This week, several major Public Relations firms issued an announcement about their intentions toward Wikipedia. The headlines capture the spirit of the announcement nicely:
- “Major PR firms agree not to edit clients’ Wikipedia entries“ -SF Chronicle
- “Top PR Firms Promise They Won’t Edit Clients’ Wikipedia Entries on the Sly“ -Advertising Age
- “PR Firms Pledge to Behave Better on Wikipedia“ -Inc.
- (and dozens of others)
The four commitments, quoted directly from the announcement, were:
- To seek to better understand the fundamental principles guiding Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.
- To act in accordance with Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, particularly those related to “conflict of interest.”
- To abide by the Wikimedia Foundation’s Terms of Service.
- To the extent we become aware of potential violations of Wikipedia policies by our respective firms, to investigate the matter and seek corrective action, as appropriate and consistent with our policies.
These can be accurately summarized as follows:
We will learn about Wikipedia, and we will obey the rules.
Nothing more, nothing less. And no, the rules do not prohibit direct editing.
The Wikipedia community and others have long debated whether those in a conflict of interest (including those in the PR industry) should be allowed to write and edit Wikipedia articles directly, and about what ethical considerations should guide such behavior. (Here at Wiki Strategies, we have written extensively on the topic, notably in our Statement of Ethics and our Ethical Editing page.) But as anyone familiar with the issue knows, Wikipedia’s Conflict of Interest Guideline has never outright prohibited directly editing Wikipedia articles. So the PR firms’ commitments in no way change the longstanding guideline around conflicts of interest, and in no way restrict the firms from editing any particular page on Wikipedia.
When the PR industry does its own PR work around its Wikipedia strategy, should we expect anything different? Those publishing the statement artfully crafted a message that sounds like it says something, even though it says nothing of importance whatsoever. The message is so convincing in its delivery that numerous respected publications boldly leapt to the conclusion that something significant and specific had been said, and even pulled specific conclusions about what that something was out of thin air.
That, dear readers, is the Public Relations industry at work. The San Francisco Chronicle, Advertising Age, and others fell for a simple head-fake; let’s hope Wikipedia can do better.
Update: I was on the Wikipedia Weekly podcast discussing this in more depth; my comments start at about 14:30: Wikipedia Weekly #116 – Wikipedia and PR
Update: I edited this piece in September 2015, for clarity and accuracy. The previous version is available via archive.org.