The public relations profession and Wikipedia community have not enjoyed a productive relationship to date; antagonistic may be a more accurate adjective. For a quick overview of this situation, do take a look at my January 6th post, Reputation and Wikipedia.
For my part, I think I understand both parties' points of view and see no reason why good public relations practice (the planned and sustained effort to influence opinion and behaviour, and to be influenced similarly, in order to build mutual understanding and goodwill) shouldn't be employed to build bridges here.
The Facebook group, Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement, has quite rightly stirred the pot, raising the profile of the issues involved. For those who practice public relations according to the definition in brackets above, Wikipedia can appear a frustrating community to work with. One asks: "Why, if I know facts on Wikipedia entries relating to my organisation / client are incorrect, can't I jump in and correct them?" There are two answers to that, but firstly an update on that process of building bridges.
PR Week's Editor in Chief, Danny Rogers, called on the CIPR to clarify its guidance to members, and the profession more widely, on 18th January 2012 ("CIPR must set bar high on Wikipedia code"). Fortunately, the CIPR Social Media panel had already got its heads together to review the situation.
The code of conduct was updated in October 2011. A section pertinent to the matter describes good public relations practice as: "Never deliberately concealing the practitioner’s role as representative of a client or employer, even if the client or employer remains anonymous: e.g. by promoting a cause in the guise of a disinterested party or member of the public."
Prior to the update, the code read: "Never knowingly misleading clients, employers, employees, colleagues and fellow professionals about the nature of representation".
In my opinion, both statements couldn't be clearer when a PR practitioner might contemplate editing Wikipedia anonymously or pseudonomously, at least an entry relating to his employer or client; don't.
As for the social media guidance, a brief section specifically addressing Wikipedia reads:
"... if a practitioner is looking to update a Wikipedia entry on behalf of a company or a client, it is best to 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."
Given the tangle in which the PR profession and Wikipedia community find themselves, the CIPR social media panel no longer considers this guidance adequate. Therefore, the CIPR SM panel's Gemma Griffiths took the action to kickstart a Google doc expanding the guidance, and a bunch of us on the panel piled in to challenge, tweak and twiddle. Read on to find out how you can contribute too.
Wikimedia UK AGM
Wikimedia is the 'movement' behind Wikipedia, and many other great projects as you'll see if you follow the link. The Wikimedia UK AGM took place this past Saturday at the Science Museum, London, and I'm delighted that Wikimedia UK invited Neville Hobson and me to participate.
We both got a bit of a cheer when we said we were becoming Wikimedia UK members. It's only £5 per year, and what better way to show your willing in getting to know the community?
Neville and I presented a very simple slidestack (embedded below) conveying our hope that the Wikipedia community, CIPR members, members of the PRCA and PRSA, and indeed anyone with an interest here, could come together to co-develop Wikipedia guidance for PR practitioners. And I'm delighted that this 'something to shoot at' has now been posted on the Wikimedia UK wiki: Draft best practice guidelines for PR. Please do take a look, and comment on the talk / discussion page, and edit accordingly, as you see fit.
Perhaps the most pertinent slide in the stack is the simple one about reputation. Wikipedia has one. And public relations has one. And any member of either group that considers its community to be perfect isn't yet ready to take part in this dialogue.
Neutral point of view, and verifiability
The draft guidelines are not as hawkish at it appears some members of CREWE might advocate. For example, the CIPR SM panel doesn't believe we should consider challenging the Wikipedia founding principle of neutral point of view, NPOV. (If any CIPR SM member disagrees, please correct me in the comments below.) And to consider replacing Wikipedia's requirement for verifiability with some idealistic and abstract concept of truth is plain bonkers in my opinion.
As Einstein said, whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.
So why can't I edit Wikipedia entries directly?
You can, when you hold a neutral point of view. In fact it would be beneficial to PR practitioners and Wikipedia if more of us did make edits. The PR practitioner gets to know Wikipedia and Wikipedians better, and Wikipedia gets more valuable contributors. Fab!
However, as I said up top, there are two reasons why you cannot edit entries, outside the exceptions in the guidelines, where your organisation or client is involved.
1. Wikipedia is a community and we must respect the community's right to set its rules, even if we might not agree with all the rules 100%. That's just the way it is. If anyone believes the rules should be changed, then the case has to be made in public fora for open debate, and what better forum than the community's own (as opposed to Facebook say)?
2. The public relations reputation is deserved. Until more practitioners join professional institutes such as the CIPR, adhering to its policies and codes of conduct, undergoing its training and continuous professional development, and aspiring to professional accreditation, then there will always be more practitioners than there would be otherwise that bring the profession into disrepute. Putting our own house in order is a critical step before offering to sort someone else's out.