The thorny issue of whether public relations professionals should edit Wikipedia is being keenly debated again, making me think hard about my position – both as a PR professional and as a long-standing Wikipedian.
December’s revelations that London-based Bell Pottinger staff had been “massaging” the content of Wikipedia articles about the consultancy’s clients (BBC news), and a controversy about Stella Artois (Independent) have rekindled a debate that has continued sporadically for some years, and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (of which I am a member) is entering a dialogue with Wikimedia UK to formulate some clearer guidance on how PR people should engage with the Wikipedia community.
A proud Wikipedian
To disclose my interests further, I have been a Wikipedia editor since October 2003 (completing some 12,000 edits to date). Like most editors, I contribute to articles about people, places and things like football and cycling that interest me and about which, to varying degrees, I am knowledgeable – and where my work as a PR person is irrelevant, apart from helping me hone my writing skills. Often I will find an article that stimulates me to do some desk research to help improve existing content, but I have largely (99%) refrained from editing articles about my employers – when working in-house – or my clients (I’m now a consultant).
I say ‘largely’ because the current Wikipedia guidance to PR people does allow us to do the following (all of which I have done, though only very occasionally):
- revert obvious vandalism
- fix minor errors in spelling, grammar, usage, or fact
- add or update facts, such as a person’s date or place of birth; a company’s location or number of employees; or details of a recent event
- provide accurate references for information that’s already in the article
However, the guidance goes on to stress that PR people should not (and I have not):
- try to use Wikipedia to promote or advertise our client(s)
- remove negative material
- copy-and-paste content from another site, even if we manage the other site
- add information that cannot be independently verified, or that isn’t significant for an encyclopedia article
- work on material that’s particularly controversial or has disputed facts
To me as a Wikipedia user and as a PR professional these guidelines pretty much hit the mark; it is clearly ludicrous to stop experienced writers from correcting typos and factual errors about subjects they know about – so long as they remain neutral in tone, don’t involve any conflict of interest, and can be verified from other reliable sources (these points were all stressed by Wikimedia representatives at a CIPR Social Summer event 16 months ago - post). And last year, the CIPR’s social media best practice guide also adopted a common-sense approach, urging members to know the rules and, if there was a perceived potential for a conflict of interest, to seek the help of an independent editor.
Reading the latest PR blog posts – from, among others, Stuart Bruce, Phil Gomes, Julio Romo and Stephen Waddington - there appears to be a belief that the existing Wikipedia guidance needs to be updated. The debate is, appropriately enough, also using social media to air the discussion – there is a Facebook page for CREWE: Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (an easy acronym to remember for a Crewe Alexandra supporter like me!), and Phil Sheldrake has set up a wiki page on the CIPR Social Media Wiki.
Reviewing the blog comments and discussion threads, there is understandably considerable focus on articles about sensitive or controversial subjects likely to be the target of activists or of vested interests, but such items are just the tip of a 3.8 million article iceberg. The vast majority of Wikipedia articles are relatively uncontentious, and they cover a huge range of subjects – most of which will only stimulate regular input from hardcore subject matter experts. And despite the scale of the Wikipedia undertaking, there are still significant gaps and areas in need of attention, partly due to the scarcity of regular inputs from volunteer independent editors.
In my view, Wikipedia, the CIPR and others should be doing more to encourage wider, more active and more timely involvement in editing (not restricting people from contributing), and in extending engagement with the resource. It is, according to Wikipedia, “the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet, ranking sixth globally … and having an estimated 365 million readers worldwide.” Contributing to and improving its content should be valued and encouraged.
By helping build a strong core community of disinterested Wikipedia enthusiasts, the CIPR and numerous other organisations could harness the ‘wisdom of their crowd’ – many of whom have years of experience in their sector – and use their collective expertise to expand and improve their sector’s coverage in Wikipedia, while ensuring the necessary NPOV.
There are some interesting suggestions on the CIPR Wiki regarding use of notifications indicating an article’s out-of-date or derelict status “or even that a communications representative has had a hand in updating”. This would flag the article as needing updating and/or attention from a disinterested editor – perhaps co-ordinated through some kind of “clearing house” or WikiProject (an organised drive to improve particular areas of content)* – and responsible participation might be something that individuals could highlight as part of their online profile. Of course, many editors prefer to stay anonymous, but others might be happy to highlight their inputs to Wikipedia – and, for good Wikipedians who work within companies, might such NPOV editing even be regarded as voluntary work demonstrating the corporate social responsibility, and therefore enhancing the reputation, of their employer?
Meanwhile, it looks like this debate will run and run, and I will be watching developments with interest, wearing both my PR and my Wikipedia hats – and my Crewe Alex bobble hat!
* The CREWE discussions mention a newly-formed project for paid contributors seeking to overcome conflicts of interest.