This long winter isn’t the only deep freeze that’s showing signs of thawing. The frosty relationship between Wikipedia and the public relations industry may be about to shift as the open source online encyclopedia considers changes to its editing policies.
At issue: what role, if any, should PR practitioners play in managing and editing their client’s Wikipedia entries? It’s a dispute that goes back to Wikipedia’s origins and strikes at the heart of what founder Jimmy Wales envisioned for his online encyclopedia.
Neutrality, Wales said, was to be one of Wikipedia’s core principles. Editors are instructed to use “non-judgmental language, and accurately indicate the relative prominence of opposing views.” Wales declared early on that there would be no place for “paid advocates” like PR practitioners who “insert puffery and spin.”
“PR firms editing Wikipedia is something we frown upon very, very strongly,” Wales declared in 2006.
Paid advocacy editing is still forbidden, but the new policy spells out how PR people and other paid advocates can have input into editing Wikipedia pages so long as they follow guidelines for disclosure. According to the guidelines, anyone who receives – or expects to receive – compensation for contributing to any Wikimedia project must disclose their employer, client and affiliation every time they appear on the site. This would include almost all PR practitioners.
The Proposed Amendment
Paid contributions without disclosure
• a statement on your user page,
• a statement on the talk page accompanying any paid contributions, or
• a statement in the edit summary accompanying any paid contributions.
Applicable law, or community and Foundation policies and guidelines, such as those addressing conflicts of interest, may further limit paid contributions or require more detailed disclosure.
Wikipedia matters a lot to the organizations that PR firms represent. You will find Wikipedia at or near the top of most organic search results. A negative or inaccurate Wikipedia page can do serious reputational damage. Organizations cannot afford to be indifferent to what Wikipedia says about them.
Over the years, there have been numerous cases of PR firms trying to skirt Wikipedia’s policies on paid advocacy, conflict of interest and “sock puppetry,” most notably Bell Pottinger in the U.K., which was outed in 2011 for secretly manipulating the Wikipedia pages of as many as 19 clients.
Last fall, the Wikimedia Foundation blocked over 250 accounts of editors they considered to be suspicious, and its lawyers sent a “cease and desist” letter to a company called Wiki-PR, which boasted on its website “we write it, we manage it, you never worry about Wikipedia again.”
Those were egregious ethical lapses, but they reflect some genuine grievances that PR practitioners have about the way Wikipedia deals with their complaints.
Wikipedia has long argued that it has mechanisms in place to deal with corrections quickly and fairly. But that is not the experience of many PR people who deal with the site. Shel Holtz, principal at Holtz Communication + Technology, thinks it makes no sense that when he tries to post independently verifiable information on to Wikipedia, such as audited financial statements, they are removed because he’s a paid advocate. Wikipedia, he says, doesn’t understand that good PR people can add value to the site.
However, people who contribute to Wikipedia but are not specifically paid to do so (such as university professors who are encouraged by their employers to write and edit on the site) are not required to disclose their affiliation. This is intended to encourage “good faith editors,” while hanging a scarlet “P” on the work of paid advocates.
The clarity provided by the new disclosure guidelines will likely be embraced by most PR practitioners; they are similar to the Wikipedia “best practices” adopted by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the U.K. in June 2012. Holtz, a founding member of Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement, says he’s all in favour of guidelines that require more disclosure.
“Regulations that require disclosure are a good thing, because they establish a bar to keep out unethical practitioners,” he says. “They help draw a line between those who disclose appropriately and those who don’t. Disclosure can address a lot of issues.”
Whether the Wikimedia Board ultimately accepts the amendment remains to be scene. So far, more than a thousand community members have commented on the proposed changes . Supporters outnumber opponents by about three to one.
What’s clear is that the cold war between PR and Wikipedia may be easing slightly, but peace is not yet on the horizon. PR practitioners will continue to fight to get input into the site, and Wikipedians will continue to resist and resent their presence. Whether the proposed new guidelines are accepted or rejected will not change that reality.