Group Of Major PR Firms Pledge To Play Nice On Wikipedia

from the good-start dept

There’s always been an air of distrust when it comes to how public relations firms deal with Wikipedia pages for their clients, especially when it comes to making edits. I’d guess this general feeling has likely come about due to equal parts a misunderstanding about how most PR groups operate and a few bad actors spoiling everyone’s opinion. Contrary to what some might believe, there is a place for representative requests to edit out incorrect material on Wikipedia, so long as the ultimate goal is to serve public the most accurate information. That someone is on the payroll of the subject of an article sounds like it should be a conflict of interest, but that’s simply not always the case. Good PR firms are less about spin and more about managing the communication channels and getting the public accurate information about their clients. Still, the distrust persists — in part because there are plenty of PR firms that aren’t so “good.”

Now a group of the larger public relations firms are coming out with a pledge to deal fairly and accurately when it comes to Wikipedia edits and to route them through the proper channels.

In the statement, 11 PR agencies “publicly state and commit” to abide by five principles that would prevent them from editing a client’s Wikipedia entry without first going through proper channels. It also makes overtures toward repairing the tenuous relationship between the PR industry and Wikipedia.

“On behalf of our firms, we recognize Wikipedia’s unique and important role as a public knowledge resource,” the statement begins. “We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors. Our firms believe that it is in the best interest of our industry, and Wikipedia users at large, that Wikipedia fulfill its mission of developing an accurate and objective online encyclopedia. Therefore, it is wise for communications professionals to follow Wikipedia policies as part of ethical engagement practices.”

The companies signing onto the statement include Edelman, Ogilvy and Mather, Fleishman Hillard, Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Porter Novelli, Peppercomm, MDC Partners, Voce Communications, Allison and Partners, and Beutler Ink. Those are some impressive names in the industry and the statement they released represents a serious step forward both for how the industry interacts with the Wikipedia community and for affirming Wikipedia’s stature as a whole. You have to understand that in PR-land, you don’t make this kind of promise unless you have every intention of keeping it. PR is all about managing expectations, but this statement sets the reader’s expectations quite high. The statement essentially promises to refrain from creating so-called sock-puppet Wikipedia accounts used to edit articles on which there is a conflict of interest. Even the management for the firms appear to be on board with playing by the ethical rules.

“If you are a paid advocate, then you should refrain from editing articles directly,” said Mr. Beutler. “But PR people can contribute by making sure correct information is made correct.” And what happens when an unhappy client calls its agency asking them to remove or edit something on its Wikipedia page? According to Mr. Beutler, these agencies should go to Wikipedia’s “talk” areas and make their case about why an article should be edited. “This works,” he said. “But it doesn’t work terribly efficiently,” he added.

Even as this pledge is being made, Wikipedia itself is making some significant modifications to their ToS to codify this sort of thing and attempt to increase the transparency on edits made by paid actors. Volunteer editors and those working with libraries and museums will continue to operate as they always have, but those receiving any kind of pay for editing articles are required to make disclosures as such.

If you are paid to edit, other rules beyond the Terms of Use may also apply. Specific policies on individual Wikimedia projects, or relevant laws in your country (such as those prohibiting fraudulent advertising), may require further disclosure or prohibit paid advocacy editing altogether. Details on the legal issues and risk associated with undisclosed paid advocacy editing may be found in this FAQ.

That seems to line up everyone’s goal at promoting good behavior nicely. Except, that is, for all those PR firms and agencies that didn’t sign on to this pledge. Wikipedia’s changes put them on notice that it is going to take this kind of thing seriously and the proactive pledge from the other PR firms makes non-signees look late to the game. If this works, it will hopefully only amplify the status of Wikipedia as an open and trusted source for reliable information.

Filed Under: , , , ,
Companies: allison and partners, beutler ink, burson-marstellar, edelman, fleishman hillard, ketchum, mdc partners, ogilvy and mather, peppercomm, porter novelli, voce communications, wikipedia

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Comments on “Group Of Major PR Firms Pledge To Play Nice On Wikipedia”

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mr. sim (profile) says:

wikipedia should just make it so that in the TOS for signing up you have to disclose your job in PR and then if you don’t they have the legal right to make you pay them 500,000 dollars and you agree to binding arbitration and give up all rights to seek redress in a jurisdiction that you live in.

teach them to screw around with the site.

zip says:

What about Astroturfing?

The Wikipedia pledge might be a good start, but Wikipedia is just one website. That still leaves out the larger issue of “astroturfing” – the common practice of flooding message boards and social media with comments-for-hire, purporting to come from ordinary people, for the purpose of shaping public opinion. Internet astroturfing has become a big business, many companies offer that service, with clients ranging from governments to corporations to lobbying firms.

Although this PR is often clumsily done, other times it’s hard to tell. On a message board that I was once a frequent poster, I was once asked to underhandedly promote a product in return for commission. I’m sure most people would be amazed at the amount of phoniness that goes on in the world (and always has existed) and the internet has simply opened up a new battlefront in this war to conquer the public mind.

Sam Ford (profile) says:

Re: What about Astroturfing?

Very much agreed, zip. I’m one of the people who worked on this statement, on behalf of the agency where I work (Peppercomm). But, while this was a specific initiative, it has to be seen as part of a larger issue–There is a lack of discussion about ethics in marketing/PR/communications. As a result, many people are doing things without even thinking through why they are unethical. Many agencies are doing what clients tell them to do. Many clients are hiring firms who promise results without asking them about their methods. And it leads to many of these practices happening off the radar.

The Wikipedia issue is part of this larger issue with ethics. I’m co-chair of the Ethics Committee at a group called the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. There, we spend a lot of our time focused on the ethical questions surrounding things like native advertising, or proper disclosure, etc.

The question really boils down to this: should communications professionals just be tacticians or advisors to their clients. But, either way, I feel we owe just as much or more to the “publics” we seek to “relate” to as we do to the companies asking us to do said relations…

Anonymous Coward says:

PR firms have no one to blame but themselves. Just like dataminers have no one to blame but themselves over people using extensions to block their gathering data or ad companies and their ads.

When they start seeing that no one from their areas are getting through even for the legitimate changes that should be made, they have their noses rubbed in just how much they have abused the system and what those systems have done to stem their access.

I don’t necessarily think that pledging this late in the game is a good thing. I think they have their backs to the wall with no way to make good on their promises to their clients. They are being forced to acknowledge their abuse of the system and it’s results.

Before it is all over with I expect dataminers and ad companies will have to come up with the same sorts of pledges to respect those that do not want their data gathered nor those who do not want to waste their bandwidth with the constant demand for connection to view a web page. Data servers are over loaded and cause a lot of slow down to viewing pages and if you are on a data cap over the long haul they do their share of taking, thereby increasing the load of data transferred on your dime. Each on by itself is not a whole lot. In the course of a day, each time you open an article, it accumulates.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In the process of viewing this article and writing a response I’ve had 22 attempts to connect from dataminers on this site. With them being denied connection, the web page has opened a second faster and has denied 187 kb of data transferred. That’s not much till you go to other sites more heavily datamined and then multiply that per article viewed.

Sam Ford (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I can certainly see why you’d feel that way, and–were you to lump all communications professional into one category, it seems legitimate. On the other hand…I know that Peppercomm has had a policy in place against these kind of edits since at least 2008, when I joined, and I know of no instance in our history where these violations have happened. I don’t know the particulars of the other firms who have signed onto this statement, but I know many of them have had these policies long in place. So I also think it’s important for those who are and have long only been interested in ethical engagement to make a clearer designation between the two.

Doesn’t mean a volunteer Wikipedia editor shouldn’t still be heavily skeptical; I think the skepticism is healthy. But perhaps we can get to the point where professional communicators who have something useful to provide to make an entry more accurate or up-to-date can do so.

A statement won’t do that for us. But hopefully it got some discussion going. And, as the article points out, I hope it puts us on the hook for greater scrutiny if we do sign on. I know at least one Wikipedian has been going through Peppercomm’s client list and trying to find an example where we’re contradicting what we’re saying. I welcome that sort of scrutiny. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

ALL PR firms are ALL professional liars

So this pledge means nothing.

Nobody with something to say needs a PR firm or a spokesperson. They just say it themselves.

PR firms and spokespeople are only needed when it’s necessary to lie, conceal, deceive, mislead — to craft wording so that includes plausible deniability and weasel words and vagueness — built-in defenses against future discovery of the truth. That’s why they exist. That’s what they do.

So this 100% pure bullshit pledge was probably broken before the ink on the press release was dry. I would rather see Wikipedia permanently blacklist (that is: for life) anyone who works for any PR firm: that’s likely to be far more effective.

Sam Ford (profile) says:

Re: ALL PR firms are ALL professional liars

Well..just like I don’t think ALL anonymous people are ALL cowards…I don’t think this assessment is fair in any way. I know many smart people who are terrible at clearly communicating who they are and what they stand for. And I don’t think those efforts are primarily there “to lie, conceal, deceive, mislead.” I’m certainly not claiming that it doesn’t happen, or that there may well be organizations that mainly focus on concealing and misleading.

But for anyone who thinks this is BS…the only thing we can do is back up our word with action (or, I suppose, lack of action, to a degree, here…)

vegetaman (profile) says:

A PR firm, to me, is basically a case study of a way of saying a ton of words that are strung together into sentences to form a press release or a response that really doesn’t “say” anything.

I mean, it doesn’t have to be an external PR firm, either. Plenty of marketing departments are good at making pie in the sky sounding bullshit or truth twisting or word-smithing to get their “feel”.

vancedecker (profile) says:

why are you so naive?

Of course they say that now that most of the wikipedia editors are paid shills which have been at it for years. They have earned positions that are for the most part, untouchable.

They will mob and harass any user that disagrees with the narrative being shoved into the public domain, and accuse you of vandalism or some other obscure wikipedia garbage.

They have gained full control, and so yes, it is in their best interest to shut out smaller players from the Reputation Management racket.

Honestly, if you are using wikipedia for any topic other than non-controversial historical topics and/or science which does not affect the public (i.e. astronomy) then you are an idiot.

TestPilotDummy says:

I didn't have much luck with Wiki

I found nice api’s to link to them, but when actually trying to enter something, met with a wall of arrogance.

There’s some truth to it being Israel run. Let them have their encyclopedia. Just don’t use it for anything important.
There is a lot of good stuff, for people playing with electronics for example. Or refreshing memory on what a base, collector and emitter is or formula for voltage current amps etc. It has some value there. And I will leave it on that positive note.

To me wikipedia feels like the old gopher. anyway..

Sam Ford (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I don’t think any whole industry is or isn’t trustworthy. But “spin” isn’t the primary objective of professional communications, or at least it shouldn’t be. I’ll agree with you to a point, though. It’s sad how little relating to their publics the PR industry has really spent doing…

As for John’s point, the problem certainly isn’t resolved by the statement; none of us were delusional to think it would. But our hope was to drive a whole lot more discussion of ethics in our industry, where–as some of the cynics here would probably guess correctly–ethics is far too often not a prominent part of the agenda in our industry publications or conferences, as compared to “ROI” and tactics and the like.

Some people are deceiving and know they are deceiving. Many more just haven’t even taken the time to get to know the ToU and the ethos of Wikipedia. They just think it’s a site anyone can edit, so they go there and edit…without realizing that what they are doing is an ethical violation. If, at the very least, we can get those who have a sense of ethics to behave as they should over time…we at least minimize the problem…and hopefully also put pressure on companies to hire firms that engage above board than run the risk of reputational damage from engaging in sock puppetry or other unethical behaviors.

zip says:

“some of the cynics here would probably guess correctly–ethics is far too often not a prominent part of the agenda in our industry publications or conferences, as compared to “ROI” and tactics and the like.”

That’s putting it mildly. I see the online advertising / PR field as more of a “Wild West” where the most ruthless of gunslingers run roughshod over the populace and the law is nowhere to be found. It’s no less than outright fraud the way that many of these marketers operate, and if our government actually represented the interests of the people like it’s supposed to, someone might have actually tried to pass some laws and regulations targeting these sort of professional online deceivers — in addition to enforcing existing laws. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen, as our elected officials constitute some of the advertising/PR industry’s biggest customers and are just as determined to “win at all costs.”

Sam Ford (profile) says:

I’d say it’s in all our best interests–including ethical actors in the industry–to see more governmental oversight come down the line, particularly aimed at “bad players.” One of the issues is that I am concerned in many cases that the governmental entities tasked with oversight of these areas know so little about the space that they struggle to issue anything meaningful.

On the other hand, the ethical actors in marketing/PR/communications can’t wait for the government to step in to take some action. After all, ethics is not simply compliance–and, all too often, people in our world think it is. Whether there is a law against something or not doesn’t affect whether or not it is unethical. And as transparency becomes greater and reputation more affected by it…my hope is that will put some pressure on firms to prioritize acting ethically for the sake of reputation and for some feeling of owing something to the “publics” we’re supposed to be relating to and not simply vendors for the client.

zip says:

Re: Re:

But in the end, I think that simply asking everyone to “play nice” probably has little value, since it just ensures that the few black-hats willing to break the rules will profit even more lucratively. I believe that the people who hire these “bad players” and then conveniently “look the other way” should be forced to share liability for their client’s unethical and/or illegal actions.

In one area of law — copyright infringement — the courts have created this three-tiered level of responsibility, so an accused party can be found liable for ‘primary’, ‘secondary’, and/or “vicarious” infringement, the latter two categories being directed at 3rd-party ‘enablers’ who basically create or encourage (and fail to properly police) — as well as profit from — an environment conducive to copyright infringement committed by others.

But unfortunately it seems this legal standard of contributory liability does not seem to be as well established outside of the copyright realm. Perhaps it should be, and the fallout and consequences from deceptive marketers should extend all the way back to the people who hired them (in ways other than simply bad PR value, of course).

Sam Ford (profile) says:

Your point about attributing more fault to those who enable the ethical violation, even if not directly taking part, is well taken, zip.

I agree that having more conversations about ethics and getting people throughout our industry to publicly state that they won’t engage unethically won’t solve the problem; there will always be less ethical actors who thrive off profiting from going against ToU or guidelines. But I don’t agree that it has “little value.”

Some of the current ethical violations that happen re: disclosure happen because people are intentionally breaking the rules or gaming the system. But many more of the people who are failing to disclose (on or off Wikipedia) are doing so because they don’t understand the issue well enough to know that they are doing something wrong. Perhaps, for some of them, it’s because they don’t care enough to want to learn. But I know for sure–from many first-hand conversations–that some who have done this “the wrong way” did so because they’d never been confronted with the question and didn’t understand the space well enough to know that they couldn’t just create a profile and upload that entry about their executive–after all, it’s a site anyone can edit, right? The discussion of ethics happens far too little in marketing/communications…and even when it does Wikipedia is not part of the college curriculum, too rarely part of the industry conference sessions, and probably missing from many firms’ training programs.

And, what’s worse, many of the companies who hire an organization who says we can help you with that outdated company page or ensure your executive has an entry about him/her on Wikipedia are duped when told that everything the company does is “above board.” I’ve known companies who hired someone who said, “I can help you manage your Wikipedia page. Of course what we do is above board.”

Can we stop black-hat firms who know the rules and profit off breaking them? No. Can we stop companies who intentionally hire someone to edit their pages, knowing it is against ToU and policies? No. But we can hopefully stop people who are doing so–or hiring someone to do so–out of ignorance–which accounts for a significant portion of the conflict-of-interest edits people are making.

A couple of pieces I’ve written to expand on this:
Inc: 8 Things You Need to Know about Wikipedia–

PRWeek: Our Industry Must Learn Wikipedia Is a Community, Not a Landfill–

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