PR, Wikipedia and BP–a sorry tale

European ParliamentI spent yesterday at the European Parliament in Brussels running a training session for MEPs and their staff about Wikipedia and best practice. Most of what I said was based on the CIPR’s Wikipedia Best Practice guidelines that we produced last year in co-operation with Wikimedia and I had a small hand in helping to create.

On the Eurostar home I discovered that the training I delivered might already be out of date as yet another PR and Wikipedia ‘scandal’ had erupted this time about BP’s Wikipedia page. However, this time it appears that the ‘guilty’ parties probably aren’t BP’s PR team who appear to have followed all the best practice, but the online ‘chattering classes’ and some Wikipedians who’ve taken offence at PRs at a ‘big, bad’ corporate following Wikipedia’s own guidance.

Basically the story is that Arturo Silva, a member of BP’s corporate communications team in Houston, created the Arturo at BP Wikipedia user account and used it to interact with the Wikipedia community in order to improve the BP Wikipedia page.

His user profile is fairly comprehensive, explains what the account is for and makes it clear he will only contribute to BP’s Talk page:

“Welcome to my user page. I have established this account to help improve BP-related articles in line with Wikipedia standards and guidelines. In the interest of full transparency, I chose “Arturo at BP” as my username so that my affiliation with BP is abundantly clear to all parties I may interact with on Wikipedia. Per WP:ORGNAME, I believe that this username is appropriate, and I should point out that I will be the only person to use this account.

Out of respect for guidelines on conflict of interest and the importance of a neutral point of view, and in recognition of the ongoing debate regarding companies’ involvement on Wikipedia, I will only be editing Talk pages and will not make any edits to encyclopedia articles. My primary goal in being active on Wikipedia through this account is to improve the overall quality of BP-related articles in line with Wikipedia guidelines.

Any delays in responding to inquiries are due to my other roles and responsibilities at BP which take up a significant amount of my time, so I appreciate your patience with me. I do look forward to working with other editors, and welcome any questions you may have on my Talk page.”

Most of this is inline with Wikipedia’s own guidelines and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Wikipedia Best Practice Guide that was created last year by the CIPR’s Social Media Panel in conjunction with ‘Wikipedians’ and Wikimedia.

I’d have recommended that the user profile stated absolutely that he worked for BP’s corporate communications team and there is question mark over if the company name should have been included in the user name, but apart from that it is all pretty good.

Arturo Silva then used his ‘userspace’ on this account to draft improvements to the BP page which he then pointed to on the BP talk page. He wrote everything from a neutral point of view and importantly always provided credible third party references for everything he wrote. This is precisely what is recommended in the CIPR guidelines and the idea is that this information is then checked by independent ‘Wikipedians’ and eventually incorporated into the actual Wikipedia user page by those independent third party editors.

Where it appears to have gone wrong is that despite Wikipedia’s commitment to a ‘neutral point of view’ the reality is somewhat different. The CIPR guidelines state that the definition of a neutral point of view is:

“All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopaedic content must be written from a neutral point of view, representing significant views fairly, proportionately and without bias. Fundamentally, where there is a contentious issue associated with a topic, Wikipedia content should be a good reference for the debate. In a few words, neutrality means this: report the debate, don’t take part in it.”

The problem is that people don’t agree what “representing significant views fairly, proportionately and without bias” actually means. However, for some Wikipedians, and some member of the social media chattering classes, big business is always suspect and they would prefer for it not to be included as a ‘significant view’. It’s fine for an environmental activist to actually edit the page (as long as they don’t actually work for Greenpeace), but not for a ‘big, bad’ company to follow Wikipedia’s own guidelines.

On reflection I think my training yesterday is still valid as I caveated the CIPR’s Wikipedia Best Practice guidelines with the advise that it was always best to err on the side of caution. There are some brilliant, sensible people who devote hours of valuable time to editing and improving Wikipedia. But, as in any community, there is also a minority (who are always the most vocal) who aren’t reasonable and want their personal micro-view of the world to be inflicted on everyone.

It’s that minority you need to be careful of and reflect in your dealings with Wikipedia which is why I advised “Just because you’re allowed to do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea”.

4 Replies to “PR, Wikipedia and BP–a sorry tale

  1. Over
    the past few years, namely since April 20, 2010, BP has been in PR
    crisis mode. The company has been trying to recover its brand ever
    since, and I think they’ve done a fairly good job. BP accepted
    responsibility for the oil spill that devastated the United States Gulf
    Coast. The company kept the public informed and assisted in the cleanup
    effort. Even today, I still see commercials about the Gulf Coast
    cleanup that are sponsored by BP. I think BP successfully handled the
    oil spill in every way the Exxon Valdez failed. But I also think the
    public hasn’t realized the company’s efforts and because of this, I
    think BP needs to tread even more carefully with guidelines and ethical
    considerations on the internet. Public Relations Society of America wants more communications departments to participate on Wikipedia,
    but personally, I think the first companies to jump on this shouldn’t
    have just escaped an international public relations crisis.

  2. The guidelines and rules on Wikipedia will never, ever be enforced fairly, with justice, for one simple reason — many of those who are dishing out the enforcement of the rules (and the punishment) insist on hiding behind a pseudonym, while demanding that the “guilty” party fully disclose their identity and all affiliations. It is a Star Chamber judiciary, plain and simple.

  3. Having been a wikipedia contributor myself, the very process of picking the subject to contribute to and choosing which facts to include in the writing, even from the “debate reporting” perspective, is inherently biased to begin with. If being neutral is thought of as “there is positive on one end, and there is negative on another, then they balance out or annihilate each other”, the likelihood of any wikipedia article to attain such a perfectly balanced state looks akin to none to me.

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