POV: Wiki Sleuthing Uncovers PR Blunders

WASHINGTON We all want to control our image. From the moment we put on our best face in the morning to our choice of clothing, we are engaged in the act of marketing ourselves.

Corporations and brands, obviously, are no different. They pay good money for image specialists to craft campaigns designed to create positive perceptions in the eyes of their target audience.

As a practicing journalist who now teaches strategic communications to university students, the most important lesson I can convey to emerging public relations professionals is the need to be truthful. Yes, even in a profession steeped in the art of persuasion and spin, the truth is still our best approach.

Nothing drives home the point more than the recent case of Wikipedia’s new WikiScanner. Created by a California Institute of Technology graduate student studying computer science, the scanner can trace an edited Wiki entry to the Internet protocol address of the computer network where the editing change originated. Thus, we find that a Wiki entry on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which once listed statistics on the number of species killed by the catastrophe, was edited to erase those numbers. Worse, the entry tried to turn the oil spill into a positive environmental event by adding: “Six of the largest [salmon] harvests in history were recorded in the decade immediately following the spill.”

Someone with an e-mail address at Wal-Mart changed “Wages at Wal-Mart are about 20 percent less than other retail stores” to “The average wage at Wal-Mart is almost double the federal minimum wage.” A person traced back to PepsiCo removed several paragraphs about the health effects of drinking the soda. A State Farm IP address deleted references to lawsuits related to Hurricane Katrina. And the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, hired by the “repressive government of the Maldives, removed information on the lack of independent news outlets, election rigging and the imprisonment of political activists in the Maldives,” the scanner report says.

It’s easy to dismiss the changes as corporations simply acting in their own self-interest, but there are even examples from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Ivestigation, the American Dental Association, Binghamton University and The New York Times. An employee of the newspaper changed a Wiki entry on President Bush to repeat the word “jerk” 12 times.

In the age of digital footprints, all it takes is a little electronic sleuthing to reveal the truth and out the manipulators. And when such actions are documented in Wired News and on the front page of the Times, the images of all the entities involved are badly damaged. These groups suddenly have a crisis on their hands because their credibility and reputations are now in question.

It is not and never will be OK to make things up in the name of burnishing an image. And if any of the Wiki changes came from the control freaks sitting inside corporate PR departments, now is the time to learn your lesson.

Pick up a copy of the book Public Relations: The Complete Guide by Joe Marconi. Turn to page 81 and start reading. “Not only should the task of creating a positive image be a top priority, but with such a task should go the responsibility of validating the fact that the image is not based on smoke and mirrors, sleight-of-hand, or any of the other cliches that suggest trickery,” Marconi writes.

The problem doesn’t lie with the public relations profession itself. It happens when some PR practitioners come to believe, either from their experiences in classrooms or corporate offices, that the little white lies and twisting of facts are acceptable ways to do business and get ahead. Numerous examples—from RadioShack CEO David Edmondson, who lost his job after lying on his resume, to the case of former MIT admissions dean Marilee Jones, who claimed to hold three degrees she never earned—prove that deceit never pays.

So what example do we as a society set for future generations when our government, corporations, universities and nonprofit groups manipulate the truth in the name of improving their images? During faculty orientation before the start of this fall semester, I sat through a particularly painful session on academic integrity and plagiarism. We warn students never to copy whole sections of material they find on the Internet and paste it in their research papers. Yet, institutions are lying and twisting the truth all the time if the Wikipedia example is any guide.

Do as I say, not as I do. The word “hypocrisy” comes to mind.

Wendy Melillo is an Adweek contributing writer and assistant professor at the School of Communication at American University.