from the is-it-really-notable dept
It’s a topic that has been debated for years. From Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales stating in 2006 that “PR firms editing Wikipedia is something that we frown upon very, very strongly” to last year’s Bell Pottinger lobbying scandal, where it emerged that the firm was surreptitiously manipulating client’s Wikipedia entries — raising the ire of Mr. Wales and his Wikipedia acolytes — it’s a discussion that seemingly knows no end.
PR people have long been frustrated by the complexities of the Wikipedia editing process. Colleagues tell us they feel rebuffed by what they believe is an arcane system meant to ostracize them whenever they attempt to correct inaccurate or outdated employer or client entries.
The issue over edits made on Wikipedia is one that affects more than just the public relations profession. It has implications for every business, organization and institution around the world, given Wikipedia’s widespread use as an information resource.
The matter gained particular prominence recently when Phil Gomes, an executive at Edelman Digital, began to peel back the layers of distrust and confusion between PR people and Wikipedians with a blog post and Facebook group aimed at bringing together the sparring parties.
Gomes’ initiative, dubbed the Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement, is based on four pillars:
- Corporate communicators want to do the right thing.
- Communicators engaged in ethical practice have a lot to contribute.
- Current Wikipedia policy does not fully understand Nos. 1 and 2, owing to the activities of some bad actors and a general misunderstanding of public relations in general.
- Accurate Wikipedia entries are in the public interest.
Techdirt further examined the issue when Mike Masnick asked, rather pointedly, whether PR people should be “able to edit otherwise ignored Wikipedia pages of their clients to correct errors?” He focused on some fairly glaring issues that we believe Wikipedia has yet to adequately address. Among them: Where do professionals turn to if their efforts to go through the proper channels to request edits to inaccurate or outdated information are either rebuffed or ignored?
That question has been overlooked for far too long. As Mr. Gomes pointed out in the comments of Mr. Masnick’s Techdirt post, “Some of us are working together to help [the] PR [profession] do the right thing by the Wikipedia community, especially considering that guidance is at times contradictory.”
The Case for PR Pros Editing Wikipedia
We believe there is a case to be made for PR professionals to responsibly edit client Wikipedia entries in an ethical and transparent manner.
At its most basic level, it is a matter of serving the public interest.
An accurate Wikipedia entry serves the public interest far better than inaccurate entries that are allowed to languish with errors because Wikipedia editors refuse to allow “paid advocates” to make necessary, accurate changes. A disclosure of one’s professional affiliation with a business should not automatically exempt him or her from being allowed to responsibly edit Wikipedia entries.
Greater accuracy and transparency within Wikipedia entries should be the basis of how Wikipedia goes about its practices. It should not matter who edits a page, so long as the information is accurate, unbiased and properly sourced.
PRSA certainly does not condone behavior on the part of public relations people or PR firms that is unethical or dishonest in respect to their editing of clients’ Wikipedia entries. To be sure, there are some who wish to abuse the system. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking otherwise. But on the whole, we believe that PR professionals, particularly those whose work adheres to the PRSA Code of Ethics, are responsible and respectful of the online communities in which they engage and seek to influence.
We’re encouraged by efforts in the U.K., where the Chartered Institute of Public Relations is establishing guidelines on how the PR profession deals with Wikipedia. We hope to do the same in the U.S. by working with Wikipedia to develop rigorous and explicit editing guidelines that can be used throughout the profession.
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.
Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).