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.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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