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 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 …