7 Experts Weigh in on the PR/Wikipedia Agreement

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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.