Closing the chasm between PR and Wikipedia


If you’re a PR practitioner, especially if you work for an agency, you may have experienced a dark side of Wikipedia when it comes to editing existing entries or creating new ones for clients.

It’s not anecdotal when you hear someone say “Public relations people are not welcomed to edit Wikipedia entries” and you wonder where that came from – it’s stated in Wikipedia’s editing policies and in specific publications such as this rather good presentation “Speaking Different Languages – Corporate Communications and Wikipedia” (PDF) by volunteer Wikipedia editor Jake Ocaasi.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has articulated a clear view this year on how he regards public relations in this context:

“What I have found – and the evidence for this is pretty comprehensive – is that people who are acting as paid advocates do not make good editors. They insert puffery and spin. That’s what they do because that is what paid advocates do.”

That quote is on page 3 in Ocaasi’s PDF; bold text is in the original.

The historical relationship between PR and Wikipedia is an uncomfortable one, with each side suspicious of the motives and objectives of the other – Jimmy Wales’ view sums that up pretty well from the Wikipedia perspective. Such polarization has not been helped at all by the questionable, even unethical, behaviour of some PR practitioners and others when it comes to Wikipedia, eg, the Bell Pottinger lobbying scandal last year and the agency’s assertions that it “has a team which ‘sorts’ negative Wikipedia coverage of clients.”

None of that is new, either – remember astroturfing half a decade ago?

Another aspect that adds to the polarization is a belief from the PR side that Wikipedia articles about clients often contain errors of fact – from the simple such as a CEO’s name spelled incorrectly to incorrect numbers about, say, annual revenues – yet no one is able to correct such errors. This belief comes across very clearly indeed in just-published informal research carried out in the US by Marcia W. DiStaso, a communications assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University; her survey got 1,284 responses from members of PRSA, IABC, IPR, WOMMA and NIRI in February and March 2012. Her report – which includes an infographic part of which you see above (download the full version in a PDF) – is published in the PRSA‘s PR Journal for Spring 2012 (PDF download) and makes for interesting reading.

So a position has arisen where a yawning chasm exists between two sets of people, both of whom I would argue actually have similar objectives in enabling access to factually-correct information but very different ones in terms of how to go about doing that.

Luckily, there is a new hope that the chasm can be closed where an informal initiative centred on a Facebook page called “Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement,” or CREWE for short, is leading the way for dialogue, community-building and broader understanding between the two sides. Its goals are clear:

CREWE comprises Wikipedians, corporate communications, academics, students and other interested parties who are exploring the ways that PR and Wikipedia can work together for mutual benefit, defined narrowly as cooperation toward more accurate and balanced entries.

Founded in January by Edelman VP Phil Gomes, it’s been very interesting seeing how dialogue has evolved in the past three months, moving from some mutual suspicion in the early days to a far healthier position where trust is clearly being built. With nearly 300 members now, active and ongoing discussions are taking place that are moving things along in a positive way. Various documents have been drafted, all with the aim of moving both sides closer together in understanding.

It’s amazing what open minds, willingness to consider different points of view and great communication can achieve when focused on a common goal!

CREWE is the informal face of dialogue, and fits in with more formal approaches to resolution, including advocacy, being conducted by professional bodies like the PRSA in the US and the CIPR in the UK.

Overall, the prognosis is encouraging for closing the chasm.

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