Wiki Tweaks: PR firm takes questionable steps online

Did Bell Pottinger cross a line, or is it just playing by docial media's still-fuzzy rules?

Jeromy Lloyd December 09, 2011

Did Bell Pottinger cross a line, or is it just playing by docial media’s still-fuzzy rules?

The U.K.’s PR community is abuzz about an investigative expose from the newspaper The Independent (complete with hidden camera videos). It revealed questionable practices at Bell Pottinger including actively editing Wikipedia entries relating to clients and their interests. The Independent has posted a story saying the firm used multiple Wikipedia accounts to shape articles without disclosing their relationship with clients. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder, has voiced his displeasure.

The co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales has criticised Bell Pottinger’s “ethical blindness” as the lobbying company admitted altering details of its clients’ reputations online.

Bell Pottinger last night said that its digital team used a number of accounts to edit Wikipedia articles, although it stressed it had never done anything illegal.

Last night, Mr 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 company committed the cardinal sin of a PR and lobbying company of having their own bad behaviour bring bad headlines to their clients, [and] did so in a fashion that brought no corresponding benefits.

He added: “There are ethical PR companies out there.”

For its part, Bell Pottinger seems to be maintaining that they did nothing wrong… or at least “have never done anything illegal.”

James Thomlinson, head of digital at Bell Pottinger, admitted last night to 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.

“We have also ensured that for every change that we have made we have sought the approval of the wider Wikipedia community first.”

Did Bell Pottinger cross a line? Is it offside to have a hand in editing Wikipedia articles anonymously? Does Jimmy Wales have a place in this debate at all?

We want to hear your opinion. The full Independent article appears here along with undercover footage of a meeting between The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Bell Pottinger staffers, revealing some of how the firm presents its online expertise.

Read, watch, then post your thoughts in our comment section.