Learning patterns/Saving Wikipedia from PR, and saving PR from Wikipedia
What problem does this solve?
The relationship between the communications & PR industry and Wikipedia has not always been an easy one. It's easy to see why. Wikipedia is a neutral encyclopedia, aggregating knowledge, regardless of whether that knowledge makes subjects look good or bad. Communications professionals want to make their clients look as positive as possible. Wikipedia reflects information from independent verifiable sources, and this can make the clients of comms professionals uncomfortable. The fact that it is out of their control is another challenging factor for the communications industry because they are used to controlling messages. Of course, when PR people advise on a bout of ill-advised wiki-washing this can generate negative press for them and their clients when they are caught, and harms the encyclopedia when they aren't.
What is the solution?
1. Explain that removing negative information doesn't actually help them
Helping communications professionals understand how Wikipedia works and the motivations of the Wikimedia community is an important step in protecting Wikipedia from PR editing but it also helps PR firms realise the risk they are taking when they engage in shady practices on Wikipedia. Reporters are more wiki-savvy than ever and understand that there are stories aplenty to be found by digging around in Wikipedia edit histories. When uncovered, these editing behaviours are inevitably reported in the media, which then provides sources for negative information to be added to Wikipedia. I found that an offer of a “what to do about Wikipedia” article to a publication specifically aimed at communications professionals was enthusiastically received. This also led to an invitation to speak at a conference on managing online reputation, attended by around 80 communications directors. Several professionals approached me after the presentation, too, to do follow-up sessions for their larger teams. There is clearly a desire within the industry to understand how Wikipedia works. However, this understanding doesn't happen by magic – you have to speak to the industry.
2. Have examples of good practice to show them, and scare them with horror stories
Over the time I have worked for Wikimedia UK many comms professionals have been in touch to ask for help and advice. This has allowed me to have examples of successful engagement between PR and Wikipedia to hand. This is really useful because you can say “some of the rules may seem a bit unclear but take a look at what x did and replicate that approach”. As well as the carrot of being able to work with the community to improve articles, it's worth also using the stick of negative headlines caused by wiki-washing. Have some of these examples, too, to show the benefits of working within the norms and values of the community.
3. Be available, and make sure they know help can be found It really helps comms people when they know they have someone they can seek advice from, so be available to answer questions. This alone can discourage them from things like editing articles directly where they have a COI. Make sure you know how people can seek further help too, on talk pages, noticeboards, OTRS and WikiProjects. These last in particular can be a good way of connecting with editors who might be able to help. It can take time to speak with people and answer their questions but those relationships can be very fruitful so it is worth spending this time, if you can.
Things to consider
This is as much about protecting the encyclopedia from PR as it is about helping PR. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. If you offer guidance and advice, and it's accepted, why not consider asking whether their company or clients can help Wikipedia in some way, perhaps by releasing useful educational content from their archives under Wikipedia compatible licenses?
When to use
There's no specific time to do this, although if you're finding that PR editing is increasing, and negative headlines about this are on the rise, that's definitely a good time.
- An ever-recurring topic. I like the personal experience and the insight into what resulted from engaging in the subject. Michael Jahn WMDE (talk) 15:13, 14 October 2015 (UTC)
Wikipedia editors and the UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations collaborated on best practice guidelines for comms professionals using Wikipedia. It is well worth reading and sharing.