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Wikipedia doesn’t need public relations

Work with Wikipedia on its own terms or face its wrath.

There’s a simple reason that Wikipedia hasn’t moved closer to the demands of the public relations business. It doesn’t need to.

This is the conclusion of a paper called Public relations interactions with Wikipedia by Gareth Thompson funded by the London College of Communication, and published in the Journal of Communication Management (Volume 20, Issue 1).

Thompson’s paper is an excellent example of the opportunity for public relations academics and practitioners to work together to improve professional practice.

Traditional versus social, community media

Wikipedia is an open source community, or public. Contributors are motivated by Wikipedia’s purpose of creating a comprehensive compendium that contains information on all branches of knowledge.

It consists of more than 20 million topics in 285 different languages, and is frequently the start point for online research.

In June 2014 a statement from public relations agencies was published on Wikipedia acknowledging past mistakes.

After a fractious relationship for more than a decade, 39 signatories including Edelman, my own firm Ketchum, Ogilvy and Weber Shandwick, agreed to abide by Wikipedia’s policies.

Thompson says that the statement recognises Wikipedia’s “unique and important role as a public knowledge resource.”

Critics claim that Wikipedia has become too powerful and that it operates without the recognised processes or oversight common for more traditional media.

This is the issue that often puts Wikipedia in conflict with the public relations industry. Errors in traditional media can be dealt with swiftly through well-established processes.

Changes or additions to a Wikipedia article require engagement with the community and, crucially, adherence to its rules.

Platform for public relations excellence

Wikipedia is a form of social media that has none of the constraints of traditional media. Thompson notes that it has limited respect for public relations as a source of information or content.

Conflicts of interest are not tolerated. Editors must persuade fellow contributors of the validity of their edits via comments on the platform’s back channels of talk pages.

“Wikipedia’s open and transparent rules seem to work well for all participants apart from public relations people who have preferred to operate the old rule of corporatist media relations,” says Thompson.

But just as you wouldn’t expect to be given access to the production environment of a news organisation to make changes to articles you can’t jump onto Wikipedia and expect to be able to start hacking the content.

Name and shame

Thompson describes two cases of public relations firms that were caught out for directly editing Wikipedia.

Bell Pottinger staff met with Wikipedia boss Jimmy Wales in 2012 after media reports that nineteen Wikipedia accounts based on fake identities for editing on the site had been traced to the London offices.

In 2012 Finsbury modified the entry for its client, Alisher Usmanov, as he prepared a £1.25bn float of 20% of his Megafon mobile phone business in London.

In each case the public relations firms were publicly criticised by Wikipedia in social and traditional media.

In September 2015 Wikipedia deleted 381 accounts belonging to people allegedly taking undisclosed payments to edit pages with bias and unsubstantiated views.

CIPR Wikipedia guidelines

The CIPR updated its guidance for public relations practitioners working with Wikipedia following the Bell Pottinger and Finsbury cases.

The five point summary from the guidelines document provides a quick reference of how to join and engage with the Wikipedia community.

  1. Anyone can join the Wikipedia community and edit and contribute to content on the site. Register a personal rather than a corporate account and disclose your conflicts of interest on your user page.
  2. If you are concerned about the accuracy of a Wikipedia article but have a conflict of interest you must address this via the community. Don’t edit any page you have a conflict of interest on, except to remove vandalism.
  3. Head to the Talk page for the Wikipedia article concerned and draft your response. This works in almost all situations however if you don’t get a response then raise it on the relevant noticeboard.
  4. Escalate with kindness. When faced with a situation where you have a choice to be an idiot or not be an idiot, choose to not be an idiot. Following this rule will mean you will very rarely get into difficult situations.
  5. You can freely contribute articles related to your profession, hobbies and interests, where you do not have a conflict of interest. In fact Wikipedia actively encourages this and it’s a great way to get to know how Wikipedia works.

You can download the free document from the CIPR website.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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