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Should Public Relations Professionals be Allowed to Edit Wikipedia Articles?

To explore current public relations/communications practices with Wikipedia, I’m conducting a survey sponsored by the Arthur W. Page Center. My goal is to explore current engagement with Wikipedia and identify what changes are necessary.

I started researching Wikipedia in 2006 with Marcus Messner, Virginia Commonwealth University, and we have been arguing for years that public relations professionals should monitor their Wikipedia articles. Our 2010 study found that the negative content in corporate Wikipedia articles increased from 2006 to 2008 to 2010 and articles were becoming less focused on historical information and more on legal issues and controversies.

Given our findings and the wide use of Wikipedia by the public, having articles with incorrect or outdated information is not in anyone’s interest, but edits made by public relations professionals are unlikely to stick. Gerry Corbett, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, along with many others have suggested that Wikipedia policies should be based on accuracy and transparency in Wikipedia articles; no matter who does the editing, as long as the information is accurate, unbiased and properly referenced.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, doesn’t agree and has stated “This is not complicated. There is a very simple “bright line” rule that constitutes best practice: do not edit Wikipedia directly if you are a paid advocate. Respect the community by interacting with us appropriately.”

Unfortunately, many public relations professionals don’t know the rule, tried playing by it without success, have chosen to ignore it, and/or quite possibly the rule needs to be changed or better communicated.

I’m a member of the Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE) group and we are working with Jimmy Wales and other Wikipedia editors to identify how we can have a constructive relationship with the goal of maintaining accurate Wikipedia articles. This has proven not to be an easy task and hopefully my research study can help.

Please take a few minutes to complete this important survey. A white paper with the results will be available on IPR soon.

Dr. Marcia W. DiStaso is an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Pennsylvania State University, Chair of the PRSA Financial Communications Section, and Co-Chair of the PRSA National Research Committee.

6 Comments

  1. Peter Simmons — February 14th, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Wikpedia are very carefully trying to promote independence and neutrality as fundamentals of high quality. Paid advocates threaten wikipedia’s high standards and should be kept out.

  2. todge — February 14th, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    The problem with Wiki: it can easily degenerate into mob rule by crusaders with a cause who are being paid to destroy a person or organization’s reputation. If there are people sending 50 or more hours a week working to give a particular slant to a Wiki article, they are probably being paid. Wiki should limit the number of hours any one person can work on a single article. This way, the process would be more democratic. Two or three people with an agenda who have worked their way up the editorial ladder can rally other editors and completely skew an article to overrun the neutrality of a Wiki page, especially if they are working it everyday for several hours a day. The person or organization doesn’t have a chance.

  3. todge — February 14th, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    i meant, ‘spending’ 50 or more hours a week… I know of one such page where a tiny handful of people religiously or philosophically against this topic have for years bombarded it with petty, irrational citations and distorted the content beyond recognition. It doesn’t read like an encyclopedia but a advocate’s tract. At east the disputed neutrality warning remains at the top to advise people not to trust the page, though most people probably don’t know the significance of that warning and believe what they read.

  4. David Phillips — February 20th, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    In the spirit of a citizen edited encyclopedia, this would suggest that being in the pay of an actor makes a person less honest,and ethically challenged.

    A practitioner who signs up to a code of practice such that one might find among PR professionals is thereby, and evidently (judging from one of the pages about PR on offer at Wikipedia) less ethical than an avowed propagandist.

    There has to be some equity in this debate.

    If Wikipedia is to continue to command respect, it has to play by its own rules.

    This entry is about spin and propaganda http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_relations

    At http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_public_relations Public Relations is described as:
    Essence of public relations
    Propaganda: the general propagation of information for a specific purpose
    Psychological warfare:
    Psyops

    I have worked in the industry for over 40 years and I find this offensive and, based on the activities of the vast majority of practitioners, lacks balance and substantive evidence.

    Perhaps there is a time for Wikipedians to add balance to their arguments and their wiki.

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