On Wikipedia and Public Relations: Wiki-PR's Case Study in Worst Practices and What Comes Next
The week so far has been a very interesting time for Wikipedia: mainstream press outlets, including the BBC, Time, Guardian, Slate, CNET and more, have picked up on the story of "Wiki-PR", first reported by The Daily Dot two weeks ago. For those readers not up to speed, Wiki-PR is a little-known company identified as the culprit behind several hundred deceptive Wikipedia accounts, whose purpose was surreptitiously creating and maintaining articles about the company's clients. The Wikimedia Foundation, in a statement yesterday, described Wiki-PR's alleged activities as a "Terms of Service" violation, and said it was "currently assessing all the options". This is an issue that matters a lot to me—both personally and professionally. If you've worked with Beutler Ink, you may know that I am myself a volunteer contributor to Wikipedia, someone who has been called to comment on the site in the media, and a provider of consulting services related to the website. At Beutler Ink, it is one of our more unusual service offerings—and it's a fun one at that. Since I first learned of Wiki-PR's existence, I've been certain that the company's M.O. was to intentionally and systematically evade Wikipedia's accepted rules. And how did I know this? Easy: I've never once crossed paths with the company's representatives on Wikipedia.
As far as I can tell, Wiki-PR and Beutler Ink share exactly one thing in common: we both offer services based on helping companies, organizations and individuals navigate Wikipedia. Literally everything else is different. Our approach to transparency, our methods of outreach, our attitude toward the community, and the effects of our actions are night and day. At the present moment, Wiki-PR has shuttered its Twitter account and is reduced to offering unpersuasive denials to major media outlets. Meanwhile, here I am writing in plain English about the tricky subject of public relations and Wikipedia. (Nor is it the first time I've written about it.)
The practice of helping outside organizations communicate with the Wikipedia community for the purpose of improving aspects of coverage is a legitimate enterprise, but it's also a very complicated one. Few Wikipedians are really enthusiastic about companies and organizations having an influence over what Wikipedia articles say, but they also know that Wikipedia articles don't always get things right, and the views of companies discussed in articles should be considered. Company representatives may have corrections to add, but these suggestions should be balanced with Wikipedia's goals as an encyclopedia—and it's always better to have these corrections made out in the open.
But Wikipedia is notoriously opaque—its rules are not easy for outsiders to find or follow—so it's not at all surprising to learn that Wiki-PR (and others like them) have been able to get away with telling their clients everything was on the up-and-up. By definition, these companies and individuals hired Wiki-PR because they didn't know anything about how Wikipedia worked. Unfortunately, Wiki-PR took advantage of this information imbalance to deceive their clients.
As a matter of fact, a few times over the last few days, I've had friends and industry colleagues ask me: Hey, isn't that what you do? I can't respond fast enough with an emphatic No. There are several reasons we are different, but the two most important are ethics—especially with regard to transparency—and quality.
- First and foremost, we are committed to following Wikipedia's best practices for responsible Wikipedia engagement—such as the all-important "Conflict of interest" guideline, Jimmy Wales' so-called "bright line" and the community information page "Plain and simple conflict of interest guide”—because it's the best thing for the integrity of Wikipedia and the best way to protect our client partners from criticism. We take a hands-off approach to Wikipedia engagement: rather than making direct edits, we offer Talk page suggestions that work for Wikipedia and our client partners both. Rather than hiding our affiliation, we make it crystal clear that we are paid consultants. We can't promise that every Wikipedia editor will always be willing to work with us, but we aim to be "state of the art" and to respect the rules Wikipedia has adopted for itself. As these best practices will surely continue to evolve, so will we.
- Second, our commitment to quality work serves everyone. Several of our articles have been listed as "Featured" or "Good" articles according to Wikipedia's volunteer-based rating system—not an easy recognition to attain. We always make a point of saying that the reason we are so successful is because we consider improvement of Wikipedia as a paramount goal. Where Wikipedia's goals may differ from a client's goals, we will not ask for that particular edit. And when this inevitably happens, we are confident that we can explain why. Since 2008, I've been doing some form of transparent Wikipedia public relations (I like to call it "wiki relations" although the term hasn't caught on) so I know what works, and what doesn't work. When I don't know, I ask first. If you want to get away with something, you don't come to us.
Ultimately, the big difference between Beutler Ink and companies like Wiki-PR is that we believe in Wikipedia's mission and we want to help it become a better resource. That we can do this while also helping our client partners improve the information about them on the most important reference website in the world is something we're very proud of.
It's hard to predict what the Wiki-PR debacle will mean for the state of Wikipedia and public relations, although it seems we are closer to the beginning of this story than the end. But in my optimism, there are two things I would like to see happen next.
First, I'd love to see Wikipedia finally get serious about creating a unified request system for outside interests—a customer service desk, if you will—similar to the "Articles for Creation" process but for existing articles, and then stay serious about working through the inevitable backlog. Second, and just as importantly: when companies like Wiki-PR are caught trying to manipulate Wikipedia for their own benefits, they need to feel the pressure from not only the Wikipedia community, but also from PR professionals.
Yet so long as unethical practices like Wiki-PR's continue to dominate the discussion, this only makes it less likely that the Wikipedia community will take us seriously. As long as Wiki-PR and its ilk are what Wikipedians think of when they think about public relations, it's hard to blame them if they don't.