A Higher Purpose—Bridging the Gap between Public Relations and The Wikipedia Community

imgresAs we’ve discussed many times in the Firm Voice, public relations professionals today are grappling with an existential issue: How do we position our industry in the face of the seismic changes affecting the communications marketplace?

We at the Council are confronting a similar but equally urgent issue: How do we re-imagine our organization’s own future as the leading advocate of PR firms? The solution, we think, is to return to our core mission. One of the Council’s founding objectives was to raise the industry’s stature by creating business standards of which we can all be proud. It’s right there in our Founding Code of Ethics: “Members of the Council commit to standards of practice that assure clients, the public and media, employees, and business partners and vendors the highest level of professionalism and ethical conduct in every relationship with a Council member.”

We have a proud history of promulgating ethical standards for our firms, from our Exclusivity Guidelines for Clients and Firms to last year’s Ethics as Culture training module. We believe that setting the bar high for ethical conduct helps public public relations firms compete in tough markets. World-class communications capabilities are one thing. Add in ethical standards, and a public relations firm is unbeatable.

As new communications channels open, the Council will continue to articulate the proper rules of engagement. If you have any doubt about this, just look at the ongoing debate about the right of public relations firms to communicate on Wikipedia on behalf of clients.

As the world’s 6th most popular website, Wikipedia is a public treasure, a living, breathing record of humanity. In recent years, however, tensions between agency professionals and volunteer Wikipedia editors have risen. This breakdown in trust has come in part because of some instances where agencies have engaged in what appears to be deceptive behavior, selling services that conflict with Wikipedia’s core principles. The resulting frustration with professional communicators has made it difficult for anyone acting ethically in our field to be able to meaningfully contribute to the Wikipedia Project.

Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, has written that “paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a ‘black hat’ practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.” Last year, a law firm representing Wikipedia sent a cease and desist letter to Wiki-PR, a firm that offers communications services to clients on Wikipedia.

We at the Council applaud Wikipedia for its diligence in safeguarding the site’s integrity. However, we also believe commercial actors not only should have a right to participate in the Wikipedia Project in an appropriate way but, more importantly, have much that they can contribute to this great human achievement—through the information and resources they have available. We often have the information—and the sources to back them up—that can correct factual inaccuracies on the site, and we can provide complete and verifiable information to correct misrepresentations that exist. PR firms should have the opportunity to contribute to Wikipedia on behalf of clients, so long as they also comply with Wikipedia policies. The solution isn’t to bar all corporate communicators from the site, but to find a middle ground in which the rules of engagement for public relations firms are clearly stated and adhered to.

In line with this position, the Council last week joined a new movement of public relations firms interested in promulgating ethical standards for communicating on Wikipedia. Rather than issue a press release, the firms posted a statement on Wikipedia that encourages public relations firms, as well as other communications groups and consultants, to abide by Wikipedia’s policies of ethical engagement.

Many of the core principles included in the new Wikipedia pledge—accuracy, truthfulness, transparency and disclosure—are already present in the Council’s Code of Ethics and Principles. The fact is, public relations practitioners value their position as disseminators of their clients’ information. They have a responsibility to their clients to make sure that information is accurate—and not to engage in “marketing at all costs.” Because PR professionals truly believe in this responsibility, we at the Council believe the tenuous relationship between firms and the Wikipedia community can be strengthened.

Several public relations firms have publicly given their support over the past week, and we hope that many more sign on to the Wikipedia pledge, proving that a common ground does exist between the Wikipedia community and commercial interests. The pledge is only a start, but a worthwhile one. Be sure to look for more perspectives from the Council on standards of behavior in emerging channels. We can all thrive by distinguishing public relations firms not merely as strong communicators, but as communicators with a heart, a soul, and a higher purpose.

Thanks to Sam Ford of Peppercomm for his contributions to this post. 

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