Public relations and communications professionals—and the academic programs that train them—find themselves operating in a radically new environment. As Emily Yellin describes in her book Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us, “public relations” was the phrase initially used to describe customer service. But, over time, most PR work focused on pitching journalists who worked for professional media organizations. As a result, a symbiotic relationship was established, with communications professionals providing information, context, statements, and experts for journalists working on stories, who—in return—were paid to wade through the various pitches from PR pros to find what would best aid their story and, presumably, their audiences.
Now, PR professionals are trying to figure out how to build relationships with members of actual publics, rather than solely with other paid professionals who see coordinating with corporate communicators as part of their day jobs. One of the most important of these publics is the Wikipedia editor community.
Corporate representatives have earned Wikipedia editors’ skepticism—and, increasingly, cynicism—with a steady stream of missteps. Consider:
- Employees, entrepreneurs, and agency partners have flooded the site, pasting in marketing copy for every company product, adding the official bio for each and every senior executive, and including voluminous details of every CSR initiative to their organization’s corporate page.
- Some corporate representatives have been caught trying to remove unflattering information from their company’s pages, or adding unflattering information to competitors’ pages.
- A few organizations in the PR industry have overtly sold their ability to “create and fix Wikipedia pages” in ways that violate the very spirit and purpose of the Wikipedia project.
Not all of these are acts of bad faith (although some of them certainly are). Many of the more venial sins are the result of a widespread lack of understanding and education about Wikipedia’s standards about conflicts of interest.
If you’re used to emailing with media professionals, the democratization of information that Wikipedia represents brings with it some notable challenges:
- One of the most popular information sites on the Internet doesn’t have an editorial hierarchy to appeal to for retractions or incorrect information.
- Wikipedia is a “publisher” that takes no legal responsibility for any existence of misinformation on its site (meaning is has no vested interest in prioritizing updating an inaccuracy or mischaracterization).
- The expansion of content at the site has grown at a rate much higher than the community of dedicated editorial volunteers can fully vet.
- Not only is Wikipedia’s open-editing policy significantly different from traditional models, but the project also aims for accuracy and objectivity and has a communally accepted conflict-of-interest policy.
Wikipedia editors who have dealt with, or repeatedly heard about the influx of conflict-of-interest edits have grown resistant to listening to edit requests even from transparent PR professionals who are trying to bring their concerns to more objective editors “behind the scenes,” rather than making edits directly or who are seeking factual updates to the page (replacing 2013’s annual revenues with 2014’s, for instance, based on sourced official information).
That, combined with the fact that there are nowhere near enough volunteer editors to fully vet the information that is added and edited on the site on a daily basis, means requested edits or additions made “the right way” can languish for months.
Meanwhile, corporate representatives grow ever-more frustrated at incomplete, incorrect, or outdated information sitting on one of the most popular sites on the internet for months on end, while their requests go unanswered, and may face increasing pressure to find someone who can “fix it.”
In response to this untenable situation, representatives from several leading communications firms gathered in Washington DC in February with some of Wikipedia’s volunteer community and scholars who study the issue. We talked candidly about the strained relationship, and how we might start fixing it.
The statement, published today, commits our organizations to act in adherence to Wikipedia’s guiding principles, policies, and guidelines.
We have promised to continually seek greater understanding of the project’s goals for our employees and clients, and to investigate and seek corrective action in any instance where a potential violation of Wikipedia’s policies arise based on the work of our respective agencies. And we have committed ourselves to push our industry as a whole to have more deliberate conversations about a high standard of ethical engagement with the Wikipedia project (and similar initiatives) as well as better education in our field for what the Wikipedia project is striving to achieve.
Orignally published by HBR, written by Sam Ford.