Saturday 24 February 2018

Public Relations and Wikipedia: The Unnecessary Impasse

This article was originally published in IABC’s monthly newsletter, CW Bulletin.

Wikipedia and corporations (and the agencies that service them) have had a publicly tense relationship. I argue that this is as understandable as it is ultimately unnecessary and mutually unproductive.

Most certainly, there are a fair number of “bad actors” within the public relations field who, unfortunately, could not be bothered to learn the philosophies, behaviors, values and mores of the world’s fifth most-visited website. Rule No. 1 in this business is to know and respect your audience. However, some, unfortunately, have taken the phrase “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” to excuse a certain ignorance about how online communities work, to say nothing of Wikipedia specifically.

Despite many Wikipedians’ protestations to the contrary, however, it is often very difficult for a company to both play by the rules and quickly remedy errors on their Wikipedia pages that may range from the minor to the positively egregious. “Go to the Talk page,” (that part of an entry where people can discuss that entry’s topic) one might say, only to have queries be ignored for some time. With a labyrinthine set of additional remedies offered, some communicators find themselves with no other choice but to edit the article—a big community no-no—and hope for the best. (In many cases, a representative will make the edit and discuss it on the Talk page ex post facto.)

Unfortunately, public humiliation has been shown to be the only arrow in the Wikipedia community’s quiver when it comes to dealing with a corporate representative. You most certainly have seen the press coverage. The typical narrative goes like this:

  • Company is caught editing its own Wikipedia entry.
  • A mainstream press not well-versed on the issues (but generally defaulting to a corporations-behaving-badly mode) publishes an article.
  • Said article offers almost no discussion of whether a true whitewashing or mere correction of fact has occurred.
  • More Google-able pseudo-evidence is therefore produced that all communicators are evil Svengalis who sit in their high-backed chairs in secret executive clubs, quaffing bourbon, smoking cigars, and wringing their hands scheming how to put one over on the netizenry.

This tactic has more or less scared off many companies from Wikipedia, but I believe it has reached the end of its useful life. First, I strongly believe that these sort of tactics have inspired a level of “umbrage fatigue” or a condition where frequent outrage ends up falling on deaf ears. Second, people who want to do right by Wikipedia are somewhat frightened that they will break one of the many (and sometimes contradictory) rules, guidelines, edicts or policies. During this time, inaccuracies persist. This is against a backdrop of an environment where digital vandalism by activists very often takes place without penalty or consequence. Truth be told, however, the public relations industry has always been truly awful at its own reputation management, allowing the opposition (and Hollywood) to craft the narrative.

The real tragedy in all of this is that both sides—Wikipedians and corporate communicators—desire the same thing: accurate entries. The fact is there are many more people in the PR field who want to get it right than those who hope to get away with doing wrong.

I’m not talking about opening Wikipedia to whitewashing. The reasonable person wouldn’t want Union Carbide playing around in the entry on Bhopal, for example, nor would you want the nuclear energy lobby making clandestine changes to the article on Three Mile Island. It’s imperative, however, that the public relations industry demonstrate by cooperation and good behavior that it can work with the Wikipedia community instead of taking the quick, easy-fix route.

This is why I, along with a few other colleagues, formed Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE). We not only want to show and demonstrate that PR people want to do things the right way, but also educate those communicators who are perhaps encountering Wikipedia for the first time from a professional perspective. In addition, CREWE comprises Wikipedians, many of whom see the value in mutual understanding and cooperation. I went to the Wikimania 2012 conference in Washington D.C. this year. Privately, many attendees told me that they absolutely support what CREWE is trying to accomplish. I don’t really blame them for not saying so publicly, though.

While CREWE is sometimes inaccurately cast as an organization bent on lobbying Wikipedia, the truth is that it is the first group that doesn’t necessarily follow the PR instinct of deferentially cowing to an influential group or body. The general effectiveness of Wikipedia’s policies is a topic upon which very reasonable people might disagree, but it’s also a topic that has made people somewhat unreasonable.

Make no mistake: Wikipedia is an incredible accomplishment. This personal opinion is not only a long-held one, but one that was resoundingly confirmed during my attendance at Wikimania 2012. That said, we feel that, whether asked for or not, Wikipedia carries an incredible responsibility given that it’s the most-frequent and highly placed search result for almost any topic or company name. To foster an environment where a group with access and motivation to pursue accuracy is actively discouraged from participating is not only a flawed strategy in the long term, but ultimately quite contrary to the public interests that Wikipedia professes to serve.

Brick wall image courtesy of BigStock.

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