When the PR industry does PR for itself

Summary of the four principles committed to by top PR industries in June 2014

Summary of the four principles committed to by top PR industries in June 2014

This week, several major Public Relations firms issued an announcement about their intentions toward Wikipedia. The headlines capture the spirit of the announcement nicely:

There’s just one problem: most of the headlines and coverage got a central fact of the announcement dead wrong. The PR firms did not agree to refrain from editing any Wikipedia entry; and the rules they referred to do not prohibit them from doing so. (Update: Nor did they when the site’s Terms of Use were updated a month or so after the announcement — a change that was in the works when the announcement was made.)

This was a classic PR play: the agencies successfully spun a non-announcement (after all, every Wikipedia editor technically agrees to obey the rules every time they click the “save” button, next to the text: “By clicking the “Save page” button, you agree to the Terms of Use…”), making it appear as though they had done something significant. The announcement was convincing enough to garner coverage in dozens of top tier publications. And many of those publications were so taken with the story that they jumped to conclusions, stating that the PR agencies had committed to something they hadn’t.

Again: There was no promise to refrain from editing any Wikipedia page — neither explicit nor implicit. And even when Wikipedia’s Terms of Use amendment on paid editing passed the next month, that did not change.

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.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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