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O’Dwyer Runs Afoul of Wikipedia in Effort to Defame PRSA

January 15, 2012 3 comments

Jack O'Dwyer's Conspiracy Theories

In his zeal to advance his attack on the Public Relations Society of America my favorite curmudgeon Jack O’Dwyer has finally discovered Wikipedia.

Unfortunately O’Dwyer doesn’t really understand it, and now he’s attacking the Wikimedia Foundation and Jimmy Wales because of the articles on “public relations” as well as its “history” and the fact that Wikipedia strongly discourages PR pros from contributing directly to the vaunted online encyclopedia.

To this end, Phil Gomes with Edelman started a group on Facebook called “Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement” or CREWE.  It’s already made some excellent strides toward creating policy and procedure that everyone can follow for contributing to the entries in Wikipedia.  As he frequently does (which makes him a fantastic case study in how to be a spokesperson for an organization), Jimmy Wales actually joined the discussion on CREWE and has been active in helping address the concerns that some of the public relations pros have had with Wikipedia.

Unfortunately O’Dwyer’s lack of comprehension has led him to again don his tinfoil cap and allege a conspiracy where none exists.  He mistakenly believes Wikipedia is deliberately ignoring or censoring mentions of a disputed account of the Tylenol Case Study (it’s not).  He also described many of the standard conventions of Wikipedia entries as significant in the case of the entries on PR and its history (unaware that they’re automatic configurations).

O’Dwyer took it upon himself to edit these entries and when his entries were rejected for publication, he cried foul and demanded action (both publicly and trying to run up the chain of command inside Wikipedia rather than appealing directly to the editors that removed his contributions).

Here’s the response he received from Jimmy Wales (which I was so amused by that I published a sensational tweet about it, something I was rightly chastised by Wales for):

“Jack, I am unsure what you are asking for here. If you want to have a meeting with people to argue that your site is reliable, then I don’t think the NYC chapter is the right organization to do that, since they would have nothing to do with that. 

I checked our internal email system to see why you might think your email was ignored. It turns out that it was forwarded to Jay Walsh who has been on vacation. But nevermind, you have my ear now so if you can explain more clearly what you are asking I can try to help.

Your email to us claimed that you had been blocked from Wikipedia, but the volunteer who processed your email pointed out internally that that isn’t true – your account has not been blocked.

What did happen was that an embarrassingly bad edit you made to an article was reverted. The edit was blatantly promotional about a book that, news sources say, you are “supporting”. Is this a client? 

In any event, in this case, we have a lovely example of how the system works and how NOT to try to edit Wikipedia and WHY I think paid advocates should not edit articles directly, ever.” – Jimmy Wales, January 10 at 12:15pm

Too right.  O’Dwyer’s conspiracy theories aside, here’s what is ACTUALLY happening:

1. People don’t CARE about the definition of Public Relations, or the history of PR.  That’s why there is a dearth of content – it’s not a deliberate lack of inclusion from Wikipedia.  That’s also why there is a dearth of books on the subject (outside of textbooks or tactical manuals).  They care even less about the “Council of PR Firms” – another entity O’Dwyer complains about a lack of content for.  That’s one of the downsides of crowdsourcing – it produces content skewed populist (which is why the Wikipedia entries for Tim Tebow and Beyonce have more in-depth content).

2. Content published by public relations pros gets deleted by Wikipedia editors as a direct result of the non-transparent and dishonest way PR people have used Wikipedia in the past.  Unfortunately a combination of avarice and ignorance on the part of PR pros created a very hostile relationship with Wikipedians so that they are very mistrustful – I don’t blame them.

Since then, however, a process has emerged for PR people to contribute content to Wikipedia (some excellent detailed suggestions for PR pros are provided by Wikipedian JMabel here):

  1. Learn about Wikipedia (particularly spend some time observing the discussion forums where the specifics of entries, contributors and contributions are debated).
  2. Be open and transparent.
  3. Post your suggestions for contributions to the “Talk” section of a Wikipedia entry and appeal to some of the Wikipedians who have contributed to that entry or similar entries to consider your content for inclusion.
  4. Freely license any intellectual property (images, video) you’d like included under either a Gnu Free Documentation License (GFDL) or a Creative Commons license.  If you want something on Wikipedia – you can’t retain a traditional, exclusive license to it – because it will invariably be re-used by others for a variety of purposes (which is a good thing).

3. Wikipedia is decentralized and lacks a hierarchy – which is the POINT.  As he’s accustomed to bullying his way to preferential treatment, O’Dwyer actually attempted to go right up the chain of command at the Wikimedia Foundation and have his way:

“E-mails to NYC WP leaders inviting them to my office have been ignored. E-mails to Wikimedia are ignored and someone told me in a live WP chat that only volunteers handle the media.” – Jack O’Dwyer, January 10 at 11:57am

4. Dexterity is the point of wiki tools; after all, the etymology of the word is Hawaiian for “very quickly” – which is why it was chosen by Ward Cunningham for the first “Wiki” he created back in 1995.  This has two very important ramifications for how content will appear on Wikipedia:

  • It must be DIGITAL.  Any sourcing for Wikipedia must go to either webpages or digital versions of photo, video and documents.
  • It must be OPEN.  As a crowdsourced innovation, Wikipedia allows for democratic participation by all – and that means that everyone gets to see not only the final product but the sausage-making that took place to get there.  That’s why it’s important for ORIGINAL sourcing to be used as opposed to secondary sourcing.

What we Learn

O’Dwyer is failing at interacting with Wikipedia because he tried to link to content in the subscriber-only section of his website, and rather than publish his sources online – he wants to try to coax someone into his office to pore over the mouldering stacks of paper documents and books he has.  Not only that, but O’Dwyer doesn’t understand that he can’t simultaneously profit from his paywalled content AND have people actually read it – you have to choose one or the other.

This should be instructive to anyone who wants to be successful in the digital world: in order to spread, content must be freely shared and easily-accessible.

The Internet in many ways rebooted our world to Year Zero; by that I mean the credibility and reputation earned by certain organizations over the past thousands of years of human interaction were rendered less important.  The web, instead, bases reputation and credibility on MERIT.  That’s why Wikipedia is searched and cited far more than Encyclopedia Britannica.  O’Dwyer stridently attempted to cash in on his years of print publications, but the editors of Wikipedia would have none of it:

“WP needs to acknowledge O’Dwyer’s as a “reliable” source since we are the only ones ever to cover PR Seminar, the 65-year-old very important “secret society” of top corporate and agency execs. ” – Jack O’Dwyer, January 10 at 11:57am

A hilarious footnote to this whole situation is that O’Dwyer has continued to use the CREWE group to wage his war against PRSA, and he’s been specifically asked to stop doing this by the moderator of the group and several of its members because it’s irrelevant to the actual discussion at hand (he’s not just posting irrelevant replies, he’s been publishing irrelevant wall posts).  Sigh.