Missing Comma: Wikipedia vs. Public Relations Firms, Everyone Loses

George Orwell’s declaration of: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations,” not only might not be an Orwell quote, is a gross oversimplification of the relationship between journalism, PR and the public.

Plus, Orwell probably hadn’t heard of Wikipedia. This week, ten of the biggest public relations firms signed a pledge that condemned the practice of “sockpuppeting,” or padding clients’ Wikipedia pages to their benefit. This opened up a whole new avenue to question the legitimacy of the public relations industry, one that’s already scoffed at heartily. It’s easy to picture a public relations professional as a conscienceless brownnoser, but I find it hard to believe that they are any more susceptible to corruption of information than journalists who often answer to media corporations or state-owned outlets. If you promote your friend’s band or their blog post on Facebook, you’re doing public relations. It’s not inherently evil and it’s not all that glamorous.

Anyway, here’s part of the pledge:

“On behalf of our firms, we recognize Wikipedia’s unique and important role as a public knowledge resource. We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors.”

Wikipedia already has a shaky reputation as a source of information because of the fact that anyone can go in and say whatever they want on a page. Your high school teachers and college professors probably weren’t too happy with you if you ever cited Wikipedia in a research paper. While the accuracy of Wikipedia is improving, anything positive or negative on a business’s Wiki page should probably be taken with a grain of salt. That said, a lot of people do use Wikipedia as a key source of information, and if your business has its own page, most people would take that as a signal that you’ve gained recognition.

In October 2013, the Wikipedia admins went on a wild goose chase after “suspicious” accounts, targeting an organization called Wiki-PR:

“Former Wiki-PR clients told the Daily Dot that they paid between $500 and $1,000 to the company for creation of a Wikipedia page, and $50 a month for monitoring any changes made to the page and resurrection of any material deleted during subsequent edits.

In other words, we’ll create the page you want and do everything we can to make sure it stays that way. It should go without saying that this practice seriously undermines the credibility of both the organization and the very forum it’s promoting. In an email, Wiki-PR’s CEO defended his company’s practices, writing that they simply “counsel our clients on how to adhere to Wikipedia’s rules” and that their services differ from those of most PR firms which “don’t know the rules as well because they do PR work, broadly, and try to promote.”

So what, though? If you’re operating under the assumption that everyone in public relations is a lying hack and that Wikipedia is a beacon of infallible knowledge, you’re wrong on both counts. Wikipedia is really trying to throw their ethical weight at these people – not unlike journalists who think they hold a sort of ethical superiority over PR folks – who are going to end up compromising their clients in the long run if their Wiki posts are inaccurate, anyway.

Here are the experts’ opinions on this. Most of them talk about open, honest and mutually beneficial communication, but this statement from Erik Deutsch, principal at ExcelPR  group and president of PRSA-LA caught my interest:

“It’s hard to argue with the principles adopted by the 10 large PR firms. That said, issuing such a statement could actually support the notion that PR pros somehow deserve to be singled out for their unique ability to wreak havoc on platforms like Wikipedia. Taken a step further, it could reinforce the view among critics that it’s inherently ‘dubious’ to get paid to write or edit a client’s Wikipedia page.”

This pretty much sums up the unfair assumption that people who want positive outcomes for their businesses should be shamed for promoting them online. Believing everything you read on the Internet is a dangerous game to begin with, and public relations firms’ bickering with Wikipedia over conflicts of interest in businesses detracts from what they should be worried about – enemies of net neutrality making life difficult for new businesses to flourish online to begin with.

Orwell would probably be most upset about the ethical policing on both ends.

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