This week brought news of what could be an historic agreement between top PR firms and the editorial community behind one of the world’s most-used, most contentious sources of information: Wikipedia.
The announcement, which primarily concerned ethical issues regarding firms’ relationships with the editors responsible for their clients’ pages, could have very real implications on the entire industry. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales himself wrote, “A great opportunity is upon us.”
We spoke to several experts, three of whom were directly involved in the project, to get their perspectives.
First a bit of history via Phil Gomes, SVP of Edelman Digital, who got the ball rolling.
“I penned an open letter in January 2012 which…eventually resulted in the CREWE (Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement) Facebook group. The frustration was that the relationship felt asymmetrical; at the end of the day, don’t we want the same thing (an accurate entry)? The goal of some has been whitewashing, but most of us in this job want to do the right thing by both our clients and the communities that represent them.
[Beutler Ink founder] William Beutler had the idea: ‘What if we had a roundtable?’
When it came to the Wiki community’s relationship with PR, the only tool was public shaming, which is not terribly productive…so we planned a dialogue [independent of CREWE] about the optimal way for PR to interact with Wiki in an above-the-board, ethical way.”
Do you think the industry at large will follow?
“The group wasn’t meant to be exclusive, but it sends a strong signal when you have that many large agencies committing to those principles; we welcome all PR practitioners to sign on.”
What is the root of the issue you’re addressing?
“Some Wiki posts do have activist involvement, and some are simply neglected…but most readers don’t know that. If the goal is to have an accurate, crowd-sourced encyclopedia, I don’t see how its reputation is harmed by someone in PR who adopts the precepts, is fully transparent, engages on the talk page and looks to achieve consensus.
As a trade, we’re easy to beat up—I get that. But while some people take those cheap shots, there are people on the Wikipedia team who understand the value of PR.”
Sam Ford, director of audience engagement at Peppercomm, was also involved throughout the process. He tells us:
“The focus was largely about what we owe to the volunteer editorial community as well as the readers…We ultimately want a world in which any employee we hire already knows how to engage ethically with the Wikipedia project.
Because firms haven’t talked about ethics much (the only time it’s been discussed is regarding companies trying to deceive readers and editors), it’s no wonder that PR has a bad reputation regarding its relationship with Wiki; the majority of the conversation has been dominated by bad actors.”
What’s the central challenge?
“For professionals in the field, there’s a lack of understanding…people get that Wikipedia is a place where you can upload info, but many see it as a repository and don’t understand the politics in place.
There are far more people making edits and not knowing they’re doing anything wrong [than people ‘sockpuppeting’].
But people have gotten frustrated in trying to engage via ethical means and running into Wiki editors who have been so mistreated–directly or indirectly–by communications professionals that they have little interest in listening.”
What are your key takeaways?
“I think a healthy skepticism is a good thing and should remain in place, because there is an agenda for a corporate communicator. But if that turns to cynicism…we lose out in many instances where our industry could help contribute to the goals of the project.
Keep in mind that Wiki is a community, not a landfill. It is not a place to go dump your content or your brochure-wear. It is an active, evolving discussion about any given subject, and we need to find meaningful ways to contribute and help our clients understand. Our number one obligation is to the Wikipedia reader and editor, and secondarily to our client.
The industry has been too quiet on this conversation for far too long.”
On the other side of the table sat John Broughton, Wikipedia editor and author of Wikipedia: the Missing Manual. He writes:
“In brief, the agreement (to which “Wikipedia” isn’t a party, since no one has ever been elected to represent Wikipedia, but I quibble) is a good idea, but the challenge is the implementation.Specifically, the first two of the five principles of the agreement are:
- To seek to better understand the fundamental principles guiding Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.
- To act in accordance with Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, particularly those related to ‘conflict of interest.’
But the first is somewhat indeterminate, and the second is quite difficult. I say “difficult” because there are (to a newcomer, anyway) an astonishing number of policies and guidelines.”
So some skepticism does exist. We also got feedback from several other active voices within the industry who weren’t directly involved.
“It’s hard to argue with the principles adopted by the 10 large PR firms. That said, issuing such a statement could actually support the notion that PR pros somehow deserve to be singled out for their unique ability to wreak havoc on platforms like Wikipedia. Taken a step further, it could reinforce the view among critics that it’s inherently ‘dubious’ to get paid to write or edit a client’s Wikipedia page.
Helping clients communicate their message is precisely what we get paid to do, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – even in an environment as grassroots and collaborative as Wikipedia. Each Wikipedia entry should be judged on its own merit – not pre-judged based on who submitted it. If it violates the rules, it should be edited or deleted. Enough said.”
Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA/Board of Ethics and Professional Standards:
“This agreement is a positive step for both sides of the “sockpuppet” kerfuffle. I’ve written numerous times in the past both for my own blog and in letters to the editors of various newspapers of the need for open…honest…communication.
As public relations professionals, we of course are concerned with the manner in which our client or employer is portrayed both publicly and ‘behind-the-scenes.’
Secretive manipulation of that information, however, goes against the principles established in the PRSA Code of Ethics. If we are to be seen and believed as ethical communicators, our actions on behalf of our client or employer must be seen as such.”
“The PR industry is ripe for disruption and the large, global firms have to lead the charge or we’ll always have a handful of boutique agencies that are evolving while the rest of the industry stagnates. The agreement these 12 firms made with Wikipedia is a great step in the right direction. Astroturfing, whisper campaigns, sock puppeteering, and unethical business practices are not only bad for the PR industry, they’re bad for the business community at large. We need more leaders who are willing to take a stance like this.”
“This week’s pledge of ten agencies to abide by the site’s terms of service is important, largely because it underscores how many PR practitioners were discarding opportunities to be transparent and trustworthy resources for the online community.
Going forward, agencies and their clients will benefit most not just from following behavior guidelines— guidelines they should have been adhering to all along— but from regularly collaborating with the experts, activists and dedicated volunteers who make the Wikipedia community so rich and relevant.
Reputation management isn’t just about copy on a Wiki entry, it’s about the mutually-beneficial relationships created and nurtured with the influencers shaping perceptions about a brand’s interests.”
We have a fairly wide variety of opinions here, but all seem to agree the announcement is, at the least, a positive development that will potentially make for a more honest and mutually beneficial relationship between PR and Wiki.