On matters of Wikipedia…can PRs really be Switzerland?

There have been some great posts recently about how to make the Wikipedia and PR “dance” more like a waltz and less like head-banging; Stuart Bruce’s and Phil Gomes’s being two that convey solid arguments in favour of open and responsible Wikipedia editing by PRs and corporate communicators.

To rewind: agencies – most notably, Bell Pottinger – have come under fire for heavy-handed editing of Wikipedia profiles on behalf of clients. The latest furore comes to us via Stella Artois and the attempted removal of “wife beater” from their entry. The brewer, InBev, said it disapproved of the reference to domestic violence; others yet said Stella “shouldn’t look to change details that are factually correct”.

Wikipedia belongs to everyone and no one. But people do feel proprietorial about its contents. It’s not just the image police who try to re-write history: disgruntled employees or anyone with an axe to grind can also have a go. (Firefly itself was the target of some unkind editing whereby, buried in the lower levels of text and not immediately obvious unless reading the whole script, were unflattering and factually inaccurate comments about the company). Ultimately, the ‘disgruntled’ are unlikely to be successful, given Wikipedia’s official rules of engagement; but that’s where its metadata is fascinating, because it can sometimes reveal the motive behind these edits.

On matters of editing, it’s easy to say, “stick to the facts”. But in these naked days of PR, one should do exactly that. Goodness knows there are enough policies and guidelines to make that line in the sand between fact and fabrication very painstakingly clear. And if you still had doubts, more guidelines look to be on their way from the various industry bodies.

So why do PRs still get it wrong? Is it because real brand-neutrality (for a client or one’s employer) can be difficult to achieve? Personally, I don’t think this tells the whole story.  Contrary to some people’s beliefs, PR is not an industry where you’re brow-beaten into submission, even when your moral compass is pointed in the right direction.

I think the Wikipedia crisis has revealed a crisis in writing. We need a re-training of the mind to write in a way that is simple, factual and is there primarily to inform –not necessarily influence. There are plenty of other vehicles for that.

Wikipedia’s importance – to companies, PRs, the media and the public at large – is not in question. But I have no doubt the quality of many entries can actually be improved with PR intervention. Of course, I would say that: but I would also put my money where my mouth is and participate in industry dialogue or training on this topic, to make sure I was doing a heck of a good job (acknowledging that “good” in this context can be subjective; in time, I hope it won’t be).

Firefly’s top six Wikipedia editing tips:

  • Write for facts, not feeling, even if the text looks and sounds slightly dispassionate at first
  • When in doubt, think back to section 2.2 of the PRCA guidelines: “Have a positive duty at all times to respect the truth and shall not disseminate false or misleading information knowingly or recklessly, and to use proper care to avoid doing so inadvertently.”
  • Work with an editor when updating Wikipedia entries and have hard proof or evidence to substantiate your claims
  • Sit down with a colleague who’s more removed from the task and ask him/her to critique your work
  • Be prepared to have (potentially difficult) conversations with your stakeholders about what Wikipedia is and isn’t, including its mission, purpose and limitations

And last but not least, in true Wikipedia fashion, engage; engage in the dialogue, as there is certainly more to come in this hotly-contested space.  


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  • Austin Brailey

    Editing Wikipedia is often viewed as a dodgy endeavour in PR so I think it’s important to follow guidelines like those set out above. To borrow a McCann Erickson line: PR is about “Truth well told”, by keeping that in mind, you can’t go too far wrong.