Before a recent holiday break in Derbyshire, I was working in London, using the members’ room of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations as a base between meetings. There I happened upon a long-time friend Liam FitzPatrick, who I got to know about 20 years ago when we were both engaged in PR activities relating to London’s CrossRail project – now finally approaching realisation, of course. Today, Liam is one of the CIPR’s leading lights on internal communications, and he told me about a “Comms Flashmob” project that he was leading to improve Wikipedia‘s article on the subject. He and his fellow collaborators spent an afternoon trying to expand and improve the content of the IC article (see his post).
As a ‘Wikipedian’ since 2003 (I did my 10,000th edit earlier this year), I was naturally interested in his initiative, and I had a look at the revamped article earlier this week. Looking at its history, examining some of the earliest versions and reviewing some of the subjects that were linked to and from it, I was struck by how poor some of the content was. Understandably, the article had a ‘clean-up’ notice listing multiple issues with the article (not ‘Wikified’, lacking Wikipedia tone, few references or sources), and so I started a clean-up. The version I’ve presented is still some distance from being the finished article – as much as any Wikipedia article is ever finished, of course – and it certainly needs more input from internal communications specialists to provide links to relevant and authoritative sources. And the experience has prompted a few thoughts:
- In theory at least public relations professionals should be adept at writing Wikipedia-style entries. We learn to write tight prose with minimal hyperbole and a focus on the key facts (who, what, where, when, why, how, etc).
- These writing skills need to be adapted and applied with care to Wikipedia, particularly if we are writing about topics relating to our employer or a client and its people, products, services or activities (there have been some notable instances where PR people have tried to “massage” neutral Wikipedia descriptions). Wikipedia has clear policies about remaining neutral, citing verifiable and reliable sources, and not publishing original research, and PR people should be aware of these principles, and of what constitutes a conflict of interest.
- I tend to avoid topics directly related to any employers or clients, but as a Wikipedia editor have come across many instances where marketing or PR people have tried to use the encyclopaedia to plug their company/client/product/etc.
- Appropriate use of Wikipedia by public relations professionals is also mentioned in the CIPR‘s own social media guidelines (post), mainly pointing back to Wikipedia’s own guidance.
- Wikipedia is potentially a powerful platform to build up a body of expert knowledge about public relations theory and practice (alongside numerous other fields, of course), but many of the pages I have sampled to date have lacked detail and have yet to reflect that all-important wisdom of the crowd (no doubt one of the reasons for Liam’s Flashmob effort!).
- Maybe the CIPR could encourage more practitioners to spare some time to apply their wisdom to improve and expand some of the PR-related content already created on Wikipedia?