Online Authenticity: Transparency Trumps All

Posted on: December 12th, 2013 by Jamie MacLean

Wikipedia’s recent cease-and-desist letter against a Texas public relations firm editing their clients’ entries is an excellent reminder for all marketers, communicators and PR professionals: online transparency has never been more important.

Wikipedia is known for encouraging volunteers to collaboratively author and edit pages for accuracy. When it became clear that Wiki-PR was using false identities and user accounts to edit Wikipedia entries on behalf of clients, this understandably caused a tremendous amount of outrage within the tightknit Wikipedia community.

The tension between Wikipedia and PR firms is not new. In 2006, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales stated:

“I think we need to be very clear in a lot of different places that PR firms editing Wikipedia is something that we frown upon very very strongly. The appearance of impropriety is so great that we should make it very very strongly clear to these firms that we do not approve of what they would like to do.”

Wiki-PR states that their expertise is in consulting on how brands interact with the Wikipedia community by maintaining an effective brand page and monitoring any related pages for relevant feedback. In theory, this sounds harmless and well-aligned with one of the primary functions of public relations.

If part of the aim of PR is to communicate key messages to various stakeholders, how can this be done effectively – and transparently – through Wikipedia? The answer isn’t so straightforward. Wikipedia encourages a transparent dialogue around proposed changes to brand or company pages, but only through their moderated ‘Talk’ or discussion pages. Direct changes to brand or company pages by a representative acting on behalf of the organization – either an internal employee or external agency partner – remain strictly verboten.

If this is the case, there appears to be little a PR firm can do to amend incorrect information or add new information, outside of participating in the brand or company’s ‘Talk’ page and crossing their fingers that an update will be made.

In 2012, a group of PR professionals started a Facebook Group to take the issue further in order to try and come to a better set of solutions (and a clearer set of guidelines) for PR firms looking to work with Wikipedia. As of yet, the dialogue has helped to open up the discussion around how PR professionals and Wikipedia can work together instead of against one another. But there are still many unanswered questions about what can be done to maintain a company’s public profile and Wikipedia’s authenticity standards.

There is little doubt that the extent of Wiki-PR’s efforts to influence their clients’ Wikipedia profiles went too far. They crossed a line drawn very clearly in the sand by Wikipedia, regardless of whether the original intention was simply to provide thorough, accurate information without undue bias or ‘spin’. But this still leaves us wondering how – and when – a better process or solution will be available for PR professionals, and the clients they represent, to take a more active role in providing accurate, up-to date information without being accused of malicious intent or gaming the system. Until then, securing media coverage of a brand through prominent, credible external news channels while advocating for changes through the organization’s ‘Talk’ page is the best recourse we have as PR professionals to authentically leverage Wikipedia without fear of sparking a backlash similar to the battle with which Wiki-PR must now contend.