Wikipedia Debates Letting PR Pros Edit Clients’ Pages

BP (that’s “Beyond Petroleum” to you, sir) is in trouble again this week for doing the very sort of thing we’d expect it to do: using its spokesperson to rewrite nearly half of its own Wikipedia page.

The purpose of the edits was to play down the corporation’s horrible environmental record. And the accusation came only a few weeks before yet another hearing in which BP’s lawyer will try to argue that his client shouldn’t have to pay millions in “fictitious or inflated claims” related to the pending class action oil spill lawsuit.

So: move along, nothing to see here…

Of course it’s not all in-house: today PR Week reminds us that firms have been criticized for doing this sort of thing for their clients before.

One could argue that, because Wikipedia is a publicly edited database, PR firms should feel free to go in and tweak pages for clients’ benefit. But the whole point of the service is to provide free, accurate, unbiased information. Sure, Wikipedia occasionally fails to achieve these goals. But while pages may not be admissible in a courtroom or on a college term paper, much of the public still trusts them as sources.

The spokesperson claims that he didn’t break any rules because he didn’t directly post the changes himself — he just took them from internal documents (which he wrote) and used the fact that editors often disagree to get them posted. So the Wikipedia editorial team didn’t care for the changes, but they didn’t remove them either. The issue here is that the company just straight up whitewashed its own page, without third-party attribution, in order to enhance its public standing.

So should Wikipedia prohibit PR firms, official spokesmen and others with “conflicts of interest” from editing clients’ pages? The PRSA says no — do we agree?