One of the first places people go (from Google, that is) for quick answers and information is Wikipedia. The size of the audience it commands, and its ability to become a critical resource for developing the narrative from current events mean that it’s of critical importance to any public relations professional.
Unfortunately the PR community is largely ignorant of how to interact with Wikipedia.
According to a new study done by Dr. Marcia W. DiStaso of Penn State University,
- 25 percent of public relations pros were completely unaware of the state of Wikipedia entries about their organization.
- Worse – only 21 percent were familiar with the rule that PR pros should not edit articles on behalf of a client or organization they represent.
This is unacceptable. A healthy understanding of Wikipedia and the dynamics of the collaborative space online (which eschews back-room deals and undemocratic influence) is critical for every PR pro (and journalist) to understand. This is the stuff of textbooks.
The study was prompted after a very thorough and productive discussion that has been happening on a Facebook group called CREWE (Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement) created by Phil Gomes of Edelman. The group has brought together Wikipedians (including founder Jimmy Wales) to promote broader awareness of the relationship between PR pros and Wikipedia editors:
- On the one hand, Wikipedians want to ensure that all information on the site is accurate and free of bias.
- On the other hand, PR pros have a legitimate complaint in that following the established process for contributing or editing content (to post suggestions to the “Talk” page in the hope that it will be evaluated by a Wikipedian with no connection to the story and ultimately considered for application to the Wikipedia entry) is often ineffective as it can be difficult to get the attention or consideration of editors.
The study done by Dr. DiStaso also contains a very helpful infographic pulling out some of the important points from the study. You can find everything here:
Measuring Public Relations Wikipedia Engagement: How Bright is the Rule?
Public Relations Journal — Vol. 6, No. 2 | Author: Marcia W. DiStaso, Ph.D.
Abstract: The study by Dr. DiStaso explores the views, experiences and beliefs of public relations/communications professionals about editing Wikipedia for their company or client. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has what he believes to be a “bright line” rule whereby public relations/communications professionals are not to directly edit the Wikipedia articles about their companies or clients. Through a survey with 1284 responses, this study found that the “bright line” rule is not working. This is because, among other reasons, 60% of the Wikipedia articles for respondents who were familiar with their company or recent client’s article contained factual errors. When the talk pages were used to request edits, it was found to typically take days for a response and 24% never received one. Plus, most of the public relations/communication professionals in this study were unaware of the rule and almost half of those who were familiar with it did not understand what it meant to them.. [Download Article]
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).
“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):
- Learn about Wikipedia (particularly spend some time observing the discussion forums where the specifics of entries, contributors and contributions are debated).
- Be open and transparent.
- 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.
- 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.
Are you ready for a Jack O’Dwyer hypocrisy trifecta?
1. In his latest anti-PRSA screed, Jack O’Dwyer again regurgitates his accusation that the organization owes him money because their research library distributed copies of his work (something most intellectual property law experts would call “fair use” – which is likely why O’Dwyer never bothered to take the issue to court).
What’s particularly hilarious is that O’Dwyer includes an image in his blog post of a dodo in reference to a slight against PRSA: Read more…
As the horrible events of July 7, 2011 unfolded in Grand Rapids and a troubled Roderick Dantzler murdered seven people including two children, people around the world skipped the news media altogether and watched/listened live (via live streams of the police scanner – at one point 14,000 people were logged in). It was a tragic example of the amazing technological power the average person wields, which [to paraphrase FDR/Spiderman’s Uncle Ben] “comes with great responsibility.”
What I observed made me think about the role social media will play in the future of society when events like these occur. Here’s how my night went: Read more…
As the Web 2.0 model has shifted to content being generated by users (often referred to as “crowdsourcing”) as opposed to administrators, it’s presented a somewhat novel problem of proofing the contributions of the masses.
The “Bewildered Herd” is a term attributed to Walter Lippmann who is one of the early scholars of journalism and public relations. Lippmann’s contention was that the public was essentially too inept to govern itself and needed to have smart people make up its mind for it in order for society to function. To wit:
“The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”
(Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1922)
Crowdsourcing (originated by Jeff Howe of Wired) is explained by Clay Shirky below:
On the whole, user-generated contributions are amazingly effective and have accomplished a powerful amount of the work in building the Internet. There are, though, occasionally problems. Here are some of the sites I try to watch regularly for inaccuracies and misinformation:
- Google Local
- Yahoo Answers
- Google Sidewiki
Which crowdsourcing sites do you monitor for inaccuracies?
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