Some level of manipulation of what information is publicly received is important for the successful promotion and advertisement of any company. But when does this cross the line into “ethical blindness”? This is a phrase that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has used to describe the manipulation of Wikipedia pages, altering what is publicly available regarding some leading PR companies’ clients. Wales has not only outed companies, but has branded them as unethical for breaching the purpose of his site. Consequently, companies are pledging that they will not fall foul of the policies set out by Wikipedia, regarding the editing of posts.
It could be argued that in general we accept that what we read may have had some form of spin put on it. However, Wikipedia is not traditional media; the premise of the site is to act as an online encyclopaedia. Imagine then, that your first encyclopaedia you may have used for school work or essay writing, is edited by companies to manipulate what is written about public figures or companies. Furthermore, in order to manipulate such information, companies have created false accounts. Hidden behind these fake accounts, it was more difficult for Wikipedia to see that companies were falsifying information or altering pre-existent information. It is possible for anyone to change things on Wikipedia or add pages, but these can be flagged and removed by the professionals whose job it is at Wikipedia to spot falsities.
Clearly these kinds of scandals give the PR industry a bad name, coupled with claims earlier this month from the BBC’s Economics Editor, Robert Peston, in a talk given for the British Journalism Review. Peston named the PR industry as having a “pernicious” influence on news journalism, citing “unhealthy deals” made between journalists and PR’s. Many PR companies though, are exemplifying the very positive aspects of PR, which I have been able to witness. I have been interning this week at Byfield, following finishing University as an English Language and Communication graduate. Seeking experience, I have been interested to learn as much as possible at a legal PR consultancy firm, with this week exceeding my expectations. I began with no experience in the field, but a background of language and communication has given me the tools necessary to develop an understanding of my surroundings and the specialised work going on. From this perspective, I am able to reflect on what it is that hard working and successful PR companies do, and just how this scandal can have an impact on the industry. I have been able to recognise that PR is not just about finding ways to get clients recognised favourably by the public, but involves meticulous and far reaching work and research. The key is a knowledge of each client individually and their qualities, enabling promotion to whichever angle and platform work best. This does not resemble the manipulation involved with the Wikipedia scandal, the somewhat lazy and corner-cutting venture is the antithesis of the work I have experienced and been involved in this week.
The stance taken by Wales is refreshing, as it indicates that even as a co-founder of an extremely successful and influential website, his ethical and moral grounding remains unfaltered. Whilst no laws were broken technically, it is clear that these methods are a quick and indeed lazy move by some PR companies and their clients. The internet is vast and far too complex for these types of behaviours and breaches of policy, to not be eventually tracked. Furthermore, in an age that is dominated by the internet, with sites like Wikipedia being figureheads, the respect of Wales is something any business would hope to gain. Much like “The Hare and the Tortoise” for the cyber sphere, the moral remains that cutting corners does not generate the best results.