Don’t be a phony: Wikipedia and PR

David Kracht / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0The PR industry extended an olive branch to Wikipedia this week.

Earlier this week a consortium of PR agencies released a joint statement on their intention to comply with Wikipedia’s terms of service. This may seem like an empty gesture, but it is considered a significant step towards resolving a conflict between the communications industry and Wikipedia’s vigilant volunteers.

If you are not familiar with this conflict, here’s the short of it: Edits to a Wikipedia entry by a paid representative of an individual or organization constitute a conflict of interest and violate Wikipedia’s terms of service and goals. However, PR pros and freelancers have been paid to edit entries for nearly as long as the online encyclopedia has been around. Read up on the 2011 dust up between a British PR firm and the online encyclopedia for a clearer picture of the relationship.

Though I generally disagree that someone involved with an organization is incapable of updating basic information about that company without falling susceptible to promotional urges, I understand Wikipedia’s policy. It helps keep entries honest, factual and balanced. But more importantly, I understand that it is a community with rules and guidelines; it doesn’t matter whether or not the PR industry likes them. We have to play by the rules or risk our clients’ reputations and exclusion from the community.

Plus, trying to control a conversation—whether through spin or ham-fisted encyclopedia edits—necessarily relies on subterfuge and dishonesty. That never ends well. Instead, PR pros need to make their clients a part of the conversation.

On Wikipedia, that means requesting an edit and making your case for it. There’s even a page full of resources for paid editors, including the proper channels for requesting a change. If you need to make a change to a client’s Wikipedia entry, start there.

For a bit more inside baseball on the relationship between Wikipedia and the communications industry, check out the entry on conflict-of-interest editing, WikiProject Cooperation and WikiProject Integrity. These—and the terms of service—are essential reading if you are considering editing a Wikipedia page for a client or employer.

To get a peek into how Wikipedia’s community of moderators and editors resolves perceived conflicts of interest, check out the talk section of the Cracker Barrel page.

There are as many opinions on this matter as there are Wikipedia pages. Where do you stand? Does editing Wikipedia entries for pay violate your professional ethics? Have you done it? Talk to us about it in the comments.

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