The most controversial view clearly stated in the guidance – the concept of which has been in the doc since its earliest public incarnation as a draft made available in May – is that PRs should not directly edit content in Wikipedia that is about their clients, their employer, related brands and issues, or competing organizations and associated brands when there is a conflict of interest. (the text in bold is my emphasis).
In a press release the CIPR issued earlier today, CEO Jane Wilson makes that point clear with crystal clarity:
[…] The main theme of the guidance is quite simple – where there is a clear conflict of interest created by the relationship between the public relations professional and the subject of the Wikipedia entry, such as a client or employer, they should not directly edit it.
That conflict-of-interest qualifier is key to understanding what this guidance document is all about.
It’s at the heart of much of the public debate about PR and Wikipedia that has taken place, informally in the CREWE community initiative on Facebook spearheaded by Phil Gomes, Stuart Bruce, John Cass and many others, as well as formally as illustrated by the CIPR’s document and the people directly involved in its creation, notably Philip Sheldrake, Phil Morgan and Gemma Griffiths as well as many members of the CIPR’s Social Media Panel.
I believe the guidance document is an essential step in helping practitioners (whether CIPR members or not) gain better understanding of Wikipedia – the community itself as well as how the content creation and editing procedures work. It makes clear sense to better understand a community whose content you want to contribute to in some way, and engage with those in that community on the terms of engagement of that community.
In my view, that’s a simple step we in the PR business can easily undertake and commit to doing. After all, we’re pretty good at community-building and -engagement, are we not? If we want to change the Wikipedia system, well, offering opinion, ideas and insight into how to do that as part of the community is the way forward.
So we have guidance. The PDF document published today – which you can freely download – is a first step, probably the easiest one. I think it’s also impressive that it’s issued not only in the name of the CIPR but also in the names of other professional bodies who publicly support it and are committed to it from the outset – the Canadian Public Relations Society, the Public Relations Consultants Association in the UK, and the Public Relations Institute of Australia.
Now we embark on the real journey – putting the fine words into tangible action. One area I think will take a lot of work surrounds the broad notions of conflict of interest and neutral point of view (click the links to see how Wikipedia sees those terms) and how that works in a PR context.
All of this will require education, awareness-raising, helping others understand, reaching out to Wikipedians, patience, commitment, diplomacy – and, yes, courage. I’d like to think we’ll see reciprocity from the other side of the fence, as it were. I believe that will come sooner or later.
But first, let’s get PR’s house in order in relation to Wikipedia. One step at a time.