Speed 09 January 2012

In a corner of the web last week a group of PRs debated Wikipedia’s attitude to the PR industry. The discussion came after errant PR firms were caught out breaching Wikipedia’s guidelines. Stuart Bruce has the details.

A dull but worthy topic you might think. Not one bit. Wikipedia is a top ranking site for search. It frequently takes the number one slot in Bing and Google search results, Alexa ranks it as one of the top ten sites on the Internet, and its credibility makes it a starting point for internet research.

Wikipedia is a community. As Julio Romo highlights PRs can register as contributors but must follow Wikipedia’s guidelines:

  • Contributions or edits must have a neutral point of view and no conflict of interest
  • Content must be verifiable
  • Articles must not contain new analysis or synthesis

It’s the first issue: neutrality and conflict where the PR industry falls down.

Wikipedia has published guidelines for the PR industry. In its Social Media Guidelines published last year the CIPR advises that PR practitioners seeking to update a Wikipedia entry on behalf of a client should work with an editor to update the relevant page per the CIPR’s Social Media Guidelines.

This is social media at its most social. The ultimate arbiter is the community. If anyone makes a contribution that the Wikipedia community deems to breach the guidelines it will be removed. To misquote James Grunig or more recently Philip Sheldrake, it’s a platform for symmetrical communication.

But Phil Gomes and Stuart Bruce don’t think the existing Wikipedia guidelines are sufficient. Gomes cites company data and information that is out-of-date and Bruce reckons that the very community nature of Wikipedia is the natural playing field of activists.

In a response on Gomes’ blog Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says that he has yet to hear a cogent argument for PR practitioners to directly edit entries. He says paid advocates don’t make good editors because they insert spin.

“The simple and obvious answer is to do what works, without risking the reputation of the client: talk to the community, respect their autonomy, and never ever directly edit an article,” he said.

Wikipedia agreed last Thursday to meet with representatives of the CIPR to develop clearer guidance on this issue. Ahead of that meeting Philip Sheldrake has, appropriately enough, developed a wiki page on the CIPR Social Media wiki to kick off the discussion.

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