically, the controversy surrounding Bell Pottinger has pushed the issue of PR edits on Wikipedia to the top of the industry's agenda.
'The recent incidents highlight the need to development specific guidance that reinforces ethical practices and helps to drive out unacceptable behaviour,' notes Phil Morgan, policy and communications director at the CIPR.
At the same time, the focus has not been lost on Wales himself. 'He is being conciliatory. He felt that he and Wikipedia community had overreacted [by deleting all Bell Pottinger's edits] and said our clients should not suffer for an error we had made,' Wilson says.
Despite reports of a spat between Bell Pottinger founder Lord Bell and Wales at their recent meeting, Wales has pledged to review all the corrections that Bell Pottinger made and to try and restore pages where the agency had solely corrected inaccuracies.
While there is a vibrant discussion on the CREWE page, effecting change on the culture of Wikipedia will be no easy task. 'I think the pilot proposals for direct editing are too soon but I do think Jimmy Wales is very willing to enter the common ground by focusing on improving the processes,' Hobson concludes.