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PROs need to be involved with Wikipedia, but they must work within strict guidelines, says Edelman’s Marshall Manson

20th February 2012

A few weeks ago, my Edelman colleague Phil Gomes posted an open letter  to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales seeking dialogue about the role of PROs contributing to the world’s most important information source. By coincidence, at virtually the same time, my friend Stuart Bruce published a similarly focused post.

The issue they have raised is of vital importance to businesses and institutions of all stripes. After all, as Phil pointed out, “Wikipedia is on the first page of search results for nearly every company, brand, product, personality, captain-of-industry, etc.” While at the same time, “many entries are derelict, even for important topics and well-known industry bellwethers. Financial data is often years old.”

Of course, PROs are often in possession of exactly this sort of information about our clients (or employers), and often in great depth. But at least two defining principles of Wikipedia make it nigh on impossible for PROs to edit entries directly.

The first is the community’s conflict of interest policy, which is rooted in Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality and “strongly discourages… contributing to Wikipedia in order to promote your own interests or those of other individuals, companies, or groups.”

The second springs from the first: corporate participants are not welcome as Wikipedia contributors because any edits made by a corporate contributor are necessarily not going to be neutral. As the community explains, “when people are very close to a subject, their view of it might be distorted, despite the best will in the world.”

When applying these principles to PR activity on Wikipedia, some members of the community, including Wales and leading PR thinkers like Phillips Sheldrake, have taken an absolute view; PROs, they say, should not edit entries. Jimmy himself suggests that the only acceptable way for PROs to participate in the community is by requesting edits via entry Talk pages.

But absolutes rarely work in practice, and the discussion that began as a result of Gomes and Bruce’s posts has been productive and valuable, both for PRs and (I hope) for the participating Wikipedians who have been generous with their time and their knowledge.

For me, the result has crystallised some key tenets for a PRO’s approach to Wikipedia.

1. Always be transparent. I suggest your agency have one or two designated Wikipedia experts who can, over time, really get to know the community and how it works. Each needs to have a Wikipedia profile with information identifying clients on whose behalf they are acting. They must operate under their own names, since user names that identify corporate affiliation are against the rules.

2. Always start with the Talk page. Request edits there. If there’s no response after a few weeks, look for an editor who has worked on the entry in the past, and ask for help on their Talk page. If that doesn’t work, ask for help on the community’s Conflict of Interest notice board.

3. Stick to the facts, and make sure that every fact is attributed to a third-party source. Don’t try to have negative information removed just because your client or employer doesn’t like it. If your goal is to make an entry better – not just better for your client or employer – you’re much more likely to find a receptive audience within the Wikipedia community.

4. Don’t make edits.

Above all, we have to recognise that Wikipedia is not our community, and we have to respect the rules. For the time being, the Wikipedia community still isn’t comfortable with direct participation by PROs or corporate voices.

There may come a time that directly editing small, factual bits of information like financial results is deemed acceptable. There’s some openness to this among a few community members.

But before PROs are invited to contribute to the Wikipedia community, we have to earn that privilege. Our industry must demonstrate its commitment to transparency and openness, and we must show that we are willing to work effectively with the Wikipedia community.

At my firm, we have a policy against making edits to clients’ Wikipedia entries, and we discourage our clients from making edits as well. This seems like a good beginning. Going forward, we’re likely to designate a few members of our team to make transparent liaisons with the Wikipedia community and try to have mutually beneficial conversations and build positive relationships.

But the world is changing fast, and no approach is likely to work perfectly or for very long. If you’re reading this column, I hope you’ll contribute your own suggestions in the comment thread below. But whatever we agree for today, we’ll have to continue to adapt, just as Wikipedia adapts every day at the hands of a community of committed editors.

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