I’d like to take the opportunity to publicly address an important topic that is long overdue for discussion. I write this, not as a representative of my employer, but as a career communications professional focused on matters related to online communities.
Short version: A truly serious conversation needs to happen about how communications professionals and the Wikipedia community can/must work together. Since recent events have thrown this issue into sharp relief, I’d like us to have an open, constructive and fair discussion about the important issues where public relations and Wikipedia intersect.
As to the long version, consider:
- Wikipedia is on the first page of search results for nearly every company, brand, product, personality, captain-of-industry, etc. This shoulders Wikipedia with a great level of responsibility, whether asked for or otherwise.
- Many entries are derelict, even for important topics and well-known industry bellwethers. Financial data is often years old. Some companies are described as remaining in businesses long divested. A WikiProject for reviving abandoned articles, and a proposal for a similar effort, themselves both appear abandoned.
- You can imagine why a company might consider its entry to be a high priority (perhaps even to the point of distraction) and task its communications staff to "do something", especially if the entry is inaccurate.
- Entreaties on Talk pages—determined as the most appropriate place for a company representative to make his/her case—often go ignored for very long periods while inaccurate information persists.
- The small concession to PR on the FAQ (that a company can "fix minor errors in spelling, grammar, usage, or fact", etc.) takes a lot for granted and helps neither a PR representative nor Wikipedia. For example, too often, a company representative will “go native” when it comes to separating matters of “fact” from matters upon which reasonable people might disagree. On the other hand, activists (hardly of a neutral point of view) appear to enjoy much more latitude.
So, while I appreciate and support that Wikipedia must develop and enforce certain rules regarding neutrality and so on, the site is trying to have it both ways. In other words, it's clear that Wikipedia wants to be thought of as an accurate and available resource while 1) the volunteer maintenance of that resource—despite a strong level of dedication—is unable to keep up, and 2) the hands of ethical practitioners—those closest to data—are bound due to the activities of some bad actors.
This is a source of great tension between companies and Wikipedia and I’m not sure how the public is properly served by this state of affairs. Contrary to popular imagination, most corporate communications practitioners want to do the right thing.
Some initial recommendations to help start discussion:
- When an entry is derelict (duration and definition TBD), a communications representative should be granted greater leeway in editing the entry. The entry can have a notification at the top indicating the derelict status, or even that a communications representative has had a hand in updating it. This will allow visitors to make their own judgments on how to evaluate the entry or even prioritize it in terms of how and when it gets evaluated and/or revised by a neutral party. The choice is between the certainty of an inaccurate entry or the possibility that the entry would not meet NPOV guidelines. Negative attention to bad behavior (or even to mediocre efforts) would mitigate the impact of the latter.
- We could revive discussion about some guidance you gave in 2006, whereby a company could author a suggested entry, license it under the FDL, post it on its own site, and “notify Wikipedians who are totally independent.” This means less work for volunteers, since it’s almost always easier to react to something rather than write it from scratch. The best corporate communicators should be able to author something reasonably neutral, I'd imagine, with the Wikipedia community serving as an important check-and-balance.
The next move is yours. I’d welcome further discussion on this topic, with the aim of fairly framing an open and constructive discussion about this matter.
Thanks and regards,
UPDATE 2012-01-04-1100 CT: In one of those "Great Minds Think Alike" type things, Stuart Bruce published his own thoughts about PR and Wikipedia, even referencing the same 2006 post from Jimmy Wales that I referenced above. He was inspired by MP Tom Watson's talk page on the topic. Clearly there's some pent-up discussion here and, I agree, that working with Wikipedia on improving the rules for corporate communications participation should be an international effort.
UPDATE 2012-01-09-1300 CT: Mr. Wales responds. A lot to think about, so you'll see my reaction delivered in bits on this blog over the next few days.