Gini Dietrich

Disclosure and Ethics In PR

By: Gini Dietrich | December 12, 2011 | 

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. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Wikipedia is amazing. I remember when I went to the founder of Blackwater’s page and edited it to call him a murderer and a thief (both 100% factual statements even if he was never convicted of such crimes), the entry was fixed within 10 minutes. Same when I changed Dick Cheney’s to also call him a murderer, thief, looter of the US treasury, and genocidal maniac (all factually true even if he was never charged or convicted). This also was changed within minutes. How? No idea. (before any of the righties come after me here Obama has murdered innocents too. I mean the US was built on murder and theft (factual statements), but doesn’t mean it is right.

    And this goes to the heart of the Yelp post mollimegasko wrote about. I don’t trust any of the sites that have reviews because it is so easy to plant fake reviews. You can do it with ghost accounts. You can have friends and family write them. I used to argue with an old roommate when he would see me reading the LA Times and he would say ‘Don’t believe anything you read ever from anywhere’. Well big blanket statement but reality is it is kind of true. Everything ever written has been written by humans with biases. Who is to say what is objective? Even my ‘Factual Statements’ above have a partial bias based on my own set of morals and ethics.

    While we might have structures and rules in place everything is still just opinion. Which is why Wikipedia is viewed differently than other publications. The basis for what an entry winds up as is not always objective. And as long as user input is allowed businesses like BP will take advantage of these avenues. And if they were busted I can just imagine how many others have not been sadly.

    • While I agree with you that Wikipedia is full of holes and opinion is inherent in the articles – which is why I won’t use it and it pains me to see it used as a source in the papers of my wife’s students – your arguments about “factual statement” have to be removed if Wikipedia wants to maintain its guise of objectivity.

      What you post, even if it is true, under our society, is hearsay. Because they have never been convicted or charged, as you say, they are accusations and those have to be carefully worded to even be allowed. So I understand why it was taken out.

      With all that said, I wish Wikipedia would go away.

      • @Anthony_Rodriguez yes I have been told to always use the word ‘allegedly’ for safety from libel. And in our world often money buys innocence. And unless someone is charged and convicted even if something is factual the law looks the other way and makes believe it is not.

        But we do have free speech and in my comment I did mention my points were biased based on my own ethics/morals just to support my point and yours btw.

    • ginidietrich

      @HowieSPM I agree it’s all opinion. But it’s one thing to post edits and make yourself look favorable without disclosing it. It’s the job of PR pros to remain transparent. It’s OK for us to help our clients, as long as we disclose it. Disclosure is key.

      • @ginidietrich I agree with disclosure. It is why I have my war with Guy Kawasaki because he was a paid tweeter who never disclosed what tweets were paid for.

    • MolliMegasko

      @HowieSPM I agree with you, but I also trust. I use Wiki for a lot of quick research, yes I take it with a grain of salt, but I trust for the most part.

      When using Yelp, I usually don’t read the one that are raving or the ones that are horribly negative, I look for examples on food or service.

      With the online journalism world changing, we need to learn to trust. (And hopefully the fools that @ginidietrich mentions keep getting caught.)

      • @MolliMegasko@HowieSPM@ginidietrich Trust is what you gets you fired, sued and sent out to the street to look for work. Don’t rely on the words you see.

  • I never cease to be amazed, and yet nothing surprises me anymore. This is a big one. A major violation. And yet the lessons applies to even the smallest of local businesses, From posting really good (or bad) reviews on Yelp, Google Places, etc, to creating fake accounts. It’s so easy to do on a small scale, so people think it’s ok. “What could it hurt?” they say. This is one of the first conversations I have with my clients about posting on their own Facebook walls or on review sites. Full disclosure, and no fake or anonymous postings. Period.

    • @KenMueller Some review sites, I’ve learned to spot fake reviews. Ex: TripAdvisor. I ignore the stuff they allow from anonymous Facebook Connect reviewers. I also look out for the one-hit wonders, who’ve only given one way over the top rave/pan and stuff that’s super generic, that reads like ‘copy, cut, paste’ of any other review. The only way to get anything out of them… and to be aware that these fake postings exist. Reader beware.

      • ginidietrich

        @3HatsComm You’re a savvy consumer. What about those who aren’t?

        • @ginidietrich Good point, I wonder about those who don’t know that fakes exist, that many review sites can be gamed. Hence the FTC stepping in with regs and fines. That said, you can’t make a consumer pay attention or even research; otherwise I wouldn’t hear complaints about how iPhones and iPads don’t have flash. FWIW.

    • ginidietrich

      @KenMueller About four years ago we had a client who asked us all to create fake accounts and post good comments about the apps they were developing. When we refused, citing ethics, they fired us. We haven’t really missed them.

      • @ginidietrich Well, you’ve heard my stories about this stuff. Drive me nuts. Fake accounts or “multiple accounts” on any site are wrong, even if it’s just to make the site look popular and lived in.

  • 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

      @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.

      • 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.

        • ginidietrich

          @Anthony_Rodriguez Wait. You’re a Lions fan? I’m sorry. You’re banned from this site.

        • @ginidietrich@Anthony_Rodriguez I’m so glad I don’t get passionate about football – I’d never get away without getting a ban.

        • @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?

        • ginidietrich

          @Anthony_Rodriguez NO! You are banned until February! Move along!

        • @ginidietrich Seriously? I feel like I’m getting Wikipedia’d.

        • @Anthony_Rodriguez@ginidietrich Anthony, don’t worry. She’s all bark and no bite. If you leave she’ll miss you.

  • why is this a weekly award now.. sad

    • ginidietrich

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

  • 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?

    • ginidietrich

      @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.

  • 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!

    • @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.

      • danielnewmanUV

        @MimiMeredith so simple – yet apparently so hard for some people.

    • ginidietrich

      @danielnewmanUV Because that’s too hard.

  • 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!

    • RebeccaRona


      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.

    • ginidietrich

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

      • @ginidietrich How they think that claiming ignorance is a good answer is beyond me. Just amplies the fact that they are lying. So they are liars, dumb, and not good at their jobs. Great business model!

  • 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.

    • ginidietrich

      @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.

  • I love the Moron of the Week Award – I just don’t want it 😉

    • @rachaelseda We’ve been debating badges, trading cards, playing cards, and bobbleheads as suitable moron awards.

      • @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

    • ginidietrich

      @rachaelseda YOU will never receive it.

      • @ginidietrich@rachaelseda I will never receive it either!

      • @ginidietrich Why thank you!! I don’t intend to ever!

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • @TheJackB I don’t trust Wikipedia, either. If I have a quick question about flamingos, I might visit the Wikipedia flamingo page, but I’m not going to use Wikipedia when I’m researching a paper or something like that. Bring on the books and databases!

      • @Erin F. Yep. But people are lazy and easily fooled so the Wikipedia pundits have earned a place online.

        • ginidietrich

          @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.

        • @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@Erin F. That is because they are children and they probably don’t know better yet. There was a time years ago where I got into a kerfuffle with someone and had great fun updating the Wikipedia section we had the argument on.

        • @jasonkonopinski@ginidietrich@Erin F. If I had more trust in the editors I might feel differently but I don’t. I think that many of them are still easily manipulated and don’t take time to ask the important questions about what is real, what is important, what is significant and what is valid.

  • 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.

    • ginidietrich

      @jasonkonopinski I forgot about Bachmann’s revisionism. HAHAHH!!

  • RebeccaRona

    Wow! Excellent, informative post.

    • ginidietrich

      @RebeccaRona Thank you!

  • 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.

    • ginidietrich

      @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.

  • 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.

    • ginidietrich

      @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@Neicolec Wow… I wonder if the partner could be sued for discriminating against ethical people.

        • ginidietrich

          @fitzternet Ha! Wouldn’t that be nice?

  • 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.

    • ginidietrich

      @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!

  • 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.

    • ginidietrich

      @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.

      • 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?

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  • 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:
    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