Fankie Flack: PR, Wikipedia and the business journalist
Last week I noticed an article in PR Week, a public relations trade magazine, that the ongoing debate over PR and Wikipedia has again reared its ugly head.
This site has become a fascinating, perplexing and aggravating focus of the PR industry as its open-source basis creates functional and ethical problems for our industry.
For those who do not follow the PR industry closely, I will do my best to offer a high-level overview of the controversy.
As anyone who has been on the internet in the past 10 years knows, Wikipedia is the ultimate source of “factual” information on pretty much anything. The site is unique in that anyone can contribute to, or edit, any entry though all contributors are encouraged to follow strict rules to keep the site honest.
Overall, it’s a remarkable tool and a powerful demonstration of the utility of open-source products.
However, because it is open to all, mistakes happen. For high trafficked pages these errant entries are often caught and corrected with astonishing speed. However, because of its open nature, each entry can become more of a perfect reflection of public opinion versus fact.
This is where the problem for PR, and by extension reporters, enters. Often there are legitimate disputes over the content that appears on Wikipedia, particularly as it refers to businesses and executives. I have even heard of instances in which less scrupulous organizations edit their competitors’ entries.
If you’re not a Fortune 100 company, chances are there aren’t many Wiki editors monitoring the accuracy of your page, so these misstatements or attacks have a way of sticking.
As a PR person, you are then forced to use the convoluted guidelines from Wikipedia that say you must participate in the “talk” section, clearly identify yourself and simply encourage other editors to change the entry themselves.
It can be a bit of a Catch-22 if your entry isn’t watched much in the first place. Even if it is, sticking your head out as a PR person can lead to editors discrediting your information without ever checking it. Even BP was cited in the PR Week article, and it was following protocol to the letter.
Caught in this position of ineffective Wikipedia rules, a number of agencies and even some companies have gone ahead and directly edited entries. Making things worse, many of these instances have not been an editing of fact, but instead rewriting controversy or even deleting unsavory truths.
This is not OK. In fact, because of these past bad actors and the general difficulty to get things changed using approved methods, I often recommend clients ignore these entries altogether.
This is not the most helpful advice, but a reflection of the stand-off currently in place.
Any solution Wikipedia and the PR society comes up with should recognize the challenges of the current system while maintaining, or even improving, safeguards for unethical behavior. Until then, companies will need to be sure the facts about their organization are readily available and verifiable. A corporate website can always be built out with more narrative in hopes this content floats to the broader internet.
I’m not smart enough to know the solution to this problem, but I will dare to offer a few guidelines for PR people and reporters.
First, PR people should adhere to the same ethics they use when talking to the media and putting out other content as they do in proposing or editing any Wikipedia entry. A no-brainer, but somehow the ability to edit this content brings out the worst of our industry. Remember, the core job of any PR person is to help an organization have a fair and honest discourse with the public. We cannot alter the truth.
Reporters should not rely on Wikipedia as fact. This has become a trite phrase, but it bears repeating here. Use Wikipedia, it remains a helpful resource, but click-through to source documents to pull facts.
Also, jump over the wall sometimes and check the “talk” pages where PR people are relegated to put forth their suggestions.