News today (see The Guardian, The Drum, for example) that marketing agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made (part of the multinational Publicis marketing and public relations agency group) has manipulated Wikipedia on behalf of its client, outdoor apparel manufacturer The North Face, has spectacularly backfired. The North Face has been forced to apologise for its campaign, while Leo Burnett Tailor Made has also achieved new notoriety and, in Wikipedia terms, possibly unwanted ‘notability’.
A gloating video on AdAge highlights how Leo Burnett Tailor Made tried to exploit Google’s search engine rankings for a range of outdoor locations popular with walkers, climbers and other outdoors types. As images used on Wikipedia frequently top the search pages, they set out to replace the existing images with new images featuring athletes wearing the brand at each of the chosen locations. These included Brazil’s Guarita State Park and Farol do Mampimptuba, Cuillin in Scotland and Peru’s Huayna Picchu. The new images were then uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons (“a collection of 54,094,341 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute“) in early April and used to replace the existing images in the articles. Photos that once showed magnificent scenery now had The North Face people and/or products cluttering up the natural splendor.
User Gmortaia, for example, uploaded six images to the Commons and then added them to various pages during mid and late-April. These images have since either been replaced by the previous images, or in some case have been cropped so that logos or products no longer appear in the image. My friend and fellow Wikipedian, PigsOnTheWing, was one of those who edited one of Gmortaia’s images (right – without logo) – as Wikipedia cheerfully warns, “any contributions can and will be mercilessly edited”. (Gmortaia and 12 other user accounts have also been indefinitely blocked from editing, with ‘Global Blocks’ across all Wiki projects under consideration).
The AdAge article says agency felt the biggest obstacle of the campaign was updating the photos without attracting attention of Wikipedia ‘moderators’ to sustain the brand’s presence for as long as possible, as site editors could change them at any time. The campaign had some shortlived success, but its impact may be more damaging in the long run.
The Wikipedia hall of shame
Both companies now feature on a Wikipedia page about Conflict-of-interest editing on Wikipedia. Articles about The North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made* also now include details of the controversial campaign.
Leo Burnett Tailor Made therefore joins a group of notorious marketing agencies and PR consultancies – including UK-based Bell Pottinger (now defunct) and Portman Communications – that have sought to manipulate Wikipedia on behalf of their clients, and ended up with their COI activities recorded in Wikipedia articles about them (with Wikipedia’s SEO power ensuring that the articles feature prominently should prospective clients ever want to learn more about the agencies concerned).
My professional body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, has condemned the agency’s actions. Citing the CIPR’s best practice guidance to PR professionals (which I helped draft; see previous post), CIPR President Emma Leech said:
“It is wholly unethical for PR or creative professionals to make changes to Wikipedia entries on behalf of a client. The rules are clear and ignorance is not an excuse. You wouldn’t expect to be given access to the back end of a news site to make changes and the same applies to Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality must be respected and its rules upheld at all times.”
(It is probably time for the CIPR guidelines to be updated. Some of these recent examples of unethical practice might usefully be included to show what needs to be avoided, with the longer-term implications spelt out.)
* Disclosure/update (2.45pm BST, 31 May 2019) – At the time of writing, Wikipedia editors were discussing merging the Leo Burnett Tailor Made article, to which I had contributed, with that about its parent Leo Burnett Worldwide.