Peppercomm's Ford: Our industry must learn Wikipedia is a community, not a landfill

This week, Peppercomm came together with (initially) 10 rival agencies or parent companies to sign a joint statement committing the firm to act in accordance with Wikipedia's policies and guidelines.

Sam Ford
Sam Ford

This week, Peppercomm came together with (initially) 10 rival agencies or parent companies to sign a joint statement committing our firm to act in accordance with Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines and the Wikimedia Foundation’s terms of use.

Much industry coverage has supposed that this is a move to set ourselves apart from some communications firms that have been caught engaging in intentionally deceptive practices on the site or that promise to help companies directly manage entries on the site.

That’s one of our goals, to be sure. But we have another mission.

I have far too frequently met professional communicators who have made additions or alterations – or failed to disclose their conflict of interest when engaging with editors –and truly have no idea they’ve done anything wrong.

In other words, many communications professionals have engaged with the site with little idea of what Wikipedia really is.

The site is known as the "encyclopedia anyone can edit," but far fewer Wikipedia readers — or professional communicators — understand that it’s built and maintained by a community of volunteer editors who act from their expertise but who ideally also seek to remain as objective as possible.

Our industry, with the access we have to information from the companies we work with, can potentially play a helpful role in keeping Wikipedia as accurate, comprehensive, and up-to-date as it can be. But it requires our acting according with the needs of Wikipedia readers, and the volunteer editor community that serves those readers first and our organization and clients second.

The only way we can play that potentially collaborative role is if we educate our employees, clients, and decision-makers throughout the organizations for which we work. We must also engage future communication professionals in college as to what Wikipedia truly is.

And the answer is that it is not a dumping ground for our marketing copy or word-smithed corporate-speak or a repository filled with all the things our companies or clients would like the world to know. Rather, it is a dynamic volunteer community, working toward the common goal of providing objective, sourced entries through collective intelligence.

That also means it’s a community with its own disagreements, policy disputes, and unique politics. Jumping into it to drop huge hunks of brochure-ware verbiage or to make self-serving edits doesn’t benefit Wikipedia readers, editors or, ultimately, even our companies or clients.

I hope this week’s statement lets Wikipedia readers and editors know that many of us in the communications space take ethical engagement seriously. But actions speak louder than words. If we are going to truly mean that, we have to educate ourselves, and one another, about the communities with which we seek to engage.

Our industry conferences should have as many panels discussing how we are serving our audiences as they do talking about the ROI of campaigns. Our industry publications should have as many tips on how to act ethically as they do on how to best use the latest social platform. Our trade organizations must talk constantly about the nature of communities such as Wikipedia and what ethical engagement looks like.

And our individual organizations have to reinforce to our employees the importance of ethics  — and how we are serving our audiences — as often as we talk about the efficacy of our client services. As an industry, we have failed ourselves on this front. And we have to work together to do better.

Sam Ford is director of audience engagement at Peppercomm and co-chair of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s ethics committee. Find him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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