PR firm sorry for altering Usmanov Wikipedia page

Nov 12, 2012

Finsbury removed negative information about Arsenal shareholder, but PR experts say Wikipedia needs reforming

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

A PR FIRM has apologised for editing the Wikipedia entry of Arsenal's second-biggest shareholder, Alisher Usmanov, to remove negative information. The Russian oligarch is preparing to float his MegaFon mobile phone company on the London stock exchange at a value of more than $12 billion.

A Times investigation found that RLM Finsbury, which is owned by Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP group, was behind a spate of deletions on the Uzbek oligarch's Wikipedia page. They include all mentions of:

  • A freedom of speech row in which comments about Usmanov's character by a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan were removed from the internet following a campaign by the oligarch's lawyers
  • A Soviet-era criminal conviction, which was later overturned by the Uzbekistan Supreme Court
  • The mysterious disappearance of a former shareholder who was embroiled in a dispute with MegaFon.

The deletions were replaced with references to Usmanov's philanthropic works and art collection.

Finsbury apologised for its actions when challenged by The Times. "This was not done in the proper manner nor was this approach authorised by Mr Usmanov. We apologise for this and it will not happen again," the PR firm said.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who runs the website with the help of donations and volunteers, said: "It is a disappointment that PR firms or lobbyists think that this is what they have to do when we're here, we're free, we're open. We have a community very keen to correct errors."

Finsbury is not the only PR firm to be caught altering Wikipedia on behalf of clients. Portland was accused of polishing the reputation of Stella Artois by removing references to its nickname of 'wife-beater' and, a year ago, Wikipedia suspended accounts linked to Bell Pottinger after they were accused of altering the site to favour their clients.

However, some sections of the PR industry have suggested the blame for such incidents lies with Wikipedia itself for making it difficult to remove reputation-damaging information from its pages.

Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) director general Francis Ingham told PR Week that Wikipedia's internal process for amending inaccurate or inflammatory material was "opaque, time-consuming and cumbersome" and must be "radically" reformed.

"While we would not condone PR professionals anonymously amending Wikipedia entries, we understand why frustration sometimes drives them to do so."

He added: "Too many of the people who edit Wikipedia still do not understand PR. Too many of them continue to have the knee-jerk reaction that information from a PR professional must intrinsically be wrong."

Sign up for our daily newsletter