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The future of PR on Wikipedia

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By David King
(L–R) Gemma Griffiths, David Gerard and Philip Sheldrake about to debate the relationship between Wikipedia and the PR industry for a CIPR TV webcast in London in June 2012
David King is the founder of EthicalWiki, a firm specializing in Wikipedia–commercial relations. The views expressed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section.
The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds. If you have one in mind, please leave a message at the opinion desk.

There has never been a better time to improve the behavior of marketing professionals on Wikipedia. For the first time we're seeing self-imposed statements of ethics. Professional PR bodies around the globe have supported the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) guidance for ethical Wikipedia engagement (not to directly edit articles). Although their tone is different, CREWE and the PRSA have brought more attention to the issues. Awareness among PR professionals is rising. So are the number of paid editing operations sprouting up and the opportunity for dialogue.

We have an opportunity to shape this relationship, influence behavior, establish processes, set policy and improve administration. If we can establish a beneficial relationship with companies, we can improve Wikipedia's credibility by reducing overt advertising, while reducing the burden of policing disruptive COIs. We can transform disruptive editors into helpful ones and maybe even turn some PR people into volunteers. To get there, we need to identify a more natural and productive relationship between PR people and Wikipedians.

A natural role

Our approach to COI often tries to transform PR people into Wikipedians. We ask COIs to write as if they don't have a conflict of interest (but we do), try to avoid bias (but we are) and learn Wikipedia's rules (but most of us don't want to). It's unnatural for any independent news and information source to ask PR professionals to play the role of journalist to cover their own story. This is our instinct as Wikipedians - to share and teach our culture, process and rules.

Rather than putting PR professionals in the role of reporting on themselves, while simultaneously cautioning against it, a more natural relationship would be to encourage companies to do public relations on Wikipedia, instead of paid editing. Public relations is about helping journalists (citizen journalists in this case) cover the story with resources, expertise and content.

For example, imagine the range of circumstances, where doing PR on Wikipedia is universally helpful and less controversial:

This is a more natural relationship analogous to the non-controversial ways PR works with professional journalists. We respect a journalist's autonomy, their right to publish the article how they please and the expectation that they will write in a tone that serves their readers. However, the journalist finds value in working with a PR professional, who makes it easier for them to write the story by being a resource.

It would be a positive thing for Wikipedia to see a day where we could go to the article on any major brand, find their PR person on the Talk page and ask them for sources on their latest acquisition or technical help understanding their latest standard.

What we can do

Most people will take the obvious and easy path when presented with one.
Today the clear and obvious path for PR professionals is to edit Wikipedia and see what sticks. We caution against editing with a COI, but make poor behavior the easiest, fastest and most effective way to contribute. We create an "ethics tax" because it's harder and generates less "results" to do Wikipedia properly.

I suggest we take a proactive role in discouraging bad behavior. We can raise our content standards, investigate undisclosed paid editing, and embarrass companies for clear censorship attempts in situations where we can't reasonably AGF.

On the other hand, instead of merely throwing cautions everywhere for PR editing, we can give them clear instructions on how to contribute in ways that are generally accepted, helpful and less controversial. There's an essay in the works along these lines of providing advice for participation that has broader acceptance and is less controversial. Whatever your opinion is on COI, most of us can agree that companies donating images, sharing sources and answering questions are helpful ways to improve Wikipedia's coverage of companies that should actually be encouraged.

We can also improve the clarity of the COI guideline, create an AFC-like system for {{edit COI}}s, give companies a method to voluntarily block their IP address and improve templates. Let's give companies a better opportunity to contribute in ways that are helpful and make disruptive and promotional behavior less appealing.

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  • Thank you! An excellent, common-sense viewpoint. There are certainly dangers in actively encouraging PR departments to show up and start shovelling material onto our talk pages but it makes more sense than the status quo, which amounts to giving the choice between stealth or a pile of paperwork. Stevage 10:48, 24 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • "Doing Wikipedia properly" means concentrating on improving articles at least in the medium term, not just making short-term gains for one side of a debate. Which of those two options, quite honestly, do those who pay the paid editors think they are paying for? Charles Matthews (talk) 11:50, 24 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • I would agree that there needs to be some sort of official channel for PR departments and other biased editors to go through. While ideally we would have objective, unbiased people write about everything, companies have a vested interest in making people edit their Wikipedia articles and it is hard to detect and prevent such biased editing without damaging Wikipedia's open nature. Although I'm not a fan of industry self-regulation (or rather, I think it doesn't work), by making common agreements on ethics PR companies can change the way the industry is run, it just remains to be seen how substantial this will be. I would be in favor of a Wikipedia that invites paid editing, with conditions attached. The author mentions a lot of the ways paid editors can contribute (such as being excellent at providing sources) greatly, so it seems like a bad idea to turn them away at the door. I don't think oversight and observation of such especially biased editors is too much to ask for, though; paid editors should certainly declare themselves to be such. Knight of Truth (talk) 15:06, 24 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Self-regulation is one aspect, but we shouldn't rely on it. There's no silver bullet, but we can look at any option that will improve things more than hurt them and do what we can one step at a time. I think what's vastly important is improving instructions and encouraging good behavior, while punishing bad behavior. I feel right now the easiest and most effective way for them to contribute is through bad behavior.
Those reading this op-ed may also want to look at OrangeMike's interview, which isn't necessarily at odds. I think we need a PaidWatch and a COOP (sticks and carrots). Humiliation in the media has always been the biggest deterrent and I'm also interested in the idea of the Wikipedia community taking control over this tool, instead of leaving it to the media. A Wikipedia-driven investigation would be more fair, careful, and serve our purposes more than leaving it in the hands of the media. User:King4057 (EthicalWiki) 15:28, 24 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]

The "what we can do" section has a lot of things that need attention and work:

  • Investigate undisclosed paid editing (being done by PAIDWATCH)
  • Embarrass companies for clear censorship attempts in situations where we can't reasonably AGF.
  • Improving instructions like the COI Guideline
  • Create an AFC-like system for request edits
  • Give companies a method to voluntarily block their IP address
  • Improve templates
  • Raise content standards (just something to keep in mind)

I would be eager to work with folks that are interested in contributing to or discussing some of these projects. User:King4057 (EthicalWiki) 15:56, 24 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]

  • One of the best examples, I think, of a paid editor (I know this is about PR specifically, but it's related) becoming a volunteer and then also helping to serve the overall company article issue is User:Eclipsed. He's been diligently working in his Requested articles workspace on creating stubs for requested company and business articles. While he usually only makes a two to three sentence article for each one, since he wants to let the natural growth process of Wikipedia improve them further, he helps this along by also including a ton of reliable sources already properly formatted and everything. For example, look at Yellowstone Bear World, PooPrints, and Stiletto Spy School. SilverserenC 19:42, 24 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
The purpose and function of this contribution is to reduce the current free encyclopaedic editing of wikipedians to (unpaid) wage labouring. Most of us are happy with the concept that anyone can use our product for commercial purposes under CC-BY-SA; I'm not worried about this either. We've already outproduced Encarta, and we're going to eliminate all other generalist encyclopaedias—we are simply a superior group of producers in terms of supplying an encyclopaedia. The problem with this proposal is that it suggests transforming the actual process of writing the encyclopaedia, from one governed primarily by the editors themselves to one guided by disciplinary impositions from outside. Legitimising paid editors legitimises a process of reducing all other editors to unpaid "waged" editors. Similar processes happen with the "professionalisation" of credit unions, or community organisations, or churches. We need to prevent this occurring. If PR professionals suddenly want to start producing high quality reliable sources, and publishing them professionally, then all power to them; and, like similar producers, we would like them to note their new exciting works on the talk pages of articles and let us get on with it. But if they're paid, even if they do this off-wiki, to assemble documents or access to documents—regardless of POV—their paid work reduces my free work to unpaid waged labour. And I'm not willing to put up with that. Take use and sell our product—good. Take and make "for sale" my process of editing—I will take you to the dogs. Fifelfoo (talk) 01:14, 25 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
It's not so much that they take our product and sell it that concerns me - although I have seen my/our contributions unattributed in published printed works claiming tacitly that it is their own work. My greater concerns are those paid editors who blatantly use our product as an additional online advertising medium to sell their products, services, and people. Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 02:11, 25 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks for replying Kudpung. I agree that the use of wikipedia to promote things by COI editors is disturbing, but I see this as a "content" effect of COI. Many editors often discuss the negative "content" effects of COI, and rightly so. I'm interested in increasing discussion about the "process" effects of COI; such as paid editors making demands that wikipedians teach them how to use wikipedia's processes (ie: turning my free labour into their paid labour and profit), or paid editors demanding that we rapidly update pages for COI paid editors (ie: turning my free labour into controlled, subservient, bossed labour). I don't think these issues of importing wage labour relationships into the encyclopaedia's processes; or, of turning community controlled processes into "bossed" processes are adequately discussed yet. Though I agree in full with the "content" based criticism of paid editing, that these too will poison the encyclopaedia. Fifelfoo (talk) 02:29, 25 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I don't think wikipedians should feel obligated to train COIs, but we can give them better instructions. On the other hand, many editors will choose (of their own volition) to work with COIs because they enjoy it, want to, or are interested in seeing the article improved. I don't think PR people should feel we are in a position to make demands, rather than explore how we can bring value to wikipedia. Ultimately we serve the readers, and PR people are welcome to the extent that they help us serve the reader. The major aspect of this approach in the oped is it requires no training, no expertise, no help, and doesn't even necessarily require the COI to be neutral. User:King4057 (EthicalWiki) 04:31, 25 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I regularly note the existence of scholarly articles on a topic pertaining to an article's talkpage, where I lack the experience reading time etc. to write into that article, and where I know or know of the author such that I can't write as an encyclopaedist, but would start writing as a historian or as a colleague. I don't think anyone has taken up the talkpage links that I've dropped ever. COI editors in PR feel an urgency conditioned by their external appointment; wikipedia doesn't have this urgency. Even the best COI editor, who politely leaves notes and discussions will probably start feeling pressure and urgency—even if they're already aware of how things work in editing regarding companies representing minor industries in small nations for example. Fifelfoo (talk) 04:57, 25 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Quickly handing urgent problems is seldom a Wikipedia strength, but it seems to me simple minor errors could be handled simply, if slowly, by something like this:
  1. I am Phineas T Firefly, of PR firm Lyre, Lyre & Pantsafire, and we are advised by our client Amalgamated Baby Seal Furriers that this article gives the name of that firm's Senior Executive Deputy Vice President in charge of finding harder wood for the clubs is Beatrice Bunghole Batmobile. We believe this to be a typo, as her middle name is actually Bughole. Please correct this.
  2. Phineas T Firefly again; this alert has gone unanswered for a week. In another week we shall correct it ourselves.
  3. I, Phineas T Firefly, acting on behalf of Amalgamated Baby Seal Furriers, have corrected the error, the alert having gone unanswered for two weeks. (Each of these signed with the flack's own account in his own name, his user page offering a description of his job)
Ought something along these lines be accepted as usual procedure? Jim.henderson (talk) 01:42, 26 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
It's generally accepted that way anyways. SilverserenC 02:20, 26 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • I'm skeptical. PR is marketing to begin with. Now, if companies hope to correct what they view as incorrect or misleading info, and then leave a clean, shiny article for the world to read, well, this is a Wiki... it's interactive, unlike static advertising, like a billboard or a tv commercial with a captive audience. Competitors will get their own PR people jumping all over the articles about commercial companies, products, and so on, to give counter-perspective on everything. The result, as I foresee it, will be never ending edit wars, just like we currently have over arcane academic topics. It's a zero-sum game IMO.OttawaAC (talk) 01:13, 27 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]


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