Every few months, it seems, there is a dust-up over the role of PR teams in editing articles on Wikipedia.
Most recently, several publications (notably Vice
) reported on the work of a firm devoted almost entirely to editing Wikipedia articles on behalf of various clients. When the firm’s work was discovered, many editors found themselves in hot water with the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia. Their clients, including several named by Motherboard in its article, found themselves unhappily facing negative press.
Situations like these are akin to unforced errors in sports—when an attempt to make a positive play turns into an unexpectedly negative situation. (Fumble!)
In an effort to maintain neutrality and accuracy and to avoid promotional articles, Wikipedia maintains fairly strict guidelines regarding who can edit entries. It specifically prohibits the conflict-of-interest issues that can arise when PR teams do not disclose their relationships with clients whose entries they are writing.
It is important for PR professionals to note that, to violate Wikipedia’s policies, you don’t have to actually write content that is misleading or inaccurate. You simply have to make edits on behalf of a paying client. Disclosing your relationship with that client can result in your edits being declined, while choosing not to disclose your position as a paid agent can have much more harmful consequences down the road.
For a project as large and unwieldy as Wikipedia, efforts to remain a trusted, neutral, and accurate source of information for the public are essential to its success. Certainly, though, anyone who has researched a paper or an article knows that vague, incomplete or misleading articles are not uncommon. This can be frustrating when your organization or client is the one being misrepresented. Nonetheless, for the Wikipedia model to work and for PR teams to maintain their integrity, transparency is crucial.
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Too many public relations crises are caused by a practitioner’s decision not to reveal his or her affiliation with a client. As more and more PR work moves into the digital sphere, where content can be scrutinized by a huge number of readers at any time, it is more important than ever to be transparent about the work of your PR team.
Good PR teams push for more transparency and accountability, not less, and they work to build better trust in a company. When the opposite happens—on Wikipedia or elsewhere—it will create more PR headaches, not solve them.
To avoid this kind of unforced error, apply what we’ll call the “Wikipedia test” and ask yourself and your team:
Am I appropriately disclosing my role as a PR agent?
- Will this action create long-term PR problems for my client, even if it solves an immediate issue?
- Am I helping to improve transparency and accountability for my firm and for my clients?
In the meantime, now might be a good time to brush up on Wikipedia’s guidelines
A version of this story originally appeared on Communiqué PR's blog.