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Wiki-Gate

Just over a month ago, the CIPR produced its long anticipated first edition of its Best Practice Guidance report relating to the appropriate use and editing of Wikipedia by PR’s.

Developed with the assistance of Wikipedians, the report has been quickly endorsed by some of the leading public relations bodies across the world such as the PRCA, Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) and the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA).

The report is designed to guide PR’s when it comes to editing false or inaccurate information on clients, companies or individual’s pages. It comes following revelations last year that big name PR agencies were able to ‘sort’ unfavourable Wiki pages regarding clients, putting a more favourable spin on posts and, in some cases, leaving pages completely unrecognisable from the original document.

The incident was significant enough to warrant an investigation by the CIPR which invested large sums of money and considerable amounts of time in producing the Best Practice guide that discourages any PR who has a vested interest in a company and/or individual, from directly making amends to a Wiki page that relates in any way to that client, company or person.

This has always been a contentious and frowned upon practice, with Wiki’s co-founder Jimmy Wales stating in 2006 that “PR firms editing Wikipedia is something that we frown upon very, very strongly”.

However…should PR’s be able to edit Wiki pages that relate to their clients and are, therefore, a fundamental aspect of brand and reputation management?

Let me give you an example. When I was at Uni, the use of Wikipedia was rife and got to the point where the Dean of the university sent out a blanket email discouraging the use of the online encyclopedia as its content was regarded as largely unreliable in the academic community, and referencing this source would result in a loss of marks.

A prime example of inaccurate page information is the case of American journalist, John Seigenthaler, who had a hoax Wiki page set up about him that stated as fact that he had been/was a suspect in the assassination of President John.F Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F Kennedy, whom he had been friend and aid to.

The incorrect assertion that he had been involved in either incident was referred to by Seigenthaler as tantamount to ‘internet character assassination’ and became known as the ‘Seigenthaler Incident’ and a key component in the argument regarding the validity of Wiki information.

Back at Uni and during one of our seminars one of my fellow students asked our lecturer, a prominent author, why the practice was being discouraged when BBC articles stated that Wiki was as accurate as the Encyclopedia when it came to Science?

He did not dispute that fact, as it had been reported a year previously, but he then proceeded to get his own page up on his laptop. To our amusement it listed him as an actively ‘gay’ member of the community when he had been married to his wife for more than 20 years and, even more inaccurate, it said he had been dead for more than five years and his novels were in fact being released posthumously.

Clearly, the accuracy of Wiki arguments is debatable and a serious issue that stems from the fact that ANYONE can edit a Wiki article and add to it whatever information they choose, fact or fiction, which is where it becomes a dangerous tool. Undoubtedly, my tutor’s page had been doctored by a disgruntled former pupil or someone that did not like him, but it highlights the potential for mischief.

Couple that with the fact that Wiki themselves admit they have no ‘hard-and-fast’ rules on submission and you have a recipe for disaster.

With business being such a competitive sphere, rivalry between companies can sometimes spill over into unscrupulous waters. In the media, it is the job of a PR to rebuff any inaccurate reports about the financial and ethical (along with others) standpoints of a client all under the umbrella of ‘brand’ and ‘reputation’ management. Why should Wikipedia be any different?

In fact if anything, should it not be made easier to counteract inaccurate and blatantly false claims about a client that are made on said client’s page? PR’s that have tried to go down the right path, submitting changes to Wiki Editors have sometimes not seen the changes take effect for months or have had their request completely ignored. With clients frequently wanting something done yesterday, is it best for a PR to simply wait and hope that the changes they suggest take effect quickly or should they be proactive in the defence of their client?

Whatever your position, the CIPR’s report does not say a PR ‘cannot’ change the content of a Wikipedia page but that it discourages the practice of amending information. Instead, PR’s are encouraged to work with Wiki editors, supplying valid information so they can take the appropriate action and change the content of the page. But, as mentioned previously, with the problems of getting amends done in a timely fashion what is a PR to do?

Once again, PR’s are left with no clear rules of engagement when it comes to Wikipedia as Wiki has not yet set any specific rules regarding the editing and with the CIPR report being somewhat ambiguous in how it would deal with PR’s found to be doctoring Wiki pages, the debate will undoubtedly continue to rage on.

To read the report – click the link or to comment tweet us @hroc_PR