Public Relations and Wikipedia Ethics

Posted on Posted in Uncategorized

Rarely in the PR world does a company make popular headlines in regard to the conduct of the company itself, or persons working at the company. Typically, if you see a large public relations firm in the news, it’s in relation to a client they represent. So when the New York Times published an article back in June about how some staffers at Sunshine Sachs had violated Wikipedia’s Terms of Use, it drew more than a few looks.

Sunshine Sachs is a large public relations firm with numerous high profile individuals and organizations on its clientele list. They have offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington. According to the New York Times article, written by Michael Cieply, an edit to model, and Sunshine Sachs client, Naomi Campbell’s Wikipedia entry prompted claims that staffers at the company violated Wikipedia’s terms of use agreement by failing to disclose their conflict of interest prior to making the changes.

The change was fairly small – a note about Naomi Campbell’s little known and critically panned album “Babywoman,” was removed. So why the fuss? The answer comes in two parts: the first is that this was not an isolated incident, and changes had been made to the pages of other Sunshine Sachs clients (e.g. Mia Farrow, Sarah Brightman). The more important second part lies in the strict ethical guidelines Wikipedia editors must adhere to in order for Wikipedia to retain its integrity, and function properly.

Thumbs Down
Thumbs down for unethical conduct

In most academic settings, Wikipedia is frowned upon as a source because its whole premise is that anyone can create or edit an entry. Who is to say that the information posted is factual? While this concern is valid, in reality the network of editors and bots that crosscheck the information on all posts makes the likelihood of inaccurate information slipping through the cracks for any significant period of time very slim. Accuracy and objectivity are the crux of what Wikipedia aims to achieve, and they have created a community that adheres to their standards in pursuit of this goal. Such violations of undermine very premise of Wikipedia.

What follows is an excerpt from the violated clause of the Terms of Use:


“These Terms of Use prohibit engaging in deceptive activities, including misrepresentation of affiliation, impersonation, and fraud. As part of these obligations, you must disclose your employer, client, and affiliation with respect to any contribution for which you receive, or expect to receive, compensation.”

Although this policy had been part of a long-standing unwritten code amongst frequent editors, this section was formally added in June of 2014. With its formal addition came a joint statement of compliance and acknowledgement from over 35 communications and PR firms, including Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, FleishmanHillard, and Ogilvy and Mather. Sunshine and Sachs was not among them.

The statement, in part said,


“On behalf of our firms, we recognize Wikipedia’s unique and important role as a public knowledge resource. We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors.

Our firms believe that it is in the best interest of our industry, and Wikipedia users at large, that Wikipedia fulfill its mission of developing an accurate and objective online encyclopedia. Therefore, it is wise for communications professionals to follow Wikipedia policies as part of ethical engagement practices.”


Thumbs up
Thumbs up for a solid statement of support!

Such a strong, positive, statement from so many of the leading companies in the field of public relations makes the Sunshine and Sachs employee’s clear violation of the Terms more noteworthy. Without such astatement, blaming the incidents on a key employee’s ignorance of the details of the terms seems reasonable (in general, no one really reads the Terms of Use/Agreement), but the aforementioned public statement makes it harder to stomach.

The value of Wikipedia and the service it offers the public is not lost on me, and as a hopeful [future] public relations professional, I hope that a relationship of mutual respect and trust can be developed moving forward. The exposure and condemnation of such unethical actions is a step in that direction, and with the publication of the New York Times article, the claim of ignorance of the terms has become unfeasible to anyone in the industry.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *