Wikipedia and PR have got to work it out

Tom Watson MPStill in the midst of his highly successful campaign against News International UK MP Tom Watson has embarked on a second campaign – this time to sort out the relationship between the PR business and Wikipedia.

On a Wikipedia talk page Tom says:

‘The general point that I think is more important for the site. I suspect a number of PR firms have edited entries for their clients potentially breaching conflict of interest rules. I am going to write to the trade bodies to ask that they work with Wikipedia to issue guidelines.’

The UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations already has guidelines for how PRs should deal with Wikipedia as part of its Social Media Guidelines which were updated in mid-2011. As a disclaimer I should say I was involved in the creation of these guidelines as a founder member of the CIPR’s Social Media Panel that was responsible. The guidelines state:

‘If a practitioner is looking to update a Wikipedia entry on behalf of a
company or a client, it is best visit the discussion/talk pages and work with an
editor to update the relevant page – all updates and entries to Wikipedia must be
neutral in tone, factual and verifiable. Please read the Wikipedia guidelines carefully
before submitting or editing an article.’

The most recent notorious example of a PR agency breaching these guidelines was Bell Pottinger. An alternative tactic that I’ve used in the past is to use my client’s website to publish a more accurate Wikipedia entry, complete with lots of citations and links to evidence, and then alert people to it asking that they make the changes on Wikipedia. This is something that Jimmy Wales has even advocated himself.

However, I believe that simply getting the PR industry trade and professional bodies to work with Wikipedia to issue guidelines isn’t enough. The CIPR shows that trade bodies are already trying to do the right thing, but I believe that it is time that Wikipedia put its own house in order.

Wikipedia is now so important (entries frequently rank very highly on Google and other search engines) that they can have a major impact on a company’s, individual’s or organisation’s reputation. The current Wikipedia stance against company representatives correcting an entry simply isn’t tenable or ethically correct anymore.

It isn’t enough to just be able to ‘make a case’ on talk pages in the hope that the incorrect entry will be corrected. The process simply isn’t fast enough as incorrect information remains on the page until it is finally edited. The Wikipedia guidelines for PR within its FAQ simply aren’t sufficient anymore. Campaigners and activists against a company, charity or organisation also have a vested interest, but have far more leeway to edit and ‘spin’ pages than those directly involved (frequently with the most knowledge) do.

So Tom Watson is right there does need to be open discussion between Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia and the PR industry bodies. But is must be two way with Wikipedia also improving the way it behaves.

I shall be raising this issue at the next meeting of the CIPR Social Media Panel.

VERY IMPORTANT UPDATE: It appears that while I was writing this post, inspired by Tom Watson’s Wikipedia talk page contribution, that Edelman’s Phil Gomes has written a similar, but far more detailed open letter to Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia. I’d urge everyone to read it and that this should become an international effort.

Stuart Bruce

International Public Relations Adviser | Trainer | Author | Media Commentator | Conference Speaker | University Lecturer | Online PR | Digital Corporate Communications | Crisis Communications | Digital Public Affairs