PR’s Answer to the Camp David Accord

wikipedia-logos-3dOur industry has frequently found itself embroiled in a battle with the volunteer editors of Wikipedia. At this point, the tension is akin to that of two rival nation-states. And, in this case, we, the people of PR, are guilty of causing the conflagration.

That’s because, in an ironic twist of fate considering the countless missives about the need for greater transparency from the likes of the Arthur W. Page Society, PR Week, and others, too many practitioners in our field have been gaming the Wikipedia site from day one.

To be more precise, some PR firms overtly sell their ability to create and fix Wikipedia pages for their clients and violate the very spirit and purpose of the Wikipedia project.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of our brothers and sisters have positively flooded the site and pasted their marketing hype, official company biographies and self-serving drivel on Wikipedia, passing it off as objective entries. In other words, lots of PR people have been living up to the sleazy image the greater society has of our industry.

And, guess what? The editors of Wikipedia are mad as hell, and won’t take it anymore.

Enter Sam Ford, Peppercomm’s director of audience engagement, co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture and adjunct instructor at Western Kentucky University.

Along with some assistance from nine, aircraft carrier-sized global agency colleagues and (from all I’ve heard) the brilliant William Beutler of Beutler Ink, Sam has helped take the first steps in what we hope will lead to a peace settlement…at least for those of us in the industry who take a strong stand on ethics.

This is the link to their statement which was published this morning on Wikipedia and, for this blogger at least,I hope it proves more effective than the infamous Munich Pact of 1938. (Note to Millennial readers: I do hope you’re familiar with both Camp David and Munich. If not, familiarize yourselves NOW).

For the purposes of today’s blog, Sam Ford is to the Wikipedia/PR conflict as former President Jimmy Carter was to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Here’s my Q-and-A with him:

Steve: Why do our firms need make this statement about Wikipedia now? Why not two or three years ago?

Sam: To be frank, I think this is something we needed to be saying more emphatically years ago. Most (if not all) of the firms who signed onto today’s statement have long had policies in place that their employees must act ethically regarding Wikipedia. But the communications and marketing industries talk far too little about ethics. As a result, I feel like we’ve too often let the conversation be dominated by the controversies caused by various firms who have been caught intentionally ignoring the ethos and the guidelines of the Wikipedia editor community. 

Steve: Since PR has so many professional associations espousing the importance of full transparency, why do you think so many PR pros have tried to “game” their Wikipedia entry?

Sam: While we make statements as an industry about transparency and ethics, most of our conferences and publications are filled much more robustly with conversations about the most effective tactics and strategies for achieving your ROI. If you were to judge it based on space allotted, ethics does not seem to be the priority it should be. As I said, that allows the bad actors to get most of the attention. But it also means that we have not driven the sort of education our industry needs about the goals and purpose of the Wikipedia project. Too often, our fellow professionals and our clients have made poor decisions regarding adding or deleting information on Wikipedia because of their lack of knowledge. They understand that Wikipedia is a site anyone can edit, but they don’t understand the policies and the mission behind the site. It’s much easier to call out bad actors than it is to help those who engage with Wikipedia understand the community of volunteer editors they are entering. Too many think of and approach Wikipedia like they would a traditional publisher, or else think of it as a public forum without acknowledging the role of the volunteer editors who work hard to try to vet the vast amount of information being added or edited every day.

Steve: How did you, and Peppercomm, get involved?

Sam: Through my role at the agency, I’ve been counseling our employees and our clients for years about ethical issues. As an agency, Peppercomm has spent the last several years trying to change our mindset to focus more wholly on advocating on our clients’ audiences behalf and taking those needs not just as seriously but more seriously than our clients’ desires. That work has led to my publishing and speaking more and more often about ethical issues in our field, including my current role as co-chair of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Ethics Committee. And it’s also aided by the fact that I operate as an in-house academic at Peppercomm, spending part of my time still writing, researching, and teaching about media audiences and fan communities—work in which I heavily advocate for changes in corporate policies when it comes to how audiences are treated and understood.

It was through that work that I met William Beutler of Beutler Ink, who brought together representatives from various leading communications firm in Washington DC back in February to have a conversation with representatives from the Wikipedia editor community and academics who work on related issues. As a communications professional also highly active in the academic research/writing space and who is focused on helping companies better understand the communities they seek to reach…it was the perfect conversation for me.

I’m invigorated by the idea that our industry can use this statement as one way to have a larger conversation about the importance of seeing our work from the perspective of our audiences and not only our clients—and, in the long run, I think that stance makes us not only more ethical but also more effective communicators. If we act as advocates on behalf of the audiences our clients engage us to reach, we can become more valuable to the companies that hire us as consultative voices who push back on companies to advocate for what their audiences want and need. 

And, in the case of Wikipedia, that means respecting the goals of the Wikipedia project, less companies come in and further erode trust in the entries on Wikipedia—which would defeat the whole reason companies care about their Wikipedia page to begin with.

Steve: What is the benefit to the end user of Wikipedia? What difference do you hope this will eventually make for someone visiting the site?

Sam: Any new instance of a PR or communications professional removing information they don’t like, adding marketing copy, or creating unnecessary entries on their company’s behalf is one instance too many. We need to, as a marketing and communications industry, become much more committed to educating our PR professionals of tomorrow—and our professionals and clients of today—about why editing Wikipedia directly and not disclosing conflicts of interest is unethical. And we need to increasingly make a high level of ethical standard the industry norm—so that those firms that take transparency seriously can be differentiated from those who regularly attempt to deceive Wikipedia editors and readers.

If those of us who do take ethical engagement seriously can build better trust with the Wikipedia community, the hope is that our profession can better supply Wikipedia with information from our clients that can help pages stay up-to-date, accurate, and comprehensive while still maintaining their balance and objectivity. Too often, Wikipedia pages about companies are significant incomplete, outdated, or misleading, while corporate communications professionals hold all the information—and third-party sources—necessary to improve those entries.

A true win would be for better communication to allow that flow of information, similar to how journalists have traditionally relied on corporate communicators and spokespeople to supply the information they need for the stories they file.

That being said, we are not—and will never—suggest there be a blind trust from the Wikipedia community for corporate communicators…only that we would like to build better relationships to a point that editors who have become cynical about corporate and agency professionals’ involvement at Wikipedia at least move that to “healthy skepticism” instead.


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