Whenever you look up something online, the chances are good that the results of your search will include information about your topic on Wikipedia.
“The free encyclopedia anyone can edit” was founded in 2001. Today, it’s the sixth most visited website in the world, according to Alexa, and has become the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet with an estimated 365 million readers worldwide.
While the English-language Wikipedia may be the biggest work, there are editions of Wikipedia in 285 languages. Collectively, Wikipedia contains 22 million articles (more than 4 million of them in English), created and edited by more than 100,000 active contributors worldwide.
Such superlatives add to one’s sense of the scope and scale of Wikipedia, which is far deeper and greater than most people realize. And while Wikipedia is described as something anyone can edit, the reality of doing that is a challenge for many communicators.
At the heart of that challenge is a climate of mistrust that has evolved in recent years between members of some Wikipedia communities around the world—Wikipedians, as they’re known—and some public relations practitioners.
It’s an uncomfortable relationship, where each side has been suspicious of the motives and behaviors of the other. Such mistrust hasn’t been helped by either side—neither by words such as those of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales when he argued that “PR firms editing Wikipedia is something that we frown upon very, very strongly”; nor by questionable, even unethical, deeds of some PR practitioners and others. The Bell Pottinger lobbying scandal last year, for example, and the agency’s assertions that it “has a team which 'sorts' negative Wikipedia coverage of clients” is a very good (bad) example.
It’s notable that such abuses are bad not only because they contravene the norms of the Wikipedia community, but also because they contravene the norms of PR best practice.
When you hear someone say, “Public relations people are not welcome to edit Wikipedia entries” and you wonder where that came from, it’s not just anecdotal—it’s stated in Wikipedia’s editing guidelines.
By the end of 2011, a yawning chasm existed between two sets of people, both of whom actually have similar objectives to publish content about a topic, organization or individual that is accurate, factual, neutral and up-to-date, but have very different ideas of how to go about doing that.
As we close in on the final quarter of 2012, it’s highly encouraging to note two initiatives that are underway. Both are designed to bridge the chasm, so to speak, and help develop a climate of trust between the two communities to the obvious benefit not only of both but also for the wider community of Wikipedia users—which includes PR professionals who use it as a trusted source of information.
In January, the Facebook group Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement—CREWE for short—was created by Phil Gomes, a senior vice president at the Edelman PR firm in Chicago, with the purpose “to improve the relationship between the PR industry and the encyclopedia. CREWE lobbies for greater involvement by PR professionals on Wikipedia, with the stated goal of maintaining accurate articles about corporations.”
With about 340 members (as of August 2012) from both the PR and Wikipedia communities, active and ongoing discussions that address issues and move things along in a broadly positive way are taking place. Various documents have been drafted for discussion, all with the aim of moving both sides closer together in understanding and setting out clear calls to action.
Separately, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the U.K. worked on a document that would form the basis of an education, awareness-raising and guidance program for its members about understanding the structure and workings of Wikipedia and how communicators should engage with it and the community when it comes to creating and changing content.
The CIPR’s work was characterized by its crowd-sourcing approach to developing a guidance document—the first of its type by a professional body representing communicators—where comment was proactively sought from Wikipedians as well as from anyone with a constructive contribution to make. The draft in development was hosted on a wiki page (where else?) and published as Wikipedia Best Practice Guidance for Public Relations Professionals, version 1 in June, with the support of the Canadian Public Relations Society, the Public Relations Consultants Association in the U.K., and the Public Relations Institute of Australia.
Significantly, the guidance document complements existing CIPR codes of conduct, including ethical practices by its members.
The CIPR’s approach isn’t without its critics, though, especially regarding the controversial element in the guidance document which states that practitioners should not directly edit content in Wikipedia that is about their clients, their employer, related brands and issues, or competing organizations and associated brands when there is a conflict of interest.
Instead, the guidelines advocate that public relations professionals should suggest amendments to Wikipedians via Wikipedia’s long-established editing procedure.
That conflict-of-interest qualifier is at the center of the public debate about PR and Wikipedia that has taken place, and the informal discussions among the CREWE community on Facebook as well as formally illustrated by the CIPR’s document.
CREWE and the CIPR have taken bold first steps in helping communicators gain a better understanding of Wikipedia—not only about how its content creation and editing procedures work but also of the community itself.
That’s not to say there aren’t elements of Wikipedia processes that, in the view of many PR practitioners, ought to be revised and simplified to make it easier for non-experts to edit content. And like any volunteer-based organization, the speed and efficiency of processes depend to a great extent on volunteers’ goodwill and time availability, which can give rise to big frustrations where, for example, simple factual edits to Wikipedia pages don’t happen without a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing.
Such change may come in time. Meanwhile, what we can do as communicators is better understand a community whose content we would like to contribute to in some way, and engage with those in that community within the terms of engagement of that community.
Everything we want to do requires education, raising awareness, helping others understand the issues, reaching out to Wikipedians, patience, commitment, diplomacy—and, yes, courage.
The debate will, of course, continue.
Neville Hobson, ABC, is an independent communication practitioner in the U.K., an opinion leader and an influencer in digital communication for business. In May 2012, he co-presented at the annual general meeting of Wikimedia UK on the commonality of objectives between Wikipedia and the PR community. Connect with Neville on Twitter: @jangles.