OPINION8 December 2011

When reputation management goes wrong

PR firm Bell Pottinger has been criticised for tinkering with Wikipedia entries about its clients – including ethnographic research agency Naked Eye.

Chime’s PR agency Bell Pottinger has been getting unwanted attention this week for – among other things – rewriting Wikipedia entries about its clients in the name of “reputation management”.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has accused Bell Pottinger of “ethical blindness” and the site has suspended ten accounts linked to the firm.

One of the pages it tinkered with was that of Naked Eye Research – its sister company in the Chime group.

Wikipedia’s records reveal that the page for the ethnographic research agency was created in February and quickly flagged by another user as being overly promotional and full of irrelevant details. That user eventually removed much of the fluff.

But in May a user calling themselves Biggleswiki reinstated most of the deleted material and made more changes, adding a logo, details about Chime, a biography of Naked Eye’s founder Nick Leon and a list of the agency’s clients.

The changes leave Naked Eye with a rather flattering Wikipedia entry, and an unusually thorough one for such a small company.

The page also says that the agency “has been credited with introducing the co-discovery method to video ethnography” – a claim supported by a link to an Esomar conference paper written by Nick Leon himself (and only available on a paid-for basis) and a Research-Live article which, for the record, states no such thing.

Bell Pottinger, which works closely with Chime’s research division and also represents TNS, has since admitted that Biggleswiki is one of the accounts its team uses, even though the profile (now blocked) described the user as an employee of an engineering company and made no mention of the PR firm.

Neither Bell Pottinger nor Naked Eye had responded to calls seeking comment at the time of publication.

Of course, anyone can edit Wikipedia at the click of a button – that’s the point of it. And Bell Pottinger didn’t break any rules – because Wikipedia doesn’t really have any rules (apart from ‘ignore all rules’). But it did break some very clear guidelines. The principle that Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view is “absolute and non-negotiable”, the site says.

Representatives and employees of organisations are “very strongly discouraged” (their emphasis) in Wikipedia’s guidelines from creating or altering entries if there might be a conflict of interest. Editing in the interests of public relations – aside from obvious corrections – is “particularly frowned upon”. Bold type and frowning is pretty much as strict as Wikipedia gets.

The changes made to Naked Eye’s page are relatively innocuous in comparison to some of the other Wikipedia edits that Bell Pottinger is accused of – including removing references on clients’ pages to drug convictions and other allegations.

Still, we can’t help but wonder how many other companies have succumbed to temptation and tweaked their Wikipedia entries to correct perceived inaccuracies or omissions, or to make them more complimentary. It certainly doesn’t require the help of a PR company – boasting that you can fix negative Wikipedia entries (as Bell Pottinger bosses were taped saying) is a bit like boasting that you can count up to three. Whether or not it saves you or your clients from bad publicity is, as we’ve seen in the last few days, a different matter.

To be fair, Wikipedia’s guidelines do point out that attempts to improperly influence the site are “routinely exposed and can be reported adversely in the media”, leading sometimes to “extreme” embarrassment. Nobody can say they weren’t warned.


13 years ago

Reputation management is a whole lot more than trying to make your Wikipedia entry more favorable. And, given that most of the communications industry has come to the grudging realization that consumers own brands -- not the companies -- it boggles my mind how a communications professional would ever endeavor to pull a fast one in the social media space. I'm sure we're all aware of various corporate efforts to create "ratings" sites and other phony attempts to unduly sway consumer opinion. When found out, the damage can be quite severe -- certainly worse than having an honest Wiki entry. Hopefully this incident will reinforce the principles of ethics and the realization that transparency is much more important than ever before.

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12 years ago

Thanks for sharing this interesting article and your great thoughts. reputation management is very important for all persons and business. it helps a lot. Reputation Management

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12 years ago

…The Customer also acknowledges and accepts the risk that Reputation manegment Inc., may not succeed in effecting the removal and/or alteration of any Internet content about the Customer…

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