A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
I went to a benefit for Wikimedia two weeks ago at the New York Public Library. Co-founder Jimmy Wales invited several Wikipedia editors to the event. He showed a very inspirational film, which conveyed the breadth and depth of expertise of the volunteers who make Wikipedia one of the three most important references in a Bing or Google search.
Later that evening, I had a chance to talk with Wales about Wikipedia’s relationship with the PR industry. He grew animated as he recounted examples of misbehavior by PR firms and corporate PR departments, including efforts to expunge oil spills or to do content manipulation through use of “sock puppet” accounts. One firm edited its clients’ entries through numerous false accounts, causing Wikipedia to issue a cease and desist letter.
Here is a quote from Wales on misbehavior by PR firms: “It is not OK with me that anyone ever set up a service selling their services as a Wikipedia editor, administrator, bureaucrat etc. I will personally block any cases that I am shown… the idea that we should ever accept paid advocates directly editing Wikipedia is not ever going to be OK. Consider this to be policy as of right now…”
I agree completely with Wales. It is as intolerable for PR firms to use sock puppet accounts as it is to create front organizations that seek to achieve changes in public policy without transparency on their objectives. Our job is to be advocates for clients but also to practice ethical public relations. The Page Principles, which govern behavior in our profession, commit us to tell the truth, to prove it with action, and to conduct public relations in a manner that considers impact of company strategy on the public.
It is for that reason that I am so proud of Edelman colleague Phil Gomes, who along with John Cass, began a Facebook community known as Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE). Gomes committed our firm as a signatory to the Donovan House accord (convened by William Beutler and named for a hotel in D.C. where the meeting took place) in June 2014, along with Ogilvy, Burson-Marsteller, FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, Porter Novelli, Peppercom and Allison + Partners, with many more signatories since. All of these firms agree to follow the principles of Wikipedia, specifically that PR people will not edit articles directly, this is referred to as the “Bright Line” rule. Instead, if there are perceived issues with an article, PR professionals should take it to the article’s Talk page or, in extreme cases, offer a recommended draft posted in a User Sandbox page, inviting Wikipedians to make edits and corrections.
In short, as an industry, we commit to behaving in the same way we would with any mainstream medium. If we do not like a story, we submit a letter to the editor. If we are pitching a story, we offer spokespeople and press materials to reporters who decide what to use. If we want to have our client’s viewpoint represented in an unedited manner, then we post it to the company website.
It is my hope that self-regulation of the sort proposed in the Donovan House accord will create a new relationship between our industry and Wikipedia. But that will only happen if those of us in PR are prepared to call out bad behavior by unethical firms. I do not want us to be defined by the lowest common denominator. Let’s teach our employees the right way to behave then enforce that proper conduct through rigorous review of our actions. I appreciate Wales’ willingness to give us a second chance.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.
Image by Wikimedia Commons and Ivan Lanin.