Will PR agencies back up their Wikipedia pledges with action?

PR agencies are calling Wikipedia's compliance framework a good first step. Now the real work begins.

More than two dozen PR firms and counting have backed the industry-created Wikipedia compliance for communications framework. They say it’s a good first step, but much more needs to be done.

The goal of the guidelines were to cultivate a more collaborate relationship between the industry and the Wikimedia Foundation, the group that runs the popular online encyclopedia. Firms ranging in size from Edelman to Beutler Ink were among the first batch of agencies to sign the framework.

Representatives from many of these firms called it a move in the right direction, but certainly not a panacea for the often-contentious relationship between Wikipedia editors and communicators.

Marshall Manson, MD for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East at Social@Ogilvy, whose umbrella group Ogilvy & Mather was one of the first firms to agree to the guidelines, says the agency has long had a global policy against staffers editing Wikipedia without disclosure. He points out that the framework is an acknowledgement of the Wikipedia community’s concerns by the PR industry.

"It’s not like we, or any of the agencies that first signed the agreement, are committing to a new ethical standard," Manson explains. "This is more of a gesture to Wikipedia that says, ‘We understand you’re upset with us as an industry. We get that.’ We are here making the first move toward a better relationship."

The statement was drawn up after a months-long dispute between the Wikimedia Foundation and Wiki-PR, an agency whose primary service is editing Wikipedia pages for clients. The Foundation sent the firm a cease-and-desist letter in November after it allegedly failed to comply with Wikipedia’s terms and conditions by engaging in paid advocacy editing.

"We have to get to a place where there is a dialogue, and I don’t think that the statement gets us to that point, although it is a start," says Manson, who led Ogilvy’s work on the guidelines. "We’re going to have to earn trust and credibility from Wikipedia both with our words and our actions. This is going to be a very slow process."

He adds that despite opening a dialogue, PR firms should probably not be preparing to edit pages directly.

"Ultimately, over the long term, we hope as an industry we can contribute to Wikipedia in a useful and valuable way. To be clear, that does not mean we want to edit directly, but through interaction and contribution help editors who are interested in articles about or relevant to our clients," says Manson.

On June 16, Wikipedia changed its terms so that users who are paid to edit articles have to disclose that agreement. In a blog post, the nonprofit stated, "We believe 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."

The Wikimedia Foundation could not be reached for comment for this article. However, Andrew Lih, an associate professor of journalism at American University’s School of Communications and a Wikipedian since 2003, said last week that "it would surprise a lot of Wikipedia editors to hear that PR firms can speak the language of policy and know Wikipedia’s best practices."

"The statement goes a long way to say the PR industry respects what Wikipedia is and believes there is an ethical engagement to be had. That is a big step forward in just having that understood by the community," he told PRWeek.

Andrew Bleeker, global digital practice director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says communications with Wikipedians will be key. He says an important next step "will be doing more in-person events."

"The more communication we can get with editors – so that they have someone who can complain to us and we can learn from – the better," Bleeker explains.

After initially holding out, Golin signed the statement this week. Jeff Beringer, EVP and global practice leader for digital at the agency, tells PRWeek that the agency never had a problem with the framework. He notes that it stipulates participating firms should commit to better understanding the fundamental principals guiding Wikipedia and act in accordance with the site’s policies and guidelines.

"We just felt we wanted to be part of an effort that wasn’t so myopic. There are other channels where frankly brands are spending a lot more time sharing their stories and creating content," he says. "But there is an opportunity here to start a greater conversation around transparency [on social and digital media]. We hope that’s where it goes. The issue deserves more than just us signing a pledge and then going on our merry way."

For instance, Beringer says large agencies are doing interesting things within their own walls to institutionalize policies on online transparency that may be worth sharing at an industry level. He says they could also share "practical how-to’s that smaller firms could take advantage of since they don’t have the resources that firms like ours have for training and to architect policies."

The framework includes an advocacy component, which reads, "Beyond our own firms, [signees should] take steps to publicize our views and counsel our clients and peers to conduct themselves accordingly."

Peter LaMotte, SVP and digital communications chair at Levick, agrees that the guidelines have been a good first step because of the fact so many firms have backed the statement.

"On average, we will see better behavior from PR firms if nothing else because of the power of peer pressure," he says.

Still, if the industry wants to make inroads with Wikipedia, LeMotte says it will need to demonstrate its commitment to the pledge in more concrete ways.

"The momentum of an act like this is not dissimilar to a petition in that people sign if only so they can be associated with it. What will be really important is to make sure everyone actually plays by the rules," he says. "The next step may be that firms actually integrate the commitment into their marketing, because right now, as far I can tell, firms have gone on Wikipedia and said, ‘I’ve agreed to this,’ and walked away."

Chad Latz, global president for the digital innovation group at recent signee Cohn & Wolfe, agrees that the next steps will largely depend on how agencies integrate the principles into their businesses. He notes that firms often have to advise clients that Wikipedia is not a piece of promotional material that they can rewrite at will.

"We are going to have to see what the results are in practice. Agreement in principle is one thing, but as PR agencies start to engage more actively on behalf of clients' brands, we will need to observe how all parties react and behave," says Latz. "But we're optimistic that this is the beginning of positive momentum."

Not every major firm has signed on. Evan Kraus, executive director of StudioOnline, APCO Worldwide’s creative, digital, and social media practice, says his firm has not backed the statement partly because it wasn’t contacted about it. However, he says APCO has long had a policy against editing Wikipedia entries.

Kraus adds that other industry initiatives are also trying to standardize ethics on social and digital media, not just on Wikipedia. For instance, the Council of Public Relations Firms has created a digital leadership group, which he chairs, that will have its first meeting this summer. An executive from Reddit will speak at the session.

"We will be discussing issues around ethics and standards like this," he says. "There is a lot of important common ground to strike so that we are all operating against the same set of standards and saying the same things to clients on some of these issues. It is similar to how agency CFOs have to talk about accounting issues that pertain to every agency."

Kraus points out that Wikipedia is not the only gray area where the industry lacks standardized guidelines.

"And the issues go well beyond Wikipedia but to things like compensating bloggers for their time and disclosure on native advertising," he explains.

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