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Gini Dietrich

Disclosure and Ethics In PR

By: Gini Dietrich | December 12, 2011 | 
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Five years ago, Wikipedia would not allow PR people to edit or change anything on the site because they found too many of our peers were editing things to be company-friendly and full of controlled messages.

So they banned us.

More recently they changed the rules to allow us back on, with the policy around conflict of interest pretty darn clear:

  • All users must disclose their conflict of interest, not edit from anonymous accounts with fake identities.
  • You may use one account per person.
  • You must allow the community to edit your work.
  • Maintain a hands-off policy on controversial content.

And then along came Bell Pottinger, a PR firm with offices in the U.S. and the U.K. 

They were busted by blogger Tim Ireland for editing more than 100 Wikipedia entries, from an estimated 20 different fake accounts, spanning 1,000 edits.

They claim they didn’t break any laws and didn’t realize they were doing anything wrong.

But here’s the deal. Last year, a PR firm hired by video game developers, was posting great reviews online about their client’s products. The FTC took offense to it, citing “truth in advertising,” and fined them. A significant fine they had to pay.

Posting positive comments online about your clients without disclosure is, in fact, against the law.

So ding Bell Pottinger for that. They did break the law.

Now let’s look at their claim they didn’t know what they were doing.

They created not one, not two, but TWENTY fake accounts so they could make edits anonymously. Edits that put their clients in more favorable light.

Then they nominated some of the articles for editing protection, right after they got the entries to read exactly as they wanted them.

Then they were caught on tape boasting about how they use “dark arts” to “burnish reputations of countries accused of human rights violations.”

So, let’s see. By my account, they’ve violated all four of the Wikipedia policies outlined above. That’s hard to do if you don’t know what you’re doing.

But they have agreed to have Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, in to their offices to talk to the staff about ethical editing of entries.

Only time will tell if they’ve learned anything and are sorry for their lack of scruples, but I think they deserve this week’s Moron Award.

And please, for the love of all things good, make sure you disclose any work you’re doing for clients, including tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates.

Thanks to both Ken Mueller and Jacque Smith for making sure I saw this story.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

66 comments
LisaThorell
LisaThorell

Hi Gini ! Thanks for posting this. Frankly, this is where i look to the premier protectors of PR standards, such as PRSA and the Counselors Academy, to voice their concerns quite publicly when someone, such as Bell Pottinger, steps over the line. To me, we have too much silence from our accreditation bodies and standards setters when this, the likes of the Burson-Marsteller scandal over Google-Facebook, the Bush VNR mis-usage, and now this blatant transgression occur. Some may assail me on this: But , overall, PR needs to be more brave in publicizing its own transgressions and condemning them. The whole industry reputation goes down when these unanswered transgressions occur.

Maranda
Maranda

Reputation is what you make of it. The sad thing is that so many of these "large firm" PR companies simply feel like they are doing what they need to, no matter if it is (to use an SEO term) "gaming the system". I commend you for remaining ethical in a kind of industry that almost demands you to not be.

Neicolec
Neicolec

To me, this kind of Wikipedia-gaming just gets lumped in with the black and gray SEO practices we have heard about, buying fans, and things like the PR firm you wrote about that created fake news sites and stories.

I just can't understand how people live with themselves knowing they are doing this. I know I could make money managing company social media accounts using the standard tweet/post conversation starter approach. But I won't do it because I know it isn't really effective. It's not unethical, but I don't want to take money for something I don't believe really gets results Then, you have people like this willing to take money to do clearly unethical things, and that will hurt their clients in the long run!! Ugh.

I guess part of the onus is on businesses to actually know what the firm is doing, and not go with ones that are unethical.

Latest blog post: Neicole Crepeau Resume

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

I've seen this for all kinds of entries: business, political, sports, entertainment. And crack up when some flamer, troll or sockpuppet gets their opinions, astroturfing, SPIN 'protected' - someone's asleep at the wheel. Which is why I learned long ago not to link back or cite Wikipedia for anything. It's a decent starting point, quick reference but that's about it.

For an agency of record to go through all the steps to do this, to claim 'they didn't know' - when

you can't throw a (search) stick and not hit a post or story that doesn't mention transparency and disclosure? Feign innocence when other agencies have been publicly busted (I remember that iTunes case)? Then to sell this as part of client service?! Most people would feel icky just liking their own post, this takes the UGH cake. FWIW.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

It's interesting that people's attitudes about Wikipedia are swinging so wildly, especially since it was one of the original case-studies in social content creation/crowd-sourcing whereby people take ownership over topics in which they're passionately interested. While it's obvious that the system can be manipulated (i.e this story here and Bachmann's revisionism), I'm not sure Wikipedia is going away anytime soon.

TheJackB
TheJackB

I don't trust Wikipedia farther than I can throw them and I would gladly watch them disappear. I have seen more than a handful of questionable incidents take place there. Their existence is "proof" that people believe that if it is written on the Internet it must be true.

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

I love the Moron of the Week Award - I just don't want it ;)

MimiMeredith
MimiMeredith

Okay...is it just me, or does getting a private audience with Jimmy Wales seem like a reward instead of a punitive measure? And, really...do they have the capacity to learn anything form him or from the consequences of their manipulative behavior?

I'm not so sure that people who lie and cheat their way through their professional lives are that much different from those committing human rights violations. Whether you claim ignorance or a higher cause to justify bad behavior, it is reprehensible regardless.

sydcon_mktg
sydcon_mktg

Well will people realize that in this day and age of technology if you do stuff like this you are going to get caught?!? Not only are you going to get caught it will be flaunted everywhere, screaming what you did and how! It will be on every news outlet, website, etc.

Start using common sense!

danielnewmanUV
danielnewmanUV

Wow - so rather than delivering a good product and obtaining positive feedback from real users, PR firms are creating fake accounts and fake pr. That is heartwarming.

Why not apply the time spent avoiding the right approach and see if it can yield better results.

What a total Sham!

NancyD68
NancyD68

It is amazing. The level of arrogance just keeps going up doesn't it? What's next? How much more will people take before they just don't read anything anyone writes anymore because all of it is tainted?

Todd Lyden
Todd Lyden

why is this a weekly award now.. sad

Anthony_Rodriguez
Anthony_Rodriguez

My god, this boggles the mind. Maybe it's my conscious or my training as a journalist, but I cannot fathom why people think they can get away with doing this. You always get caught, ALWAYS, and reputations are ruined. In this age of social interaction on the Internet, full disclosure from companies and their employees is a must.

BTW Gini, my condolences for yesterday. Tebow has done it again.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@LisaThorell When the Burson thing happened, it was during Counselors Academy, so we had the ear of PRSA. We were told they are a membership organization, not a regulatory body. So, while they can submit a statement to the media (which they do well when this stuff happens), they can't make someone stop. What are they going to do? Take away their membership? That's the biggest problem with our industry. We don't have anyone regulating the ethics.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Maranda We only have our ethics. I've built my company on Warren Buffet's words: Lose money for the firm and I'll be forgiving. Lose reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless.

P.S. Someone here says hi. He's sitting on my desk!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Neicolec I suppose it's easy for us to sit here and say we won't take business where we're asked to do this kind of thing. We had a similar situation about four years ago. A client asked his account team to create fake accounts and write good reviews. The request made its way to me, through one of our junior professionals, and we told the client we couldn't do it. He ended up firing us for it. But the point is that I've created a culture where everyone here can stand up for what they know is ethical. But in the big agency world? No way. Unless you have a supervisor who is willing to stand up to the partner, you pretty much do as you're told until you can find a new job.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@3HatsComm Throw a search stick. LOL!! Yeah...you might be able to feign ignorance if *you* didn't know someone on your team was doing this, but you'd better get to the bottom of it pretty quickly.

terence.stephens
terence.stephens

@rachaelseda I agree. Is it a weekly tradition? It needs to be. There are some people in the world making it very easy to have it be a weekly tradition.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@MimiMeredith As I read this whole thing unfold, I couldn't help but think about Burson saying they "talked" to their staff about how unethical whisper campaigns are (when they were hired by Facebook). I'm sorry, but talk does no good if they don't also walk it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@sydcon_mktg I think that's why they keep saying they didn't know what they were doing. I call BS.

RebeccaRona
RebeccaRona

@sydcon_mktg

Yes, it's a matter of common sense; more importantly, it's a matter of ethics! What they did was disgusting. And a blemish on PR professionals.

MimiMeredith
MimiMeredith

@danielnewmanUV I so agree! What if the people who spent all that time creating 20 fake profiles spent the same amount of energy doing something honest and good the right way? Perhaps because it seems like too much effort? I don't know, but my guess is now they're wishing they would have chosen the high road.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@NancyD68 I was digging further into this firm and I guess they do some really shady business, all around. Some day the good guys will prevail.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@faybiz It's a joke, Todd. Although... I have enough fodder for a weekly award for the next five weeks right now.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Anthony_Rodriguez It wasn't Tebow anything. We gave the game away. There is no reason on earth you are up by three, with one minute left in the game, and you run out of bounds, stopping the clock. Barber should have stayed in bounds, run down the clock, and then we would have taken a knee. Tebow didn't win the game.

LisaThorell
LisaThorell

@ginidietrich There you have it: "We don't have anyone regulating the ethics" (unlike the legal and medical professions). But what about this "live by the sword, die by the sword" fix? What if Wikipedia editors were to start a "PR Wall of Shame" entry, documenting these transgressions (as they are wont to do intensely!). PR folks are too well aware that the moving public news timeline speeds along and, even if caught in a scandal, you just lay low, wait a few weeks and everyone's forgotten. But if it stays on such a wall for 5 or 10 years....;-) Or is that too Orwellian?

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@Erin F. HA yes, I think bobble head is suitable because it's like a trophy but not...and the head not being so secure to the body makes sense...haha

Anthony_Rodriguez
Anthony_Rodriguez

There were lots of, um, I'll call them snafus by the Bears in those wanning minutes of the game. I didn't think they should have lost, but it helps out my Lions a bit get on step closer to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.

David King2
David King2

@LisaThorell @ginidietrichI don't think the PRSA "gets it". First they said that any PR editing on Wikipedia was unethical, then they did a complete 180 after Edelman started lobbying Jimmy Wales to allow it. They were way off in both cases.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations I think are a little closer to the mark in their guide: http://www.cipr.co.uk/content/policy-resources/best-practice-guides-toolkits/wikipedia-and-public-relations

As for enforcement, I see media exposure and legal cases making an example out of the worst of cases and there is growing awareness of the associated risks. There is nobody to enforce ethics or law any more than that anywhere in the business world.

- David King, Ethical Wiki

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

@ginidietrich@TheJackB@Erin F. I observed that same phenomenon during my grad school years when I was teaching at a community college. I had to put caps on the amount of online sources my students could use in research papers for that very reason.

I actually have a sort of ambivalence around Wikipedia. The speed at which articles are edited and fleshed out is pretty incredible and some are incredibly robust and accurate because they have contributing editors who feel some sense of ownership over the quality of the content.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@TheJackB@Erin F. And that's the thing...we are pretty savvy users of the web. But we're in the minority. My nieces and nephews use it to research their homework. Before anything else.

Anthony_Rodriguez
Anthony_Rodriguez

@Maranda@ginidietrich Yes, and dang proud of it. I've endured 20+ years of failure and the turnaround is finally here. I grew up in West Michigan. You can handle one more Lions fan, right?

Trackbacks

  1. […] by very reputable PR professionals about the ethical foundation of this industry. This includes Ethics and Disclosure by Gini Dietrich, Ethics in PR by John Cass, or Is Wikipedia Too Hard for PR? by David King, which […]

  2. […] by very reputable PR professionals about the ethical foundation of this industry. This includes Ethics and Disclosure by Gini Dietrich, Ethics in PR by John Cass, or Is Wikipedia Too Hard for PR? by David King, which […]