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Nov 12 2012

Too many people who do PR still do not understand Wikipedia

Another “Wikipedia edited by PRs” scandal… this time affecting PR folk at RLM Finsbury (a subsidiary of WPP plc).* Today’s Times newspaper reports that Finsbury staff were anonymously editing the English Wikipedia article about billionaire Russian oligarch (and Arsenal FC shareholder) Alisher Usmanov, breaking Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy (the same story is also reported briefly in the Daily Telegraph).

Following previous examples of PR people “massaging” Wikipedia (eg: in June 2011 it was anonymous ‘fixers’, and in December 2011 it was Bell Pottinger), there have been some familiar PR Week headlines, a renewed focus on the CIPR/Wikimedia UK guidance published in June this year (post; the RLM Finsbury updates were made in 2010, predating the guidelines but still contravening Wikipedia’s conflict of interest rules), and some hastily issued statements from, among others, the CIPR/Wikimedia UK (see also Wikimedia blog post) and the PRCA.

In my view, the CIPR strikes the right balance, but the PRCA goes a bit over-the-top in its condemnation of Wikipedia (read the full PRCA statement; update, 1830hrs, RLM Finsbury is a PRCA member, as are at least two other WPP subsidiaries), particularly in a couple of its assertions that, somehow, Wikipedia is largely to blame:

“We have worked over the past year to help PR practitioners understand better how Wikipedia works. But unfortunately too many of the people who edit Wikipedia still do not understand PR. Too many of them continue to have the knee jerk reaction that information from a PR professional must intrinsically be wrong.

We continue to urge Wikipedia to implement radical reform to its editing process, so that this kind of case can be a thing of the past. Such reform would demonstrably be in its own best interest, and in the interest of accuracy”. (emphasis added)

Wikipedia is, first and foremost, an encyclopaedia. It aims to present reference-quality information in a neutral, balanced and verifiable way. It is not a marketing or PR platform, and so I would instead argue: “too many people who do PR still do not understand Wikipedia“.

Wikipedia practices have evolved over a decade or more to meet a multitude of different needs, but always remaining true to the core principles of Wikipedia (the ‘five pillars’). Its content policies and procedures are constantly developing and the current processes represent many tens of thousands of inputs from a huge cross-section of Wikipedia volunteers from a multitude of different backgrounds. It is somewhat arrogant for one narrow professional group to insist that another body’s painstakingly assembled approach should be radically reformed, particularly when so few of them are actively involved in helping make Wikipedia better.

Also, to counteract one or two headlines I’ve seen repeated and as I have written before, the CIPR guidelines do not say PR people should not edit Wikipedia, just don’t edit articles about you, your clients, their products or services:

You are… free to contribute to articles related to your hobbies and interests where you do not have a conflict of interest. In fact, you are encouraged to do so, particularly as this is a great way to get to know how Wikipedia works. (p.7)

*(Disclosure: at the CIPR’s suggestion, I volunteered and met (unpaid) with senior WPP staff to discuss Wikipedia in August this year. I am a Wikipedian and a CIPR Fellow.)

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