The ethics of PR companies have been called into question after the co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, criticised the PR giant, Bell Pottinger for having “ethical blindness” when editing pages on the open source encyclopaedia he founded. In this two-part article we will discuss the scandal that has rocked the internet in part one, while we analyse the grounds of the argument in part two.
The Independent ran a story about the findings of research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), a not-for-profit news organisation. The paper claimed that executives from Bell Pottinger were filmed boasting about PR work to improve the reputations of countries accused of human rights violations.
The company has also been accused of altering the profiles of their clients on Wikipedia, and using multiple user accounts to make information about them more favourable. Wales has deemed their methods unacceptable, and while Bell Pottinger admit that members of its digital team used several user accounts to edit Wikipedia articles on behalf of their clients; they have infuriated the founder of Wikipedia by insisting they did not break any laws.
Jimmy Wales told The Independent, “I am astonished at the ethical blindness of Bell Pottinger’s reaction. That their strongest true response is they didn’t break the law tells a lot about their view of the world, I’m afraid.”
The Independent and the BIJ released evidence that showed the company had made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries over the course of the last year. Not only have they’ve been adding positive comments, but they’ve even removed negative content altogether. The problem with this being, they are not supposed to delete information on the page that is already present; rather they can add extra positive publicity to balance out what is already there.
Wikipedia has suspended several accounts that are thought to be linked to Bell Pottinger, including one named, ‘Biggleswiki’. They will remain suspended until after a thorough investigation. Speaking to The Independent, Mr Wales said: “The Company committed the cardinal sin,” of a PR company because they have, through their own bad behaviour, brought “bad headlines to their clients,” and have done so, “in a fashion that brought no corresponding benefits.”
The list of edits and additions under investigation include: the removal of references to a drugs conviction for a businessman, editing material that talks about the arrest of a man accused of commercial bribery, editing the articles about Chime Communications and Naked Eye Research, and making edits to the entry about Professor Roger Kirby, a prostate cancer expert.
While the storm surrounds Bell Pottinger and their actions, there are people who fail to see what they may have done wrong.
Joshua Foust of registan.net, a blog devoted to Central Asian affairs, claims in a recent post that Bell Pottinger have behaved in a way that is perfectly usual for a PR company. They are a “PR firm acting like a PR firm,” he said in his article, and used the company’s work for Uzbek government as an example of why. Foust notes that undercover BIJ reporters posing as agents in the Uzbek government were told by Bell Pottinger that they would only sort out negative publicity about human rights abuses when there was genuine change on the ground. Refusing to do PR for the Central Asian country until reforms take place is far from a “whitewash” as some have claimed.
It raises the question: is altering your own Wikipedia page or doing so on behalf of someone else really unethical?
A spokesman for Bell Pottinger said: “I would like to point out … 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’”, referring to creating fake positive reviews to sell a product.
He finishes with, “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.”
Whether that is true or not, Bell Pottinger’s share price has suffered and their reputation is in tatters. Ironically their own Wikipedia article has been altered so that these criticisms take up half its length. And despite the anger towards the company, Mr Wales remains positive, “There are ethical PR companies out there.” We might add, there are also those that aren’t at the moment, but could be if they’re given the right guidance.
In part two we go into detail about the argument at hand and what exactly are the grounds for these accusations.