Wikipedia and PR have got to work it out

Still in the midst of his highly successful campaign against News International UK MP Tom Watson has embarked on a second campaign – this time to sort out the relationship between the PR business and Wikipedia.

On a Wikipedia talk page Tom says:

‘The general point that I think is more important for the site. I suspect a number of PR firms have edited entries for their clients potentially breaching conflict of interest rules. I am going to write to the trade bodies to ask that they work with Wikipedia to issue guidelines.’

The UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations already has guidelines for how PRs should deal with Wikipedia as part of its Social Media Guidelines which were updated in mid-2011. As a disclaimer I should say I was involved in the creation of these guidelines as a founder member of the CIPR’s Social Media Panel that was responsible. The guidelines state:

‘If a practitioner is looking to update a Wikipedia entry on behalf of a
company or a client, it is best visit the discussion/talk pages and work with an
editor to update the relevant page – all updates and entries to Wikipedia must be
neutral in tone, factual and verifiable. Please read the Wikipedia guidelines carefully
before submitting or editing an article.’

The most recent notorious example of a PR agency breaching these guidelines was Bell Pottinger. An alternative tactic that I’ve used in the past is to use my client’s website to publish a more accurate Wikipedia entry, complete with lots of citations and links to evidence, and then alert people to it asking that they make the changes on Wikipedia. This is something that Jimmy Wales has even advocated himself.

However, I believe that simply getting the PR industry trade and professional bodies to work with Wikipedia to issue guidelines isn’t enough. The CIPR shows that trade bodies are already trying to do the right thing, but I believe that it is time that Wikipedia put its own house in order.

Wikipedia is now so important (entries frequently rank very highly on Google and other search engines) that they can have a major impact on a company’s, individual’s or organisation’s reputation. The current Wikipedia stance against company representatives correcting an entry simply isn’t tenable or ethically correct anymore.

It isn’t enough to just be able to ‘make a case’ on talk pages in the hope that the incorrect entry will be corrected. The process simply isn’t fast enough as incorrect information remains on the page until it is finally edited. The Wikipedia guidelines for PR within its FAQ simply aren’t sufficient anymore. Campaigners and activists against a company, charity or organisation also have a vested interest, but have far more leeway to edit and ‘spin’ pages than those directly involved (frequently with the most knowledge) do.

So Tom Watson is right there does need to be open discussion between Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia and the PR industry bodies. But is must be two way with Wikipedia also improving the way it behaves.

I shall be raising this issue at the next meeting of the CIPR Social Media Panel.

VERY IMPORTANT UPDATE: It appears that while I was writing this post, inspired by Tom Watson’s Wikipedia talk page contribution, that Edelman’s Phil Gomes has written a similar, but far more detailed open letter to Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia. I’d urge everyone to read it and that this should become an international effort.

14 Replies to “Wikipedia and PR have got to work it out

  1. Dr. Mark Pack – UK – Edit Liberal Democrat Newswire - the monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats. Author, "Bad News: what the headlines don't tell us" and "101 Ways To Win An Election." Eater of chocolate.
    Mark Pack says:

    I wonder how much of an issue country is here.

    My impression is that UK pages for, say, large companies are much more likely to be skimpy or missing than for US companies which reflects the bias towards knowledge of and interest in the US compared to the UK.

    That’s partly of course because the US is bigger, but it also means that habits and rules based on the US context often look to be based on an assumption of a more active community than there often appears to be from a UK context.

  2. Stuart Bruce – PR Futurist 🛰️ Counsel and training for communications teams and PR agencies 📊 Strategist 🗣️ International speaker 📺 NED 📈 Author 📘 Mentor 👂
    Stuart Bruce says:

    I think you’re right there are geographic issues at play here, but I’m just not sure what they are. I’ve spoken to companies in the Middle East who are very concerned about negative Wikipedia entries, but struggle to get them more balanced as edits are made by ‘activists’ while what they are allowed to do is more restricted.

  3. I couldn’t agree more Stuart. For a while I’ve be arguing that Wikipedia is limited in its scope to work to allow companies to update their entries, whether it’s via PRs or on their own. Part of the problem is the inherent complexity of really getting to understand Wikipedia. You can update a page very easily, but to get involved in the community, understand aspects such as the markup language, discussion pages, creative commons and so on take time investment. Unfortunately some people just take short cuts or go against the guidelines – kind of like cyclists that jump the lights, they give other PR/companies using Wikipedia a bad name.

  4. The conflict of interest rules apply to activists opposing a company as well as to company representatives, and the activists can be challenged on their conflict of interest as well.  If you want to be effective as an experienced Wikipedia editor, then spend some time becoming an experienced Wikipedia editor.  Work on a wide variety of articles pertaining to topics having nothing to do with your paying clients.  Spend some time working on the new pages patrol, dealing with a deluge of spam and disinformation.  Spend some time at the Articles for Deletion discussions, where thoughtful people debate for a week about whether an article about an obscure topic is suitable for the world’s greatest encyclopedia.  Write an article about an historical site in your home town, and learn how to reference it properly.  Put yourself in the shoes of experienced and dedicated volunteer Wikipedia editors who do the work for the love of knowledge rather than a paycheck from a client.  Become the sort of editor who is concerned that Wikipedia covers topics in the UK or the Middle East or Indonesia or wherever as thoroughly as it does the US, and expresses that concern by improving that coverage rather than bitching about current shortcomings.  Then, you will be in the position to humbly and graciously advance your client’s interests on Wikipedia, as long as those interests come second to improving the encyclopedia.  It is a tough bargain, but is the only way to gain credibility among experienced Wikipedia editors.  My user name is “Cullen328”.  Visit my talk page at any time.

  5. Phil and Jim are dead on. There are no rules or policies forbidding PR people from making edits, but there are dozens of particularly sensitive guidelines any such edits would need to follow. Editing Wikipedia with a conflict of interest requires expertise, but such expertise is rarely found amongst PR offices and many required skill sets like the back-end coding of articles is not well-aligned with your average PR person’s background.

    The fact that Talk pages are slow is an easy problem to fix – use noticeboards. You will get a response within hours.

    Most often people just jump in and start editing without any expertise on board, leading to crossing ethical boundaries, advert and other issues as they fumble around the site.

    -David King
    Wikipedia Ethics LLC

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