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?