Is it time to set the lawyers on Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia?

I’ve been too busy to blog over the last few days, but I couldn’t resist picking up on Simon Collister’s post about Jimmy Wales’ latest rant in PR Week about PR people and Wikipedia. I support Simon’s view that Wales is wrong and it is right for PR people to edit incorrect entries on Wikipedia.

Simon says: “personally, I would have no qualms about editing entries about clients”. I’d go further and say it is your duty to correct mistakes.

Personally I can’t understand how Jimmy Wales’ mind works. Why does he start off from the perspective that people are corrupt and not to be trusted? In my experience it is far better to start off believeing people are good, honest and ethical – because that’s exactly what most people I know are. Wales must hang out with some pretty sad and unsavoury characters if he thinks otherwise.

I would only edit an entry to correct a fact. I would not lie on behalf of a client.

And quite frankly I resent the fact that Wales’ implies that I or fellow professionals would. Is it because he would consider lying if paid to do so? If not, then why does he think he’s better than everyone else?

And it’s not as if you can trust Wikipedia entries, as this story from a local Cumbrian newspaper illustrates (and this forum comment shows Wikipedia can’t get it right even when it tries). And just in case you think this is a one off, then try this story from another Cumbrian paper. Both of these Wikipedia errors in the last few days.

If Wikipedia is meant to be about users creating the entries then surely it would be better for a PR person for Copeland Council to correct these incorrect entries, than for Wikipedia staff to monitor and lock entries, which is what David Gerard, Wikipedia’s UK spokesman said. Or is Wikipedia a bit like Animal Farm where some users are more equal than others?

PR professionals factually correcting an entry must be a better solution than a victim of Wikipedia calling in the lawyers to sue. Or would Wales prefer the lies, smears and incorrect information to stay as the Wikipedia entry? If Wales’ rather warped ethics are more important than the truth then Wikipedia becomes pretty pointless. If the truth doesn’t matter on Wikipedia then we might have to change it’s tag line from ‘the free encylopedia’ to the ‘the pointless encyclopedia’.

Come on Jimmy get out of the gutter and breath the fresh air – it’s a lovely world you know.

8 Replies to “Is it time to set the lawyers on Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia?

  1. Heather Yaxley PhD – Dr. Heather Yaxley, founder of Applause Consultancy and Greenbanana is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic consultant, educator, practitioner, historian, writer and scholar. As a qualified academic, I lead CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. Former director of the Motor Industry Public Affairs Assocation. Proud to have been awarded my PhD for innovative research into Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with several books, chapters and academic papers to my name - and many more to come.
    Heather Yaxley says:

    Brilliant post – just what I wanted to say myself. I find the presumption that all PR people would lie on entries to be offensive. Also how ridiculous to imply that other contributors don't have agendas. I don't think we need worry too much – Wikipedia is all about its reputation. And the more it goes on acting like a spoilt child at a party regarding its toys – then the more there is opportunity for others to recognise the potential for a site that really provides helpful, accurate, checkable information on corporates and other items.

  2. I don't think this is the right perspective. I don't think Jimmy believes that 'people' are corrupt. I think he's more concerned with the fact that money is the root of all evil. By keeping financial transactions and editing for cash as far away from the site as possible, he's trying to minimize the tendency for the pursuit of money to trump people's generally good tendencies.

    I understand what you are saying, so how do we keep the threat of 'editors for hire' balanced with the need to have Wikipedia have accurate information? That's the debate, and I think both sides need to give a little.

  3. The problem is that PR folks have gotten a bad reputation on Wikipedia for plenty of spam and promotional articles (on a website that wants unbiased articles). Your best bet is to avoid referring to yourself as a PR agent due to the stigma involved. If you correct errors as a person, people may appreciate that. However, they may undo your edits if you do not cite an acceptable source; they will not accept that you are a PR agent who knows the correct answer because for all they know you could be lying. (It's a reasonable policy when there is virtually no way on Wikipedia to prove you actually are an authority on certain information.) Maybe you could publish an article in a magazine or newspaper which sets things straight, or you could send off an e-mail to people who can fix things.

    If your client happens to be the subject of libel, they (or you) could always email and indicate which article(s) is/are wrong, and how to fix it. Wikipedia takes libel very seriously and I've heard of an administrator banning a person for a month for posting a hoax about a politician's death.

    Note that Wikipedia has a policy called "Biographies of Living Persons," which dictates that information about living people (especially the kind that would ruin one's reputation) which isn't justified by a source may be removed at any time. If you remove content per this rule, be sure to note it in the edit summary, or you may be confused for an article vandal.

    I have no official relationship with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation, however I've been around there for a while and I feel I know how things work.

  4. By "send off an e-mail to people who can fix things," I was trying to segway into the next paragraph, but that didn't seem to go well. Oops!

    Just letting you all know.

  5. Chad 'the money is the root of all evil' is a nice sound bite, but patently nonsense. If anyone seriously believed this then the world would be an evil place since so much social and economic activity depends on money. And my main point was that the world and the people within it are good, so why assuming otherwise says more about the person saying it than the people they accuse.

    It is also wrong to assume that money is the only motivation for people to do the wrong thing. There are lots of other far stronger motivations why people would want to tamper with entries.

    PR people might have a 'bad reputation', but it is fairly easy to find out the truth about what public relations is really about – last time I looked the Wikipedia entry was fairly accurate 😉

    I don't know Wales' motivation for making negative assumptions about other people's motives, but the fact that he is so negative means that he appears to have a pretty sad view of the world.

  6. "In my experience it is far better to start off believing people are good, honest and ethical – because that's exactly what most people I know are."

    Stuart, it just might be time to move out of your parents' basement.

    – Amanda

  7. On the other hand, if you come out of the gate believing everyone is evil, they will come for you with knives out. Jimmy Wales would do better to pretend he likes PR people and take advantage of us.

    Also, pretending we are not PR people (or not revealing ourselves as such as suggested above) is the wrong answer. Sheesh, we're just getting used to the fact that we have to reveal ourselves more often, not the opposite.

    Also, the only way to get Jimmy Wales to change his mind about PRs is to stop proving him right, but I doubt he is inclined to give us a chance.

    Stuart's comment above may have some sunshine and lollipops in it, but the fact that Wikipedia is ignoring self-sourcing altogether is just not right. When your policies start making what Microsoft did look good, then there's a problem.

  8. I tried creating bald-fact entries for a couple of our clients, on the basis that their competitors had pretty comprehensive and professional entries.

    I wasn't familiar with the discussion/voting process and stayed out of it, and to be frank I was happy for the entries to be quickly edited by the community. I just wanted to 'seed' the company names and see what transpired.

    However I was disappointed to see them quickly flagged as 'PR' along with my own personal ID (which was common to both entries).

    Wikipedia needs an FAQ explaining to PR people of the best way of starting entries on companies. Especially when (as in our case) the companies are the most frequently mentioned in their industry in certain consumer forums and usenet groups.

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