Q&A on Public Relations and Wikipedia
- David King is the owner of EthicalWiki, a small business that helps organizations contribute to Wikipedia with a conflict of interest that focuses on ethics. He also contributes equally as a volunteer, racking up more than 16,000 edits over the last few years. Over the last year, there's been extensive debate about whether public relations professionals and other corporate representatives should participate on Wikipedia and, if so, to what extent and what kinds of rules should be followed. In this Q&A, he provides his perspective on the debate.
- Can editing Wikipedia anonymously as a public relations representative be illegal?
The Federal Trade Commission requires that those with a financial connection to a company provide clear and obvious disclosures regarding their affiliation. If readers presume Wikipedia's content is written by independent, crowd-sourced participants, but it is actually a corporate communication or promotion, this may be an illegal form of covert advertising that is misleading to readers. The FTC's .com disclosures guide and the findings of a German court case seem to uphold similar principles. It's hard to say how the law would be interpreted in different circumstances, but companies should proceed with caution.
- Do you support the Bright Line rule that PR reps not directly edit articles?
Any organization that is acting in good faith, should respect Wikipedia's autonomy and take the extra step of making sure their proposed changes are supported by the community. It would be irresponsible for the community to encourage public relations professionals to take a risky course of action that is an ethical and legal minefield, such as directly editing the article. Exceptions like grammar, spelling and genuinely neutral editing fall under our common sense principles, but should not be communicated explicitly. They are likely to be taken advantage of by bad-faith participants or weaken a professional's ability to push back against corporate pressures to make COI edits.
- Does the Bright Line work?
Not very well, but it's not as if direct editing by PR reps has better results for Wikipedia. Editors complain that it is difficult to assess whether a PR rep's contributions are neutral and PR contributors complain that it's difficult to get anything done without bold editing.
We can fix the community's complaint by quickly dismissing requests to micro-manage the exact language of the article. Even if the PR rep is correct, these are generally unhelpful and the community has better things to spend our time on. We can address the complaints of PR pros by creating a consistent wizard-based process for routine requests that can be handled by a single editor.
- Are PR editors mistreated here?
Sometimes it can look like mistreatment from the PR rep's perspective, because we are frustrated not to get our way or feel passionately about what a correct article looks like. In other cases, the harassment is genuine, but this is also a problem volunteer editors experience.
The community does not accurately assign good faith or bad faith to COI editors, because we do not have access to enough information on-Wiki to evaluate an editor's intentions. Some would claim that we should therefor always assume good faith, but this is not a good use of the community's resources, especially in the most obvious cases of bad faith. The easiest way to handle this is to provide straightforward instructions on the proper way to participate with a COI and distinguish between those that follow instructions and those that do not.
- Can paid editors be neutral?
The Wikipedia community accepts mediocre contributions from everyone. Public relations professionals do not need to be top-grade editors to be welcomed here, nor do we even need to be any more neutral than the average editor.
The only thing an organization needs to do to avoid hostility, risk and controversy is prove that they are not an advocate. If they are not an advocate, any bias is accidental and inconsequential and if they are, advocacy is broadly prohibited.
- Not an advocate?
The normal role of a public relations professional is to communicate the company's point of view, but Wikipedia's expectation is that the organization attempts to be neutral about itself, including adding perspectives the employer or client doesn't agree with. The extent of which an organization and its PR rep are able to bridge this gap between their de facto role and Wikipedia's expectations scales with the amount of acceptance they can expect on Wikipedia.
Organizations that are unable to meet Wikipedia's expectations about their role accept additional risk and other problems, because advocacy is broadly prohibited, regardless of what rules are followed, how policy-compliant the content is, or how polite they are. Strategic public relations professionals will advise clients to avoid advocacy, because this will have the best outcome for them in the long term. It is even a viable strategy to overcompensate for a conflict of interest intentionally, so editors can trim down the contentious content rather than speculate over what's missing, or whether there is cherry picking and slanting.
- What about the bad guys?
Every spammy, promotional article that slips through the cracks has three competitors looking at it and thinking "why can't we have an article like that?"
One approach is fighting against promotion on-wiki, but it's an uphill battle. The other strategy that is needed is preventing bad-faith COI edits from occurring in the first place. This can be done by educating the PR community, providing straightforward advice and by making an example out of the bad guys.
It's crazy that blatant Wikipedia astroturfing firms are operating in broad daylight like it's a legitimate business that doesn't need to hide in the shadows. I would like to see the Federal Trade Commission establish some precedence that blatantly astroturfing Wikipedia is illegal and unethical.
- Anything else?
In a perfect world, experienced, thoughtful volunteers would bring every article up to Featured status. But in practice we have lots of articles that need to be created, are "owned" by POV pushers, or are just terrible in general and the PR rep is the most motivated to improve it. There are many cases where, though I may have a bias, I can be much more neutral than volunteers have been on that particular page.
I don't know at what frequency we can realistically expect organizations to take on the unusual role Wikipedia expects of them. I turn down more than half of the business inquiries I get, because the prospect just wants something too different than Wikipedia for us to deliver the expected outcome within the scope of our ethics policy. It would help if Wikipedia was more clear about communicating its expectations.
It's a contradiction that some in the PR community take it for granted that their role on Wikipedia is the traditional one of communicating the client's point of view, but also see no reason for controversy when acting as "just another editor." Each circumstance is different. A lot comes down to whether the community trusts a specific company and/or individual and whether that organization is able to exhibit trust-building behaviors.