If you search for anything online, you’ll usually find a Wikipedia entry in the top five results. In little over a decade, Wikipedia has evolved from being the plaything of logophiles into a highly credible and up-to-date source of information on practically anything. According to Google, Wikipedia is the sixth most visited site on the web, and it’s also a significant source of inbound web traffic for most websites.
Wikipedia is clearly helping people make decisions and form opinions. However Wikipedia—like traditional media before it—is not immune to hoaxes, mistakes, and false death claims. The reality is that any information source with more than 3.8 million English-language crowdsourced entries will include factual errors, outdated information, and abandoned posts.
Wikipedia’s undeniable importance and famed collective approach to editing make it a critical site for public relations firms to watch as they try to protect their clients’ brands. The problem for many PR pros, though, is that while Wikipedia promotes itself as a free encyclopedia anyone can edit, it doesn’t include PR people in its definition of ‘anyone’.
It is against Wikipedia’s policies for people with a conflict of interest to directly edit pages. This presents a real challenge for many PR people, in spite of Wikipedia‘s guidelines, which are quite specific on the nature of edits allowed and who can make them. The site prefers brand representatives to influence the site’s editors (a.k.a. Wikipedians) to update content. PR and corporate communicators are directed to use the “talk” page feature to suggest content edits, as opposed to directly editing pages themselves. Unfortunately PR pros report that it can often take months to get responses from editors or allow them to be posted. In the meantime, pages with incorrect information are continuing to be read by millions each day.
This challenge has created a significant debate. On one side is Wikipedia, which is sticking to a policy that makes it hard for brands to correct inaccuracies without editors’ approval. On the other side is a PR industry frustrated by a process that relies on the endorsement of people who often don’t hold subject matter expertise and frequently deny edits on the basis of the contributor’s profession.
Many Wikipedians see PR folks as “spin-merchants” who want to use their site as a marketing channel through which we’ll blast our key messages and biased opinions. In spite of our industry associations, ethical guidelines and more than 100 years of professional behaviour, it seems we struggle to shake this perception. Sadly the recent Bell Pottinger incident didn’t improve our industry’s reputation with Wikipedia’s army of editors.
PR has tried to fight back. Industry veteran Phil Gomes posted an open letter to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on his blog, calling for change. Wales responded, stating that “…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.”
So what to do? Some companies have chosen to work through freelance Wikipedia editors, an approach that frequently raises the ire of die-hard amateur Wikipedians. Others have taken the path of editing directly and trying to avoid the editors’ scrutiny. From Jimmy Wales’ perspective, there’s little case for change. “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,” he stated recently.
In an attempt to find a middle ground, Phil Gomes has created a Facebook group, Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE). CREWE’s mission is to “…create a forum for discussing how Wikipedia and PR can have a constructive relationship in the public interest of maintaining entries that are accurate.” Since the group went live in early January, hundreds of posts have been shared and more than 130 people are taking part in the discussion. Interestingly, Jimmy Wales and several Wikipedia editors have actively joined in the debate.
So what’s next for Wikipedia and the PR community? There are those who say the editing rules are good enough, and PR people should simply shut up and learn to follow them. Others see a case for change, reflecting a more mature understanding of PR as a discipline. UK industry body Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has announced plans to work with Wikipedia on clear guidelines for the PR profession.
While there’s no conclusion yet, the lines of dialogue are open. I’m hopeful that the outcome will present a more balanced approach to the types of edits ethical PR people wish to make.