After the Wikimedia Foundation, Wiki-PR debacle heated up last week, with Wikimedia threatening legal action and sending Wiki-PR cease and desist letters, PRWeek’s Editor-in-Chief Steve Barrett wrote an article titled “Why Wikipedia needs the PR industry.”
While I respect his opinion and understand the role PRWeek plays in standing up for those in our industry, I disagree on two accounts. First, I think it would be in Wikipedia’s best interest to stay as far away from the PR industry as possible since cultivating that relationship would contradict Wikipedia’s core philosophy. Second, I think it would be in the PR industry’s best interest not to push the envelope.
Before I support my opinions, here’s a quick recap of the situation: Austin-based firm Wiki-PR “has recruited 300 sock puppets to write and edit biased Wikipedia articles on behalf of paid, corporate clients,” including Viacom and Priceline, according to Business Insider and the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s non-profit parent company.
“Sockpuppetry,” as the name suggests, is the practice of using an online (usually fake) identity to deceive others.
“Although there was an investigation that questioned whether Wiki-PR used sock puppets, it concluded we did not,” Wiki-PR CEO Jordan French told PRWeek in an email last month. “Rather, we were and are paid editors, paying other editors, which is not against the rules.”
The Wikimedia Foundation has not confirmed that the investigation is closed and deleted or suspended over 250 accounts run by Wiki-PR and its editors, suggesting that it’s not.
Barrett made two main arguments for why Wikipedia needs the PR industry. He said that since Wikipedia is one of the leading sources of information in the world, “any brand, company, organization, or agency responsible for brand reputation has a right to be concerned that articles published on the online encyclopedia are accurate and fair.”
I agree and can confirm that in my career at different PR firms, and now at my own, I’ve checked the Wikipedia pages of clients to confirm accuracy and protect against libel. I did not, however, accept money to write and edit pages to their liking. To me, there’s a clear difference between the two.
Barrett’s second point was that as Wikipedia’s volunteer army of editors continues to shrink, it would be in the best interest of both Wikipedia and the PR industry to work together to ensure the accuracy and credibility of the online encyclopedia.
I respectfully, but wholeheartedly, disagree with that opinion.
Wikipedia is an idea, not a business. Have you ever noticed that you don’t see advertisements on Wikipedia? “We do not believe that advertising belongs in a project devoted to education, and one that is driven by the values consistent with a balanced, neutral encyclopedia. Our big, global volunteer community (the people who make Wikipedia) have always felt that advertising would have a major effect on our ability to stay neutral, and ultimately ads would weaken the readers’ overall confidence in the articles they are reading.”
If Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia’s founders, wanted to make millions from the idea they could have, but the idea transcends profits. Why then would they willingly allow the financially motivated, like Wiki-PR, which proudly states on its website, in all capital letters, “OUR AFFILIATES MAKE BIG MONEY,” to pimp their platform for monthly retainers?
When asked what Wikipedia’s mission is, Jimmy Wales once said, “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”
From the PR industry’s perspective, this isn’t a fight worth fighting, and the longer it goes on, the worse it makes the industry look. In the past, PR practitioners were referred to as “spin doctors.” While it’s not a flattering term, it’s not completely unfounded.
As a practice, PR has come a long way in recent years, in terms of the value placed on it and its legitimacy. This is in a large part due to measurable results (web traffic, shares, etc.), but there are still many firms and individuals bringing the industry down, hanging on like dead weight. I think it’s time to cut them loose and make the barrier for entry more difficult. Not only is it wrong to abuse the Wikipedia platform for personal gains, then fight back when asked to stop, it’s unwise.
Furthermore, it’s idealistic to think that firms like Wiki-PR are only using Wikipedia to ensure accuracy, while resisting the temptation to write favorable, dishonest pages for their clients. These kinds of practices will come back to bite our industry in the form of heightened public distrust.