Wikipedia & PR: Friend or Foe?

WIkipedia founder Jimmy Wales

Shortly before Christmas, I ran into an old friend who oversees social media for one of the big-branded management consultancy firms. He confided in me that he was having an issue with Wikipedia.

Wikipedia wouldn’t grant him editing privileges, as a PR person, even though the information on the site about his employer was inaccurate. His question to me: should he pose as someone else to make the necessary changes?

I immediately said no. As untenable as the situation was, I thought it was clearly an ethical breach to misrepresent himself. (BTW – he was advised to do so by a reputable professional.) I then referred him to a friend in the biz who was much closer to the machinations of the world’s largest crowd-sourced encyclopedia.

As for the tension between this Google-juiced, crowd-sourced repository of information and the PR community, here’s what Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales had to say about it in 2006:

“I think we need to be very clear in a lot of different places that PR firms editing Wikipedia is something that we frown upon very very strongly. The appearance of impropriety is so great that we should make it very very strongly clear to these firms that we do not approve of what they would like to do.”

Wikipedia’s bias against PR pros (as bona fide site contributors) speaks to the challenge our industry faces as it seeks to redefine itself in a world where myriad other reasonably credible information sources abound.

Who’s to say that PR people have the most timely, accurate and unbiased information about a company or topic? What’s preventing PR people who represent clients with nefarious social, political or business agendas from tainting the site?

Edelman’s Phil Gomes

As it just so happens, I coincidentally received a Facebook message last week from another friend in the biz John Cass inviting me to join a new group called “Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement” (CREWE), which was started by Edelman’s Phil Gomes, another old pal from the digital PR trenches. Phil penned an open letter to Jimmy Wales in which he asserted that:

“A truly serious conversation needs to happen about how communications professionals and the Wikipedia community can/must work together. Since recent events have thrown this issue into sharp relief, I’d like us to have an open, constructive and fair discussion about the important issues where public relations and Wikipedia intersect.”

Jack O’Dwyer

CREWE now has 72 members, including — in the same forum no less — long-time industry chronicler Jack O’Dwyer and his nemesis, PRSA, the industry’s U.S. trade association. (Jack’s interest deviated a bit from the others’ in that he’s lobbying to gain for his newsletter “third-party” status and thus the means to validate the acuity of what’s posted about PR.)

For PRSA’s part, the association’s newly anointed chair & CEO Gerry Corbett had this to say:

PRSA’s Gerry Corbett

“Public relations and corporate communications professionals are a resource, not adversaries when it comes to working with Wikipedia on behalf of clients, and employer companies and organizations to correct for inaccurate or missing information. Ultimately, that is one of the many valuable roles of public relations: to help organizations better connect with and inform stakeholders. And few can argue that there is any greater a stakeholder in the digital age than the hundreds of millions of people around the world who use Wikipedia as a source for information.

The effort by Phil Gomes and the group he has started on Facebook, is a critical advocacy activity that the Public Relations Society of America wholeheartedly supports. It is our intention to assist this effort however and wherever we can, and with the resources we have available. Doing so, we believe, will augment a timely campaign that will benefit the entire public relations and corporate communications industry, while helping to establish better relationships with the Wikipedia community, which clearly has an influential role in modern research for people of all professions.

One outcome we hope will come of this initiative is a better understanding by those from Wikipedia and others that PR is not about “spin,” but about accurate and truthful information in accordance with an established code of ethics, such as PRSA’s Code of Ethics.

It is an initiative we hope will be taken up by many and used as a catalyst for an open and honest discussion with Wikipedia and its editors regarding the role and value of allowing corporate communications and PR professionals to responsibly and transparently make necessary edits to their employers’ and clients’ Wikipedia entries.”

For my part, I suggested that the group, and its more prominent members, engage directly with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and others in a decision-making capacity. Sure enough, members Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson called out Mr. Wales on the issue on Twitter and elsewhere, and John Cass invited him to join the group. He accepted and has been posting his POV with promises for a full airing shortly. Here are some of the exchanges:

Phil Gomes:

For one client (multi-billion-dollar U.S. company), there was frustration about the gross inaccuracies and old data on the company’s entry. She created a login for herself and, in the interests of full disclosure, included the name of the company in her login name (e.g., JudyACME). She then went to the talk page and suggested some changes to bring the entry up to spec. Her login was summarily banned because someone felt that using the company name in her login was overtly promotional. (!) The items mentioned on the talk page went untouched for some time. They were eventually let through, but subsequent requests went ignored. (One unhelpfully leaves it as, I’m paraphrasing, “You have a conflict of interest.”)


– So, here we have someone going out of her way to be above-board and is banned on the slimmest of justifications. This provided some initial rationale, I guess, for ignoring what she had to say.

– The corporate representative made the entry *better* than it was, despite accusations that people in her line of work are buzzword-spouting automatons.

Jimmy Wales

Phil, send me the example privately so I can study it? [sic]

Jimmy Wales

I’ve got Marshall’s example and I’m looking at it. If you can get me yours in the next 12 hours or so, I can look at it tomorrow morning. I hope to post something about these tomorrow afternoon. Obviously I won’t mention particular clients publicly, that isn’t the point. The point is discovering what went wrong and what could have been done better.

Elsewhere others chimed in:

Jack O’Dwyer

John: here is the correct link to my WP blog: If that doesn’t work free user/pass for for Jan. are happy & year. What I mostly know about WP now is that the PR entries are woefully insufficient and lacking coverage of major topics. When I tried to post five entries, they were all removed by people without much knowledge of PR as far as I can determine. I assume this is true with all your subject areas–editorial judgments being made by inexperts. WP’s reliance on “reliable” published sources is naive since no media are reliable on everything. Also, truth is hammered out in vigorous pubic debates and WP does not like controversy.

David King

I’ll be damned. I went to check the policy to prove you wrong and there it is. “The principle of verifiability implies nothing about ease of access to sources: some online sources may require payment, while some print sources may be available only in university libraries” Which is interesting, because an editor was just telling me I may not be able to cite a book that is difficult to find and I’ve been told in the past not to use articles that require paid access.

Jimmy Wales

David, that’s an easy to confusion to clear up. Easily available sources are naturally preferred, but if a hard to find source is better, then that can outweigh that initial preference.

Derek DeVries

Jack – If it’s important to have your thoughts on the PR pages in Wikipedia, why not make your web content publicly-available for free to all? That would solve the problem.

Jimmy Wales

Derek, that’s absolutely correct. Many brands should consider freely licensing a LOT of content so that Wikipedians can easily use it. But what I’m recommending goes a lot further than that. If you think a page should say something, write it up, and post it on the talk page. That actually works wonders in virtually all cases – I think the people claiming that it doesn’t will be hard pressed to prove their case, although of course it is always possible to find rare cases where things have slipped through the cracks. And in those cases, there are clear and highly workable avenues for escalation. There is never a need for PR people to directly edit articles

We have to give Mr. Wales credit for re-engaging with the PR community on this topic. I firmly believe that the vast majority of professionals abide by ethical rules that strictly prohibit the willful spread of disinformation. As for the spreaders of misinformation (Frank Luntz?), they too are no small consideration, especially as the industry seeks to reestablish its credibility.

Others who have thoughtfully weighed in include:

Let’s keep an eye on this, especially since Mr. Wales appears to have listened and may be poised to make some concessions to the PR industry.