Should PR People Be Able To Edit Otherwise Ignored Wikipedia Pages Of Their Clients To Correct Errors?

from the the-community-won't-like-that... dept

As a tech blogger with a reasonably large audience, I am fairly inundated with pitches from PR people on a daily basis. Almost all of these pitches are mistargeted and not at all well thought out. They are about things we obviously would never cover, and many are clearly mass mailings (my favorites are the ones who address me by the name of other tech bloggers — you’d be amazed how many times I’ve been called Om). It’s pretty rare that we ever get a “story” from a PR person. Most of the time, honestly, PR pitches are about as close to spam as can be. Multiple times, I’ve publicly lashed out at bad PR people for being much more of a nuisance than helping. All that said… it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that all PR people are bad and not helpful. But that’s an exaggeration. There are, certainly, some very good and very helpful PR people out there, and I’ve worked with many. Generally, they’re not pitching me on “stories,” but helping me get answers — or they’re people who actually read the site and understand what we talk about here, and recognize that, “because my client wants me to get this story on Techdirt,” is not a good reason to pitch us, if the story has nothing to do with what we talk about.

Consider that preamble for a simple point: there are good PR people who do good work, and it’s generally people who actually understand what they’re talking about. PR guru Phil Gomes, who I’ve known for many, many years, is definitely one of the good guys. A Linux-using, open source-loving techie to the core, he’s not your ordinary PR guy. He’s also a guy who I can sit down and talk with about ridiculous government actions and crazy intellectual property cases for many hours, and the conversation is always fun, and we tend to agree on most things. But when he put out a pitch to Jimmy Wales at Wikipedia, saying that, in certain, very specific cases, PR people should be able to edit Wikipedia pages of the companies they work with, I cringed a bit. Something about the concept feels wrong. Though, the case Phil makes is pretty compelling. He’s arguing that if a company page is completely inaccurate, and not updated properly, it’s silly that a PR person can’t go in and fix things.

  • Wikipedia is on the first page of search results for nearly every company, brand, product, personality, captain-of-industry, etc. This shoulders Wikipedia with a great level of responsibility, whether asked for or otherwise.
  • Many entries are derelict, even for important topics and well-known industry bellwethers. Financial data is often years old. Some companies are described as remaining in businesses long divested. A WikiProject for reviving abandoned articles, and a proposal for a similar effort, themselves both appear abandoned.
  • You can imagine why a company might consider its entry to be a high priority (perhaps even to the point of distraction) and task its communications staff to “do something”, especially if the entry is inaccurate.
  • Entreaties on Talk pages?determined as the most appropriate place for a company representative to make his/her case?often go ignored for very long periods while inaccurate information persists. 
  • The small concession to PR on the FAQ (that a company can “fix minor errors in spelling, grammar, usage, or fact”, etc.) takes a lot for granted and helps neither a PR representative nor Wikipedia. For example, too often, a company representative will ?go native? when it comes to separating matters of ?fact? from matters upon which reasonable people might disagree. On the other hand, activists (hardly of a neutral point of view) appear to enjoy much more latitude. 

Thus, he comes up with some specific suggestions to try to solve this issue, in which in very limited situations, and with tremendous transparency, perhaps PR people might be able to edit some pages for clients:

When an entry is derelict (duration and definition TBD), a communications representative should be granted greater leeway in editing the entry. The entry can have a notification at the top indicating the derelict status, or even that a communications representative has had a hand in updating it. This will allow visitors to make their own judgments on how to evaluate the entry or even prioritize it in terms of how and when it gets evaluated and/or revised by a neutral party. The choice is between the certainty of an inaccurate entry or the possibility that the entry would not meet NPOV guidelines. Negative attention to bad behavior (or even to mediocre efforts) would mitigate the impact of the latter.

That actually started to make me uncringe — and actually does make some sense. The issue here is that he’s actually talking about both greater accuracy and greater transparency, both of which seem like good things. Phil also suggests a system by which companies could create entries, posted to their own corporate sites, along with a way to alert “independent Wikipedians” to react to the content and decide if it’s worthy of being on the site.

An interesting discussion ensued, with folks in a variety of camps… including Jimmy Wales, who weighed in himself, sticking to his initial stance that paid PR folks have other avenues to alert Wikipedians.

Best practice is very simple and no one in the PR industry has ever put forward a cogent argument (and seldom bother putting forward an argument at all) why it is important that they take the potentially (especially if I have anything to do with it) reputation damaging step of directly editing entries where they are acting as paid advocates.

The simple and obvious answer is to do what works, without risking the reputation of the client: talk to the community, respect their autonomy, and never ever directly edit an article.

There are many avenues for you to make simple factual corrections, and these avenues actually do work. You can post on the talk page. If you don’t get a timely response there you can escalate to appropriate noticeboards. Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is email us! The OTRS team is very good about helping out with basic issues.

He also notes that there is “comprehensive” evidence that “paid advocates do not make good editors.” In the end, he notes (quite accurately) that the community itself has made it clear that it doesn’t want paid advocates — and having paid advocates edit the site definitely leads to backlash.

Of course, to some extent, I think both Phil and Jimmy are right. Just as in my initial cringe, plenty of people don’t like the idea of paid advocates/PR people directly editing client pages. There are just too many areas to insert bias into a system that supposedly insists on keeping a neutral point of view (though it doesn’t always succeed). That bias can be subtle — and it may not even be done consciously by the advocate, but it’s still likely to be there. However, I’m still partially swayed by Phil’s first suggestion. So if the methods that Jimmy lays out (talk pages, noticeboards, email) simply don’t work and no one responds, would it then be okay if a PR person made corrections with the clear caveat of who they are, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it? Perhaps followed up with a further notice for independent Wikipedians to check their work? I’m not sure that’s such a terrible thing, as a last resort. After all, isn’t accurate info more important in the long run than inaccurate info untouched by PR people?

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Comments on “Should PR People Be Able To Edit Otherwise Ignored Wikipedia Pages Of Their Clients To Correct Errors?”

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47 Comments
Scote (profile) says:

How about a short note or page for the subject to annotate?

In English Libel law there is something called a right of reply. Why not use that as an idea for Wiki pages–distinct place tagged as being by the subject, and a potential source of bias, where the subject can make their own claims–subject to the same citation requirements as regular Wiki entries?

RonKaminsky says:

Re: How about a short note or page for the subject to annotate?

To try to translate your proposal to the current technical framework of Wikipedia, the PR person could flag the article with a template, and add to the talk page a link to a sub-page of a user page where the correction text would actually reside, pending action by editors without a conflict of interest.

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Re: How about a short note or page for the subject to annotate?

Doesn’t this already happen in the “imcomplete” ramework on Wikipedia? Why not just adapt the code for PR people, with the usualk warning:

“This piece has been edited by a PR representing the company in question. Please help us keep it accurate (Hmtl code for link to edit)here(/html code).”

RonKaminsky says:

Re: Re: Re: How about a short note or page for the subject to annotate?

No, I think you’re ignoring the concerns of the Wikipedia community. Even with the resources one has (the automatic diff generation from the history list), it can be quite hard (or at least, a lot of work) to understand exactly what was changed by who. The community prefers to sacrifice a possible net improvement in the articles’ quality in order to minimize questions which might arise about POV/conflict of interest if PR people would be directly allowed to edit the articles.

What I find interesting about this whole discussion, is that people aren’t just assuming that the majority of PR people are less scrupulous than Phil Gomes, and they simply edit their clients’ articles from the wireless connection at the neighborhood coffee shop. Or is that what you meant by saying that this is the status quo (except that in that case there is nothing like the notice you talk about for the sake of transparency).

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How about a short note or page for the subject to annotate?

Fair enough – I know I’ve seen notices about bias in the past on articles (usually involving certain companies, such as Apple and Microsoft). If I’m wrong, it’s no issue, so long as I learn from it.

I also appreciate the risks inherent in allowing PR firms access tot he editing process. I know Edit-wars can carry on over the most insignificat (for outsiders) things.

David King (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How about a short note or page for the subject to annotate?

There has been some discussion in the community of what I would call “casual approval,” where substantial content additions from a paid editor are reviewed “at a glance” by a volunteer member who would regret making that decision if they looked at the article closely.

This was the thinking behind the Mentor Program I suggested on Wikiproject Cooperation (which is up and running now for all intensive purposes) which entails greater attention from a volunteer editor.

David King (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Some more instructions for paid editors

Wikipedia already has mountains of instructions for COI editors, but it’s a lot for your average media-focused PR person to invest in learning it all.

-David King
Wikipedia Ethics

David King (user link) says:

Re: Re:

From a policy perspective I believe (roughly) this is the case. That the content is what counts.

Many believe that paid editors (like PR people) should be subject to extra scrutiny and that “Assume Good Faith” isn’t reasonable amongst an audience with such a compelling conflict of interest.

The community doesn’t generally block quality content contributions due exclusively to the source. PR people are blocked/reverted/etc. due to policy violations. Since they’re not familiar with the rules, the incident is interpreted as being picked on.

-David King
Wikipedia Ethics LLC
http://www.wikipediamarketing.com

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Re: Re:

To me, Wikipedia shows incontrovertibly that people can put a lot of effort and be passionate in things without getting paid for it.

But more generally, does Wikipedia ban members of Greenpeace from editing the Exxon page? Everyone has a lot of biases and yet Wikipedia keeps getting better because the community has the tools to deal with bad actors. Paid PR people will either be good actors or they will get kicked out individually just like the other bad actors.

ipgrunt (profile) says:

Re: Accuracy and Integrity

Both are needed — accuracy and trust — which is another word for integrity of information in this context.

This is a fundamental problem with Wikipedia and other repositories with user contributed content.

Where is the guarantee that information already contained in Wikipedia has not been tainted by marketing, political, or other special interest spin?

It is for this reason that I prefer using an encyclopedia with an accredited editorial staff, and why Wiki and other “free” information sources containing information with questionable integrity.

In other words, I trust the information in Encyclopaedia Britannica, but I am skeptical of what I read on a Wikipedia page.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Problems

I agree that PR people should be able to edit Wikipedia pages, but, like some other things that I won’t name, it can be abused too easily. This is why so many just say no.

I agree with setting up some system to indicate that the page was edited by a potentially bias party. An indication that could be removed when the change is approved as accurate and non-trivial.

Danny (profile) says:

Talk amongst yourselves...

There already is a solution for this. It is called the “talk” page. And that is where the PR person should ID him/her self and correct the errors (with documentation). Then the unbiased readership and/or volunteer editors can confirm and make the changes on the main page.

You say that no reader or editor stumbles on the correction in Talk? Then it is unlikely much of anyone is reading the main page (and why is this main page subject paying PR fees in the first place?)

Unrelated aside: I can’t believe how short the Techdirt page is on Wikipedia! Mike ought to hire one of these PR guys to build it out :-

David King (user link) says:

Re: Market opportunity

This would make Wikipedia itself in the same conflict of interest the PR agency is otherwise in – being funded by the client.

However, I have heard of companies that hire a freelance writer to write and post an article without letting them see it, because the organization itself is unable to approve encyclopedic copy.

I suggested on the Wikiproject Cooperation page that we encourage paid editors to donate to the Wikimedia Foundation and even that was shot down pretty hard. No one wants to see anything that can be construed as an endorsement of paid editing on Wikipedia, which would open the doors wide to all kinds of hacks.

-David King
Wikipedia Ethics LLC
http://www.wikipediaethics.com

Danny (profile) says:

Talk amongst yourselves...

There already is a solution for this. It is called the “talk” page. And that is where the PR person should ID him/her self and correct the errors (with documentation). Then the unbiased readership and/or volunteer editors can confirm and make the changes on the main page.

You say that no reader or editor stumbles on the correction in Talk? Then it is unlikely much of anyone is reading the main page (and why is this main page subject paying PR fees in the first place?)

Unrelated aside: I can’t believe how short the Techdirt page is on Wikipedia! Mike ought to hire one of these PR guys to build it out :-

Danny (profile) says:

Re: Talk amongst yourselves...

Follow up to myself. Look, if the talk page is ignored one of several things is going on:

1. The “correction” by the PR person didn’t contain sufficient documentation to sell an unbiased person that it is correct;
2. The error is not important enough to correct;
3. No one but the subject of the story cares. And Wikipedia is not a vanity glossy. If no one cares, the tree didn’t make any noise (if you get my drift.)

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Re: Re: Talk amongst yourselves...

“3. No one but the subject of the story cares. And Wikipedia is not a vanity glossy. If no one cares, the tree didn’t make any noise (if you get my drift.)”

It would be nice if Wikipedia provided a report for that. I suspect that there are some pages which have high traffic but very slow editor activity. If I look up a company, on Google, I often land on their wikipedia article. Quite frequently, the article is woefully out of date.

At the very least, there are some uncontroversial facts that company insiders could update. For instance, they could update their financials shortly after SEC filings. They could update the fact that they have been purchased or merged. They could update number of employees. They could update the fact that they discontinued a major product line. I mean, sure, they can lie, but they’ll be found out pretty fast and IP-banned rapidle.

Gregory Kohs (profile) says:

Re: Talk amongst yourselves...

@Danny: You say, “[if] no reader or editor stumbles on the correction in Talk, [t]hen it is unlikely much of anyone is reading the main page”. Over on Phil Gomes’ “CREWE” group on Facebook, I easily found about 5 or 6 examples of Talk pages that received only a dozen or so page views per month, while the Article page received thousands of views. In these situations, requests left on the Talk page went unanswered for months, even years at a time. After I had pointed out these statistical facts, Gomes’ booted me from the CREWE group. Apparently Jimmy Wales complained to Gomes because Wales thought I might shoot him with an AK-47, because I was photographed once firing an AK-47. You can’t make up this stuff.

David King (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Usually it’s pretty obvious when a PR person is editing based on the edits they’re making.

Just the other day I identified over a half-dozen anonymous user accounts all owned by a single PR agency – no IP addresses required.

However I’ve had this conversation with someone on Wikipedia. If a PR person making covert edits is smart enough to avoid detection, is that a threat to Wikipedia, or are they just making good edits?

-David King
Wikipedia Ethics LLC
http://www.wikipediaethics.com

Brian Schroth (profile) says:

Personally, I don’t think there should me any restrictions on who can edit any article. I should be able to edit an article on myself, if I so desire. These policies are a product of totally wrongheaded thinking that somehow only certain people are biased, when in reality everyone is biased. Wikipedia has processes in place to dispute biased information precisely because even if you don’t allow certain people to post, bias is still present. So why not simply allow everyone to edit, and use those existing processes to resolve disputes about biased information?

Keith Trivitt (user link) says:

Transparency Key for PR Pros Editing Wikipedia

The issue over edits made on Wikipedia is one that affects more than just the public relations industry. It has implications for every business, organization and institution around the world, given Wikipedia?s widespread use as a source of information.

We believe there is a case to be made for PR professionals to responsibly edit client Wikipedia entries in an ethical and transparent manner. As you rightly note, accurate information, especially within one of the world?s most searched and used websites, is far more important and valuable than inaccurate information. In that regard, it should not matter who edits an entry, so long as the information is accurate, unbiased and properly sourced.

Greater accuracy and transparency within Wikipedia entries are absolutely good things and should be the basis of how Wikipedia goes about its practices.

The Public Relations Society of America certainly does not condone behavior on the part of public relations professionals or PR firms that is unethical or dishonest in respect to their editing of clients? Wikipedia entries. To make proper edits or corrections, PR pros must respect the Wikipedia community and should clearly indicate who they are and the interests they represent.

Our position on this matter is simple: it’s wrong for the PR profession to think it can run roughshod over the established Wikipedia community. PR professionals must engage with it in a reasonable manner that respects the community?s rules and protocols, while also ensuring they are acting in their clients’ best interests. But the engagement should be a two-way street in which Wikipedia is willing to see and accommodate both sides of the issue. At the moment, we do not believe that to be the case.

Keith Trivitt
Associate Director
Public Relations Society of America
http://www.prsa.org/

Griffin says:

Wiki admins disagree about the role PR can play

In my last job, I attempted to do just as Jimmy Wales suggested: understanding that editing was off-limits to someone in my PR shoes, I wanted to engage in discussion on Talk pages. The moment I created an account (I have a personal account, but created one with transparency about my role and my employer), it was banned, because an admin recognized me as a PR representative for the company. I understand Wikipedia’s negative bias towards paid corporate representatives, but I was surprised that my honesty was met with hostility.

This was three years ago, though; maybe the attitude has changed.

Keith Trivitt (user link) says:

Transparency Key for PR Editing Wikipedia

The issue over edits made on Wikipedia is one that affects more than just the public relations industry. It has implications for every business, organization and institution around the world, given Wikipedia?s widespread use as a source of information.

We believe there is a case to be made for PR professionals to responsibly edit client Wikipedia entries in an ethical and transparent manner. As you rightly note, accurate information, especially within one of the world?s most searched and used websites, is far more important and valuable than inaccurate information. In that regard, it should not matter who edits an entry, so long as the information is accurate, unbiased and properly sourced.
Greater accuracy and transparency within Wikipedia entries are absolutely good things and should be the basis of how Wikipedia goes about its practices.

The Public Relations Society of America certainly does not condone behavior on the part of public relations professionals or PR firms that is unethical or dishonest in respect to their editing of clients? Wikipedia entries. To make proper edits or corrections, PR pros must respect the Wikipedia community and should clearly indicate who they are and the interests they represent.

Our position on this matter is simple: it’s wrong for the PR profession to think it can run roughshod over the established Wikipedia community. PR professionals must engage with it in a reasonable manner that respects the community?s rules and protocols, while also ensuring they are acting in their clients’ best interests. But the engagement should be a two-way street in which Wikipedia is willing to see and accommodate both sides of the issue. At the moment, we do not believe that to be the case.

Keith Trivitt
Associate Director
Public Relations Society of America
http://www.prsa.org/

philgomes (profile) says:

From he who created the ruckus...

Glad to see that there’s renewed attention to this issue (it’s been oft-discussed, certainly) and there are some creative solutions emerging from all sides (somewhat unique this time around).

The core philosophical issue isn’t *so* much about whether/if an ethical PR practitioner operating above-board is editing an entry. What’s at issue is the question of whether a preferable condition for an entry is 1) objectively inaccurate, though untouched by a PR person, or 2) objectively accurate, with the help of a PR person. Almost everyone seems to agree that an accurate entry is in the public interest. Some of us are working together to help PR do the right thing by the Wikipedia community, especially considering that guidance is at times contradictory.

I’ve been strongly encouraged by the participation of a few Wikipedians who want to explore that “middle way.” There are also great contributions from those who have looked at the intersection of PR and online communities for quite a long time.

Less encouraged at the level of agency participation, though they’ll most certainly benefit from the outcome of these efforts. As the twist on the old saw goes, the early bird sometimes get the worm, but the second mouse always gets the cheese.

More news as it develops, both on the CREWE Facebook page and the Cooperation Wikiproject.

David King (user link) says:

A Different Point of View

This initiative always seems to come out with smoking blame guns aimed at Wikipedia.

It seems Phil and I have a fundamental disagreement (which is ok) in that I feel Wikipedia has already adequately dealt with this issue through pre-existing policies, guidelines and essays.

It’s PR professionals that need to adapt to Wikipedia, not the other way around and there’s already many PR pros who have learned how to make ethical, encyclopedic contributions to Wikipedia.

However if Edelman does take this on and develops in-house expertise, they would be the first large PR agency (that I know of) to do so, but far from the first organization.

-David King
Wikipedia Ethics LLC
http://www.wikipediaethics.com

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