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Wikipedia – and the case for honesty

While top PR firms have come out to declare they will abide by Wikipedia’s ruling, and play fair when it comes to editing their clients’ Wikipedia pages, others have raised objections.

Wikipedia is now asking anyone who is paid to edit a page or articles to declare the arrangement.

“We believe that undisclosed paid advocacy editing is a black-hat practice that can threaten the trust of Wikimedia’s volunteers and readers. We have serious concerns about the way that such editing affects the neutrality and reliability of Wikipedia,” said Wikipedia in a blog post.

However, one senior member of a global PR agency told Marketing, on the basis of anonymity, that he was surprised PR agencies were so readily signing the contract.

Because of the open content model Wikipedia has traditionally operated on, inaccuracies have been known to be published. There have been cases where inaccuracies were seeded by organisations or individuals who have an agenda to harm the reputation of another, he added.

Therefore, there are times when it is necessary for public relations professionals to step in.

“Information on Wikipedia can be a case of reputation management for corporates and individuals. If factual errors have been published, it may be necessary for PR agencies to step in, craft and suggest appropriate changes,” he said.

Another global agency lead, who also chose to remain anonymous, said both consumers and organisations that chose to use Wikipedia had a moral obligation to preserve and maintain its sanctity.

“If we don’t, then we all stand to corrupt an important factual asset – which is a shame. On the issue of signing a contract, this then becomes like a legal obligation, which in turn, means the industry hasn’t reached a point where we can self regulate something that is clearly valuable with integrity.”

The dilemma of brand control in the digital space

However, Scott Pettet, vice-president for APAC at Lewis PR, said Wikipedia’s request that PR agencies do not attempt to influence their client’s representation on the site is somewhat reasonable. After all, the site’s intent is to garner unbiased third-party information.

“I’m sure there is a fine line between cleaning up factual inaccuracies and people trying to put their own spin on things. If PR agencies edits were restricted to facts only, then I suspect this may not have become the issue it is today,” he said.

He said what was interesting was the move highlighted one of the biggest issues for brands in the digital space today. That is, the loss of control.

He explained there were still marketers out there “who are clinging on to the old control-based marketing paradigm” and these are the same clients asking their PR agencies to edit their Wiki pages. Often enough, these are also the same marketers who are reluctant to embrace social media because of the perceived risks and loss of control.

“Brands that have typically enjoyed the greatest success in social and digital are those that have embraced the loss of control and empowered consumers to influence their identity,” he said.

The statement which first came into discussion in February, asks that the PR agencies involved “seek to better understand the fundamental principles guiding Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects and “act in accordance with Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, particularly those related to ‘conflict of interest’.”

In total, 11 agencies have signed the contract, including Allison+Partners, Ogilvy & Mather, FleishmanHillard, Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, MSLGROUP, Porter Novelli, Edelman and Weber Shandwick, among several other companies who have promised to stay objective.

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