Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Wiki-handling: PR company assists on Virginia Beach arena entry

The Wikipedia article about Virginia Beach’s planned $200 million arena reads more like an old press release than it does an up-to-date encyclopedia entry.

That’s because a public relations firm representing the developer, United States Management LLC, wrote the entry last spring — months before the City Council approved a deal in December with USM green-lighting the project. The article calls the arena a proposal, its designers “elite,” its location “vibrant” and uses the developer and the Virginia Beach Economic Development Authority as its two sources.

“Maybe we should go back and take another look at it,” said Joel Rubin, a former Hampton Roads broadcast journalist turned PR pro, about updating the entry.

A rendering of the proposed Virginia Beach Oceanfront arena. (Courtesy of www.esgco.com)
A rendering of USM’s planned Virginia Beach Oceanfront arena. (Courtesy of www.esgco.com)

His company, Rubin Communications, represents USM and dozens of other local clients. Most of them don’t have Wikipedia pages, but some do.

“You’d be surprised,” he said.

When Rubin takes a client on, he checks out their online presence. Even though they’re local people with local companies, that look always includes Wikipedia, which often provides the first return people see on a Google search.

For USM and the arena project, Rubin’s late May 2015 search discovered a little-edited article written years earlier by Wikipedia user “Kjst.wm.tribe.2015,” about a different but similarly named arena project, according to a history of the article on Wikipedia and Rubin. That failed project was sponsored by a different company, cost nearly twice as much as USM’s arena and was meant to attract the Sacramento Kings, Rubin said.

But both were called the “Virginia Beach Arena,” and that could be confusing for a reader, Rubin said. He said the need to update the article was “critical.”

So user “Rubincomm4542” –a combination of the PR firm’s name and address– was created. And it rewrote the entire article in five edits during late May and early June of 2015, according the article’s revision history on Wikipedia.

The account hasn’t made an edit since.

Click this partial screen grab of the Wikipedia entry to enlarge it:

The Wikipedia entry for the Virginia Beach arena was rewritten last year by a PR firm for the developer. (screen grab from Wikipedia)

Burton Saint John, an associate professor of communication at Old Dominion University and a public relations expert, said PR firms have always tried to update and control their clients’ message on every medium and publication available.

“This is like a new iteration in an old game,” Saint John said.

For Wikipedia, it’s not always a welcome one.

The website presents itself as a neutral source of information. As such, it “strongly” discourages PR firms from “editing on behalf of a client (so as) to avoid a potential conflict of interest,” wrote Samantha Lien, a spokeswoman for Wikimedia, the nonprofit that supports Wikipedia, in an email.

Wikipedia does not ban the practice, as long as a user discloses he or she is being paid to make edits “on their user page, on the article’s talk page, or in the edit summary,” Lien wrote.

Wikipedia added those conditions in 2014 after a consulting firm, Wiki-PR, used at least 250 accounts to hide edits made on behalf of clients. Wikipedia said at the time in a statement:

“Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a ‘black hat’ practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.”

Rubin and Saint John both said it is a common practice for PR firms to edit websites such as Wikipedia. And there is nothing ethically wrong with doing so as long as information is sourced and accurate, Saint John said.

Rubin said it is incumbent upon him to research and protect a client’s online image — including on Wikipedia — when that image is in his hands. That means removing inaccuracies but not commercializing an article or introducing flattering inaccuracies, he said. Following the rules is important, he added.

“At the end of the day (any edits) come back on us,” Rubin said, noting that a reporter could spot them and call.

Have a story idea or news tip? Contact City Hall reporter Judah Taylor at Judah@wydaily.com or 757-490-2750.

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