PR & Wikipedia: ‘It’s Complicated’
I hit the conference jackpot last week at the PRSA International Conference in San Francisco when I ran into a professor who has studied the intersection of public relations and Wikipedia. This is an important topic given that different associations have come out with different points of view on how PR people should engage with the site. Dr. Marcia DiStaso, an expert on social media and financial services, is assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, where she has published multiple peer reviewed articles on the topic of Wikipedia. Here’s what she had to say:
1. In 2005, the peer reviewed journal Nature found that Wikipedia entries are about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica’s. But your research zoomed in on a certain type of page — those about companies. What did you find?
First, that the entries for top Fortune companies are much longer and they focus more on corporate social responsibility, legal and ethical issues. Company pages are also more often framed positively or negatively than what you would find in a traditional encyclopedia (see Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica).
In another study, we looked at companies that have been categorized as having “good” or “bad” reputations based on the Reputation Quotient. It turns out that being considered one of the best companies in the U.S. does not exempt you from negativity on Wikipedia, and no matter how good your reputation is, there is more negative content on your page than positive (see Wikipedia’s role in reputation management).
Of those who do edit, their experiences varied widely. Some indicated that by identifying that they were a PR person, the Wikipedia community held it against them and either ignored the request, told them they would not make the edit since it was coming from a PR person, or went to an extreme and “punished” them by deleting entire paragraphs that contained a requested edit.
2. At first blush, it looks so easy to change a Wikipedia page, but there are actually a number of hurdles to jump, correct?
There isn’t a blocker that kicks you out if you work in PR, but it can be challenging to follow the procedure. Here is a flow chart from CREWE (Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement) that describes the process.
3. Different PR associations are taking different positions when it comes to the “right” way for PR people to use Wikipedia. Can you explain their differences?
The Chartered Institute of PR has worked with wikipedians to create their Best Practice Guidance, while PRSA has stated that while they understand that current policies must be followed, they support the efforts for change. Jimmy Wales on the other hand, puts forward a “bright line rule” that says if you are a paid advocate, you should disclose your conflict of interest and never edit article space directly. Instead, PR people are free to enter into a dialogue with the community on talk pages, suggest edits or even complete new articles or versions of articles by posting them in your user space.
4. Which approach do YOU think PR pros should follow?
I personally believe that right now PR pros don’t have a choice. They need to follow Wikipedia’s rules (Wikipedia: List of all policies; their page on “Conflict of Interest“) and not directly edit but use the talk pages with a transparent ID or risk possibly reputation damaging media coverage. That said, I believe there needs to be a better middle ground that will benefit both PR pros and Wikipedia.
5. You’ve had your own exchanges with Wikipedia editors. Can you share some of the lessons learned?
In my experience, many Wikipedians believe PR is spin. While some bad apples do exist in the field, I think it is very shortsighted and unfortunate that the entire industry is being perceived this way. PR is an industry with ethical guidelines that all but a small minority follow.
6. Where is your research taking you next and how can people follow your work?
I plan to continue conducting research on Wikipedia and will be conducting another survey early next year. You can reach me on Twitter at @mdistaso .