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« How PRSA's Crowdsourcing Experiment Could Go Horribly Wrong | Main | CREWE: Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement »

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

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Mitzi (writing as Mitzi, rather than as an Edelite)

Phil, this is a really timely piece and a subject that should be more of a priority for Wikipedia. While I fully support their desire to present a neutral POV across all entries, taking the position that that "the public" is going to be more neutral than anyone else leaves a lot to be desired. If Wikipedia believes in a self-policing community, then they should have the confidence to allow that community to police brands as members of the community. That being said, companies and brands needs to take a broader role in the Wiki community; simply dropping in to update their own page once a year isn't really participating in the Wiki community.

Willem

I'm not sure I understand your post, really - sounds like a non-issue to me. Unless there's something I'm not getting, which is possible.

Why don't you just start editing the articles and launch a wider project to update all the PR / agencies / brands / whatever, get some more people on board committed to the project, etc. Not as a PR person for your client(s) but rather as a Wikipedian. That would be a lot more constructive than what sounds like whining to Jimmy Wales.

Isn't that how Wikipedia works?

Phil

Willem,

Absent a public discussion about this issue, with the goal of achieving mutual understanding between all parties, there would be widespread wailing if PR people just sort of started to edit articles. Such wailing would largely come from folks who would decry the participation of a company or PR firm rather than objectively assess the value of the contribution.

And I'm not sure that a PR person for ACME Sprockets would find a sympathetic audience if, when challenged about edits to ACME's entry, responded with "But I was operating as a *Wikipedian* just then!"

It's not "whining" to point this out in an open letter to Wikipedia and its founder, especially considering that both recently managed to drum up quite a bit of publicity for themselves on this issue.

Harry Wood

"there would be widespread wailing if PR people just sort of started to edit articles". Well no. That's how wikipedia get's built and updated. People just sort of edit the articles

...and yes people wail about all sorts of things, but any good faith effort to improve accuracy of lots of articles would be welcomed. Not only welcomed, but it would make you a wikipedian.

If however you represent one company, and you go onto the article about that company seeking to make "corrections" then you'll be regarded as an outsider. Your edits will be viewed as suspicious, and anything non-neautral will be treated as an attack on wikipedia. Sometimes it requires some inward-looking self analysis to realise your edits (while not wrong) could be problematic.

With all wikipedia editing my advice would be to start with small cautious changes. Don't be spending hours rewriting stuff because any edit could be reverted, and it takes a while to discover those boundaries. If you feel your blood pressure rising with the passion of a debate about a particular article, go edit a different article for a little while (Here's where repeatedly trying to edit the article about your company doesn't fit the profile of a wikipedian)

Jeremy Pepper

The world of Wikipedia is draconian at best, fascist at worst - and the "editors" are always right. It's way past time that there was a semblance of organization there, and a real hierarchy of paid editors and overseers (didn't they just raise millions of dollars ... for something?)

And Danny Sullivan put it so well the issues there - and the lack of any real communication: http://daggle.com/closed-unfriendly-world-wikipedia-2853

Jdforrester

As a long-term Wikimedian, I agree that there needs to be more clarity in this, but disagree that we should declare free-reign to edit articles that you feel are under-served. As Harry says (above), we would love for you and colleagues to get started making small edits.

The instructions on Conflicts of Interest are useless, as with so many Wikipedia policy pages, for which I can only apologise (indeed, I helped write the first draft of that policy). However, the golden rule is to avoid writing anything "promotional" rather than true - anything you wouldn't be happy to justify on the front page of the New York Times (or other media outlet).

However, for my employer, I advise them to not even consider for a second editing an article about them or their area, and instead use Talk pages and the e-mail helpdesk - but then, I work for the UK Government, so the concerns about reputational damage white-washing/propaganda are more extreme, and more people follow political/governmental matters than business/corporate ones.

But yes, I agree, we need more editors involved in the business and corporate world so that we address issues there as much as in other fields which get rather more attention. Join us, or consider asking others so to do.

Phil

Harry,

The point of my post isn't about what entries PR people might want to edit in their spare time. It would be a good way for someone to build instinct in terms of how to use Wikipedia and see how the community ticks, but that's not what I'm talking about.

Harry, JD,

I simply don't buy the notion that "inaccurate/derelict" is a better condition for an entry than one where an company representative, operating above board, has had a hand. However, this is more or less how Wikipedia expects corporate communicators to participate--either explicitly through public shaming or implicitly through talk-page-and-entry-neglect.

My own counsel to companies on this matter takes the form of engaging on the talk page and starting on the basis of factual matters before getting into topics where reasonable people might disagree. According to what Jimmy Wales has stated, this is best practice since "independent" (not "objective", mind you) people should be making the edits anyway. Well and good, but the talk page on most entries might as well be /dev/null/.

In the presence of such neglect, I think we can agree that PR "making small edits" is fine, however, 1) "small" is deeply subjective, 2) the problems tend to be in places that need "big" edits, and 3) tools like (the apparently defunct) Wikiscanner don't take into account the degree of the edit.

That last point is important. People will rush to tell the world that 2+2=4 ("ACME is editing its Wikipedia entry!!") without considering that 1+3 yields the same sum ("...but it was only to correct ACME's founding date.") Where corporate reputation and Wikipedia are concerned, the topic doesn't begin or end with the content of the entry itself.

My post isn't meant to give answers but to finally get folks to start asking the right questions. Wikipedia has largely gotten a free ride in the mainstream press and online communities with regard to this matter, even though companies have very valid points in this ongoing debate.

John Cass

Hi Phil,

I think you write a brave but forlorn attempt at asking Jimmy Wales to change his mind about PR people. You may be wasting your time here, I think that unless he has changed his mind since 2006, he still believes that all PR people are not to be trusted, and should be ignored, or worse roasted in the fires of hell!

This may be hyperbole on my part, but review this quote from Jimmy Wales from the article you quoted of his:

Jimmy Wales said, "I think we need to be very clear in a lot of different places that PR firms editing Wikipedia is something that we frown upon very very strongly. The appearance of impropriety is so great that we should make it very very strongly clear to these firms that we do not approve of what they would like to do."

I don't know whether the rest of wikipedia believes this, but my impression of wikipedia from his statements was considerably lowered, and as a result I decided not to add any additional content on a few topics where I could have added additional expertise such as corporate blogging; I was an early writer on the topic, and produced some of the first surveys on the topic.

It is very sad how Jimmy Wales blasted an entire profession. When in my experience with PR people, especially the PR people involved in social media, is that they are extremely concerned about getting the facts right, and being transparent about their activities, of course there are bad apples, but a whole profession?

Rather, I'd argue to Mr. Wales that it was the PR people on the web who were discussing the issues of how to handle issues of transparency very early on in the days of blogging. You started in 2001, and I note Wikipedia started in 2001, and most of the early bloggers popped up in 2002-3-4.

A brave effort Phil, I hope he responds in a polite way if he does at all.

Regards

John

PS. Go Quora!

Stuart Bruce

John, I think you're right about the difficulty of engaging/persuading Jimmy Wales and fellow Wikimedians. However, that doesn't mean it is not right to try. Tom Watson MP's offer to broker a meeting at the House of Commons is significant. Tom has a huge degree of respect in the digital community, not just in the UK, but globally. He was the world's first government minister for digital engagement and has a great track record on campaigning on digital issues such as copyright, open data and other internet freedoms.

Noblec98

Phil, nice piece and something that does need to be discussed, especially as Wikipedia becomes a more and more trusted source of information on just about anything. I think the current system encourages dishonest PRs to use 'cloak-and-dagger' techniques in order to edit articles, without them being traced back to their companies, and leaves the less dishonest with their hands tied behind their backs, preventing them from making any necessary changes or updates.

Phil

Hey, John... Many thanks for weighing in.

I don't really expect an answer from Jimmy Wales. For one thing, it's clear from your reading of the 2006 quote that he likely considers PR below his notice *except*, of course, when it offers Nixon-goes-to-China opportunities.

Staff, volunteers and Wales himself know how to best spend their time, so I don't necessarily judge them for deciding it's best to play hyper-public whack-a-mole with each bad actor. Maybe the strategy is that, if it happens enough times, people will kind of get the hint.

I argue, however, that this issue requires more substantive discussion, debate and a path toward a resolution with mutual/objective value. Otherwise we're probably doomed to keep running into this inch-high curb like a confused Roomba.

John Cass

Stuart,

That's great Tom is willing to lend support. Though I do think there needs to be wider community discussion, and participation, maybe even an Open PR plan, in part to show what it is exactly PR people do. I think part of this issue has risen because there's a lack of understanding.

Phil,

You are right, and I'm glad to help out in anyway I can, this has long been an issue that bothered me, and it would be good to resolve.

Gregory Kohs

John Cass is right. I am the founder of the original "paid Wikipedia editing" enterprise. Jimmy Wales' comments in 2006 about paid editing were directed at me. My plan was to edit under terms of full disclosure, seeking the "volunteer" community's review and editorial revision of all of my paid content -- the bright, disinfecting sunlight that Wikipedia truly needs.

Wales didn't want that. He insisted that my publishing take pace "off site". So, I acquiesced, and other Wikipedians began importing my work into Wikipedia, but sometimes without proper attribution -- a problem I had already predicted to Wales would happen. He didn't give a shit about attribution; he cared only about appearances.

After about two months, Wales went bananas and summarily deleted a page I told him I had written (about Arch Coal, and not even for payment, as this was a test of Wales, actually). He called it "PR puff" and "unacceptable". Then the Wikipedia community looked at the article, and they felt it was rather okay, actually. Guess what happened? An administrator with a grudge against me plagiarized the Arch Coal article I had written, moving a few words around to make it look "new", then declared that he had written it "ab initio", even though typographic artifacts from my article still appeared in "his" article.

I complained for two years about this abomination to Wales, while also learning more and more about his despicable personal character, and when he finally apologized to me... he did so on the barely-read "Talk" page of the Arch Coal article.

I'll continue to follow the "underground" paid editing model, until Wikipedia's community can prove to me that they speak for an equal place at the table for PR, and not simply parroting whatever Jimmy Wales says is "the law".

James Salsman

Phil,

Reading through your post and the comments here, I have to ask -- do you know about the Conflict of Interest Noticeboard (WP:COIN)? If you aren't getting satisfaction because your comments on article talk pages haven't been acted on, merely post to WP:COIN with a pointer to the talk page comments in question and usually in three or five days someone with experience helping paid editors will do something about them. Give it a shot and let us know how it goes.

David King

A few things.

You can find more recent commentary from Jimmy Wales about paid editing in 2009 Since you mention the state of company articles on Wikipedia, I should share this infographic on the topic.

I think one of the biggest issues is that even though most PR agencies intend to do right by Wikipedia, they rarely have the expertise to do so ethically.

Just like SEO requires expertise to differentiate between whitehat and blackhat SEO, so does Wikipedia. For example, if you're not aware of Wikipedia's policies about External Links and those about "Official Links" you may unknowingly engage in link spamming.

Even writers who believe they can avoid writing in marketing copy can rarely meet the criteria for "encyclopedic tone."

Ethical paid editing requires expertise, but it's not viable for PR agencies to spend hundreds of hours training a rapidly shifting workforce on Wikipedia.

All I do is Wikipedia. I don't do PR. I don't do social media. I just do Wikipedia. I would love to partner with PR agencies, but too often they're more interested in revenues than their clients' best interest.

They all want a 140 character digest on how to become an expert COI Wikipedian so they can absorb a paltry Wikipedia budget and put their reputation and their client's reputation at risk by accepting a budget they don't have the expertise to deliver on.

I'm ranting now and didn't mean to post something negative in tone.

Paid editing by PR professionals is already allowed for anyone willing to read 200 policies and guidelines. But there are many things that can be done to implement Jimbo's "carrot and stick" recommendation better than it is today.

PS - this is King4057, who you responded to in a string on Wikipedia. I appreciate the thoughtful comments you made and am glad you're participating in this conversation.

Marshall Manson

Just wanted to call attention to Phillip Sheldrake's post on this topic as well.

Phillip takes a very black and white view about what constitutes appropriate for PRs in Wikipedia. It's a view that I strongly agree is right and proper in the current landscape. But that's exactly the reason that I think Phil's post, and call for dialogue with Wikipedia, is so important.

As I said on Phillip's post, transparency must remain at the centre as must Wikipedia's neutral point of view requirement. But surely there is a limited role for companies to make transparent, solely factual edits to their own entries.

And here's another perspective: As we've seen repeatedly, the present policies are pushing corporate activity on Wikipedia into the shadows. Wouldn't we be better served by encouraging such activity to be brought into the light of transparency and putting limits on acceptable behaviour? I would be happy to go a step further as well: Allow activity with strict regulation and harsh penalties for misbehaviour.

Having said all of that, I don't mean to suggest that anything I've said is a definitive solution. Rather, that there needs to be a dialogue between the Wikipedia community and the PR community that tries to find a workable approach.

Jimmy Wales

Best practice is very simple and no one in the PR industry has ever put forward a cogent argument (and seldom bother putting forward an argument at all) why it is important that they take the potentially (especially if I have anything to do with it) reputation damaging step of directly editing entries where they are acting as paid advocates.

The simple and obvious answer is to do what works, without risking the reputation of the client: talk to the community, respect their autonomy, and never ever directly edit an article.

There are many avenues for you to make simple factual corrections, and these avenues actually do work. You can post on the talk page. If you don't get a timely response there you can escalate to appropriate noticeboards. Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is email us! The OTRS team is very good about helping out with basic issues.

What I have found - and the evidence for this is pretty comprehensive - is that people who are acting as paid advocates do not make good editors. They insert puffery and spin. That's what they do because that it is what paid advocates do. There's no wrong in doing that when you are writing for your client's website, or for a press release, but it is not appropriate for Wikipedia, and it's best to just not do it.

Contrary to the self-interested and false claims above by some paid editors, the community is generally not sympathetic to the cause of paid editing, recognizing that it brings Wikipedia into question in the mind of the public. We can and should avoid even the appearance of impropriety. And by 'we' I mean not only Wikipedians, but ethical PR people. And why not? What's the down side of doing it the right way and staying "hands off" in ALL CASES on the articles themselves?

David King

Similar to Jimmy I agree that not just a few bad actors but most paid writers (PR people) won't make good editors without a lot of hand-holding from an experienced volunteer, whether their intentions are good or not. I'm 4 years in, but still learning.

For example, there's plenty of ethical PR people creating articles and submitting them to the volunteer community through the Articles of Creation process and they're rarely very good.

But I respectfully disagree there's no argument for direct editing. If my client is Tampax, who has a 1 paragraph article written by the largely male-dominated volunteer editing community, I can't use the Talk page to ask a volunteer to create a more complete article.

However Phil brings up matters of factual accuracy that can be addressed through Talk pages and Noticeboards. Issues of completeness are another story.

Greg, now I'm confused about you. I thought you edited Wikipedia directly, anonymously from scrambled IP addresses. If you write articles on WikiBiz that are then imported to Wikipedia at a volunteer editor's discretion, then what's with all the cloak and dagger?

Smallbones suggested a similar approach. Writing free content off-site then asking an editor to take what they find is useful. I told him a corporate website would never do that, but using something like your site for the same thing makes sense.

Gregory Kohs

David King, I don't know why you are confused about me. (By the way, the name of my site is "MyWikiBiz", and I don't know how anyone "scrambles" an IP address.)

You may be confusing my Wikipedia paid editing service of August/September 2006 with my Wikipedia editing service of 2007 and onward. The 2006 approach was to write freely-licensed articles on my own site, then see if unaffiliated Wikipedians would copy them into Wikipedia. That's what happened with an article about Arch Coal. Jimmy Wales scuttled the article on Wikipedia that had been imported by a long-standing and respected Wikipedian. Wales insulted my work and insulted the discretion of the unpaid and unaffiliated editor who ported it into Wikipedia. Then another Wikipedia administrator plagiarized my content, re-entered it into Wikipedia and claimed it as his own work, deleting the original version, so that it would be impossible for any non-admin to make the comparison and spot the plagiarism. I asked Wales for two years to address this act of fraud, and he took the whole two years before righting the wrong.

Sorry, but in two years' time, I learned plenty of disturbing and disgusting things about how Wikipedia's "community" handles ethics... so I parted ways with the "publish elsewhere, let someone else copy into Wikipedia" technique. Editing directly works much better, and Wikipedia is improved in the process, because I treat content with an ethical resolve that few "Wikipedians" can match.

Note that Wales above says that "false claims above by some paid editors" have been made. I'm wondering if he can point out the exact falsehoods in particular? Or, is it easier for him to make his defamatory remark and then jet off to his next paid-travel, paid-lodging, paid-speaking gig about Wikipedia?

Gregory Kohs

Since Wales said nobody's put forward a cogent argument for PR firms directly editing Wikipedia articles (which is ridiculously untrue), let me present a parable that I hope even Wales can understand:

Suppose you're a PR firm, and your client is a respected fast food restaurant chain. One of the chain's hundreds of franchises just terminated the employment of a 19-year-old community college student who was consistently late to work and had two customer complaints about his rudeness. This pink-slipped employee is also a Wikipedia administrator, but he doesn't have to disclose to anyone on Wikipedia who he is, where he used to work, or anything of the sort. And, he never disclosed to his former employer that he was a Wiki whiz.

Guess what? This administrator now takes it upon himself to modify the Wikipedia article about his former employer, such that he finds every single bit of mainstream and regional press that ever had a negative thing to say about the restaurant, and he adds it to Wikipedia. Where a "Criticisms and Controversies" section in the Wikipedia article didn't exist, it now constitutes 60% of the article.

Does this administrator have what Wikipedia defines as "a conflict of interest"? Nope! Not a bit -- because he does not stand to gain financially from his editing Wikipedia about the former employer. No foul here!

The PR firm begins to question the "balance" of the article, using only the "Talk" page, of course, but young admin man simply e-mails a few of his friends (also high-volume Wikipedia editors), and they counteract the complaint with multi-voiced assurances that these "reliably sourced criticisms" of the company are free knowledge and must be shared.

So, the PR firm begins to edit the article to increase some of the content about the accomplishments and community service commitments of the restaurant. Now the admin calls for a "CheckUser" search on the IP address of the "new" editor who is "blatantly" puffing up the article with "spam" and "POV pushing". The CheckUser determines that the IP traces to the headquarters of a PR firm that is known to serve the restaurant as a client. Next thing you know, Mister Administrator is anonymously sending a news tip to the New York Times, showing how the restaurant is trying to "bias" their Wikipedia page. A story comes out in the Times two days later.

The PR firm then complains to Jimmy Wales about what had transpired, but Jimmy sees this as a dispute between a "trusted, long-time Wikipedian" and a "corporate PR hack trying to infiltrate Wikipedia with promotional advocacy", so guess whose side Jimbo aligns with?

As a paid editor of both first and last resort, I have heard literally more than a dozen stories like this from exasperated clients who turn to me for advice and assistance with Wikipedia disaster situations -- almost always not of the ethical company's "fault", but rather a crisis of reputation generated by one or two persistent and pseudonymous "long-time Wikipedians".

A Wikipedia article about even a slightly controversial subject is like a football game, where one side is the "pro / favorable" subject team, and the other side is the "con / critical" subject team. The only thing is, the "con / critical" team might have a couple of players whose dad and uncle are referees in the game; and the "pro / favorable" team has a very ethical cornerback, middle linebacker, and safety trying to play by this very peculiar rule set up by the referees -- that because these players are wearing small sponsorship patches on their uniforms, they have to ask the referees for permission before tackling any player on the "con" team.

It's a ridiculous situation that has been allowed to develop and fester on Wikipedia, and the Wikimedia Foundation should be ashamed of its juvenile approach to "fairness" on such an important reference resource as Wikipedia.

Phil

Greg,

This is your second warning. I've asked you to be civil before and you couldn't let the last post go without insulting Jimmy Wales' intelligence. Some of us are trying our level best to keep this conversation as civil as possible.

Marcia DiStaso

I agree that this is an important topic that needs answers/clarity! My co-author and I have been studying Wikipedia from a PR perspective since 2006. We have looked at many factors such as the difference between content in corporate articles on Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, the specific content in top Fortune Companies over time, how it’s used in crisis, and are currently looking at differences internationally, and the role of reputation in content among other things. Since 2006 we have been advising public relations practitioners to know what is in their articles and follow the rules by asking the community to make updates through the Talk pages (along with providing references for each update requested). We would like to be involved in any efforts to help clarify the role of PR with Wikipedia; please let us know if you are interested in seeing our research (one is linked above and we can send others). You can reach me at [email protected]

Tim Fouracre

Rather than a PR firm with a COI, I am a founder of a company and am currently attempting to get our online accounting software listed in Wikipedia in this article about our app - Clear Books.

The reason I took the initiative, despite having a deemed COI, is that no one else has taken the initiative. If I left it, I don't know how long it would take for someone with absolutely no COI to take an interest and create an article about us.

If an article presents facts and references those facts from third party sources, as I have tried to do, then I believe it should have merit and not be immediately dismissed. This is particularly the case, in my opinion, if you are transparent and don't hide behind an alias.

I have just blogged about our experience too in Is Clear Books accounting software notable enough for Wikipedia?

Tim Fouracre

Update - here's the small business argument...

http://www.businesszone.co.uk/topic/marketing-pr/wikipedia-anti-small-business/39714

Daniel Knight

Phil, Jimmy has narcissism disorder, and the people under him have it the same or worse, as in malignant narcissism disorder. Some possibly have psychopathic narcissism disorder. It's become a cult, and the only way to stop it is to start fresh by getting rid of his fiends, I mean friends, something which would be near miraculous for a narcissist to do, unless you convinced him he was so far superior to them that they were not needed, and then where would that leave Wikipedia? Your plea is futile. Learn more about narcissism here: http://narcissism.tk

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