The public relations agency problem.

Someone’s set up a Facebook group, Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement. I see a pile of Wikimedians engaging with them, which is promising. Thomas Morton, Steve Virgin and Wikimedia UK are also working on an event where Wikimedians and PR people can work this stuff out.

PR people have a legitimate issue: Wikipedia is this huge scary thing people don’t know how to approach, and sometimes our articles are in fact rubbish. How do you fix that? I get asked this a lot and have a ten-minute reply that I play back like a voice macro, on the themes of:

  • be totally upfront about who you are, where you’re from and who you’re working for;
  • only ever edit the talk page, never the article itself. Not ever;
  • imagine every little thing you do on Wikipedia being picked over by the newspapers a year from now, with your name and photo on it — the papers love this stuff;
  • if there’s a serious problem with an article, like defamation, email info@wikimedia.org and someone experienced will look at your issue and take it seriously. (I can’t guarantee any particular response, but I can guarantee it will be taken seriously.)

I visited the Wikimedia UK office on Tuesday and chatted with Stevie Benton (the new media person), Richard and Daria about this topic. In all our experience, even sincere PR people seem biologically incapable of understanding “conflict of interest,” but will understand generating bad PR.

The approach we could think of that could work is: “if you’re caught in what other people think is a conflict of interest, your name and your client’s name are mud.” Any PR who doesn’t comprehend that deserves what happens to them.

Think it’ll help? I realise that you can’t legislate stupidity or malice out of existence … it also looks too much like a threat, which isn’t the intention. Better ideas with some chance of working are much needed. Wikipedians? PR people?

Update to clarify: my comments are strictly advisory and based on watching the press absolutely crucify PR people who have edited clients’ articles, which becomes bad PR for the client — even if what they did was within Wikipedia rules and they arguably didn’t deserve it. I’ve been repeatedly amazed at just how upset the press and the public (e.g., people I talk to) get about this, much more than the actual Wikipedians do.

I expect discussions will involve a bit of the good people on both sides apologising for the actions of the not so good ones …

7 Responses to “The public relations agency problem.”

  1. Phil Gomes says:

    I’m one of the founders of CREWE. Thanks for weighing in.

    You’re right… CREWE comprises both PR folks *and* Wikipedians (plus an odd politician, student, or academic) who are looking to find some level of common ground and mutual understanding, based on education and cooperation. To that end, we’ve inspired or undertaken original research, started to build tools to help PR people do it right, volunteered into WikiProject:Cooperation, and so on.

    If that cooperation results in more accurate articles and/or more PR people made sensitive to Wikipedia mores and policies, the public interest is served and progress is made.

    That said… No one has yet been able to supply an argument as to why *certain* sections of a company’s entry *can’t* be edited by its representative. I’m talking, in particular, about the stats box that shows a company’s revenue, location, company name, most recent earnings, etc.

    I’ll point to Applebee’s as an example. (Not a client.) I’m pretty sure that this American chain of restaurants has earned money since 2006, but you wouldn’t know from the entry. What would be patently wrong if Applebee’s PR dept. updated that section with up-to-date numbers? No “whitewashing” has taken place. No chance of “spin” or “puffery” with numbers that have gone through a rigid regulatory regime and, doubtless, an auditing firm or two.

    In this instance, engaging on the talk page (if anyone is listening at all) seems overkill with regard to a point of fact that can be fixed in minutes rather than days/hours/weeks/never. In the example above, it’s not a matter of positioning, emphasis, or topics upon which reasonable people might disagree. All such items, we can agree, *absolutely* require lively debate on the talk page and *should* forbid the direct editing by PR.

    As to this comment: “even sincere PR people seem biologically incapable of understanding ‘conflict of interest,’ but will understand generating bad PR.”…

    Arguably, the participants in CREWE have at least tacitly acknowledged that Wikipedia’s public-shaming approach to COI enforcement is, by itself, insufficient. (Sometimes necessary, perhaps, but nevertheless insufficient.)

    A PR person is no worse at understanding the concept of “conflict of interest” than, say, an activist. The latter, of course, consistently gets a free pass. PR folks (particularly the ones who violate Wikipedia guidelines) are far easier to identify and, therefore, an easier target. Target identified, a public-shaming campaign is triggered and the mainstream press (a group not particularly well-versed in the nuances of the issue) just kind of falls in line. In the end, I’m sure plenty of folks pat themselves on the back for “solving” the “problem”, at least until the cycle begins anew.

    I realize Wikipedia’s intention is not to threaten but, frankly, a lot of PR folks feel that threat of humiliation is the only arrow in Wikipedia’s quiver.

    Fortunately, CREWE has been able to attract some Wikipedians goodly enough to *want* to volunteer their time to help companies do right by Wikipedia. They see the value that PR, undertaken ethically, provides. I sincerely hope that this process continues and our volunteer Wikipedians continue to find CREWE’s mission to be of value.

  2. John Cass says:

    I agree with Phil on his points. It’s my understanding that you represent Wikipedia in the UK in the role of a PR person. It’s also my understanding from a number of wikipedians on the crewe forum, that it is okay for PR people and people with a COI to edit Wikipedia under certain circumstances.

  3. David Gerard says:

    To clarify: I’m a press volunteer, not someone with actual power to determine community reaction or give someone a pass. My comments are strictly advisory and based on observation of what happens.

    I tend to advise PR people against editing clients’ articles, not because of Wikipedia rules, but because of observing the press absolutely crucify PR people who have edited clients’ articles, even if what they did was within Wikipedia rules and they arguably don’t deserve it. I’ve been repeatedly amazed at just how upset the press and the public (e.g., people I talk to) get about this, much more than the actual Wikipedians do.

    I expect discussions will involve a bit of the good people on both sides apologising for the actions of the not so good ones …

  4. John Cass says:

    David, your advice seems fair in the circumstances, would you be kind enough to give the perspective and your comment that “no PR person should edit,” with the resulting bad PR.

    I also wonder if this is a cultural thing between the US and the UK. (I live in the US, but I’m from the UK) there does seem to be a lot of bad press about PR people in the UK related to politicians in the last 20 years. Not that there isn’t bad press about PR in the US, but the atmosphere appears to be more highly charged at the moment.

  5. “there does seem to be a lot of bad press about PR people in the UK related to politicians in the last 20 years. Not that there isn’t bad press about PR in the US, but the atmosphere appears to be more highly charged at the moment.”

    To clarify, I think it’s just that the British Press and its audience are a lot sharper. I think we’ve had similar numbers of missteps that could have resulted in scandal, but for some reason they don’t gain traction here:
    http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2006/01/6079.ars
    http://www.wired.com/politics/onlinerights/news/2007/08/wiki_tracker?currentPage=all
    http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Congressional_computers_continue_to_be_used_to_vandalize_Wikipedia

    The generous view would be the violations of trust were not as egregious, and that’s probably true to a certain extent. But also, these “editors” who are somewhat lacking in morality are lucky that the either our reporters are not as good at communicating the transgressions or our public just doesn’t care yet. It’ll happen though. There will be a bridge too far moment when we’ll have to reflect. Better to get in front of the 8 ball.

    Is that enough mixed metaphors?

  6. David King says:

    On the other hand, often the media is overly sympathetic. For example, Bell Pottinger made imaginary identities in order to pose as volunteer editors. It took a large organized project on Wikipedia to clean up all the edits they made over dozens of sockpuppet accounts. They created negative entries on advocates that were opposing their clients and so on.

    Then they told the media that Wikipedia’s rules were just confusing and they didn’t make any edits that weren’t true and factual. Many reporters bought it because they don’t spend the time or have the expertise to really drill down into edit histories and see if such a defense is reasonable.

    On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Newt Gingrich’s communications director, who hasn’t directly edited an article in a year. Yet the media used a lot of misleading language and conjectures to make it sound like there was some news value in a communications director collaborating with the editorial community. Jimmy Wales said as long as he continues to not directly edit an article, he considers that a best practices, yet the media cherry-picked the opinions of individual editors who didn’t approve.

    -David King
    EthicalWiki.com

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