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A Lesson in PR Ethics and Wikipedia

Mark Estes, ABC

Should public relations professionals be allowed to provide content to public or community sources of information on the Internet? Shouldn’t conflict of interest and other ethical considerations prevent PR pros from writing about clients and client companies for a venue such as Wikipedia?

These questions arose last year when Wikipedia alleged that Bell Pottinger, one of the U.K.'s largest public relations, communication and lobbying organizations, manipulated content for certain entries. They claimed a person or persons connected with Bell Pottinger added positive information and/or removed negative content from entries associated with the firm and suspended Wikipedia editing accounts associated with the company.

While Wikipedia allows editing, the site’s guidelines encourage authors/editors to tread lightly and avoid topics in which they have a personal or business interest. Wikipedia, which has become one of the Web's most popular sites since being founded 10 years ago, is edited by a huge pool of volunteers who follow a prescribed set of rules. Wikipedia's guidelines state that a conflict of interest represents an “incompatibility between the aim of Wikipedia, which is to produce a neutral, reliably sourced encyclopedia, and the aims of an individual editor.”

Evidence provided to The Independent, a British national morning newspaper, and the U.K’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, shows that Bell Pottinger made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about clients last year, including:

  • Removing a reference to a drug conviction of a businessman who was a Bell Pottinger client.
  • Editing material relating to the arrest of a man accused of commercial bribery.
  • Editing the articles of both Chime Communications, parent company of Bell Pottinger, and Naked Eye Research, after the former company bought 55 percent of the latter.

While Bell Pottinger management has admitted that its digital team used a number of accounts to edit Wikipedia articles, the firm also has maintained it has not done anything illegal.

Perhaps the fairest comment on the issue came from Rory Cellan-Jones, a British journalist for BBC News who specializes in economics and technology: “There is nothing wrong in itself in someone trying to correct perceived inaccuracies in Wikipedia articles—after all, that process happens every day and helps the online encyclopaedia get closer to an objective account. What is disturbing is the fact that the edits are carried out by an anonymous person who does not declare an interest.”

So, for Cellan-Jones, it was an issue of transparency, rather than conflict of interest.

But, let’s examine conflict of interest regarding news sources. Companies regularly provide news releases, advisories and B-roll film to news media. And news media often uses much of the content verbatim.

Why? Because most of the time the media have an understanding with those companies based on trust. Companies and organizations that are good, accurate sources of information can depend on their stories being told, as long as they are newsworthy, of course.

Furthermore, companies and organizations that have good relations with the press usually have a consistent policy of communication. Relationships have been established, and the media often will deal with a select few from a company to get the story out.

Here’s where Bell Pottinger seems to have gone astray. Instead of establishing an identifiable person or persons up front to deal with their Wikipedia entries, Bell Pottinger seems to have used a number of different, hard-to-identify sources to make edits.

It also does not help Bell Pottinger’s case when newspapers like The Independent report that the firm's executives claim it has mastered the Internet and could manipulate Google searches and whitewash Wikipedia entries on behalf of clients. There are a number of color metaphors I could employ in describing this attitude, but it comes down to demeaning potential allies. Even if you are the smartest kid on the block, bragging about it won’t exactly win you new friends.

Back to conflict of interest: Wikipedia states that conflict-of-interest 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.”

I’m interpreting that to mean: stick to the facts, and stow the spin doctoring. I think that is a canon most public relations, corporate communication and media relations professionals can live with—at least the smart ones. You let us tell our story, and we will do it accurately and trim the ruffles and flourishes. It’s a collaborative process wherein each side respects the other.

This also is in keeping with the concept of responsible advocacy, a theory advanced by communication scholars Kathy Fitzpatrick and Candace Gauthier and in a book by Fitzpatrick and Carolyn Bronstein.

According to Fitzpatrick and Gauthier, in their article “Toward a Professional Responsibility Theory of Public Relations Ethics,” the theory was developed to help provide “a universally acceptable philosophy on which standards of ethical public relations practice might be based.” Responsible advocacy seeks to marry the ethical identities of public relations professionals as advocate for an organization and the role of social conscience—two roles that have consistently been at odds with each other.

As an advocate, a public relations professional is accountable to his or her client or organization. As a voice of social conscience, however, a public relations professional is accountable to the public at large. Thus, the innate conflict between the two identities. The theory of responsible advocacy attempts to reconcile that conflict and provide guidance to achieve common ground.

There are three overriding principles of responsible advocacy theory. First, a public relations professional must carefully consider the harms and benefits of possible action. Second, they must ensure respect for all persons. Third, a public relations professional must see that all rewards and difficulties be equally allocated.

Admittedly, the principles can conflict and therefore responsible advocacy must employ the personal ethics of a practitioner. Overall, the theory demonstrates the ideal of public relations practitioners being able to serve the interests of clients while simultaneously and equally serving the interests of society at large.


Mark Estes, ABC, is a senior corporate communications strategist for SRP, a multipurpose reclamation utility in the Southwest U.S. comprising public power and water supply. Estes is a member of the IABC ethics committee, accreditation chair for the IABC Southern Region, vice president of membership for IABC/Phoenix and former member of IABC’s accreditation committee.