Image: Flickr, CC
Phil Gomes is a senior vice president with Edelman Digital, the online arm of the world's largest public relations firm. He thinks PR professionals should be spending more time on Wikipedia.
Gomes believes that corporate communications departments should be playing a more active role in shaping companies' profiles across what is the most commonly-accessed source of information about them. He believes this can be done ethically and responsibly, and he believes that it will ultimately lead to more accurate Wikipedia entries.
Corporations managing their brands on Wikipedia is far from a novel concept—Exxon Mobil, Anheuser-Busch, Chevron, the Washington Post Group, and plenty of others have admitted to editing their own Wikipedia pages. But Gomes doesn't think this has to be a bad thing, if proper guidelines are followed, and it's done transparently.
So Gomes co-founded Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement with John Cass in January 2012. The mission statement goes like this: "CREWE comprises Wikipedians, corporate communications, academics, students and other interested parties who are exploring the ways that PR and Wikipedia can work together for mutual benefit, defined narrowly as cooperation toward more accurate and balanced entries."
Upon CREWE's inception, Gomes explained in a blog post that "the core idea rests on four pillars":
- Corporate communicators want to do the right thing.
- Communicators engaged in ethical practice have a lot to contribute.
- Current Wikipedia policy does not fully understand #1 and #2, owing to the activities of some bad actors and a general misunderstanding of public relations in general.
- Accurate Wikipedia entries are in the public interest.
The third point refers to Wikipedia's Conflict of Interest policy, which states: "Do not edit Wikipedia to promote your own interests, or those of other individuals or of organizations, including employers."
CREWE's Facebook group now has over 425 members, most of whom appear to work in the public relations field. Both Gomes and CREWE came to my attention when he and members of the group commented on a post I'd written about one of BP's PR employees working—while observing the site's rules and guidelines—to clean up the company's Wikipedia entries. The Wikipedia community was divided over "Arturo of BP"'s involvement, though founder Jimmy Wales ultimately defended the oil company.
In my post, I was openly critical—and, admittedly, unfairly derisive—of PR professionals acting in this context. But after reading some of Gomes' thoughtful responses, I asked him to discuss the intersection of PR and Wikipedia at greater length. What follows is an interview, lightly edited for clarity, carried out over the following weeks.
Motherboard: How do you generally conceive of the role that public relations employees should be playing in building or amending Wikipedia pages?
Phil Gomes: This is a complicated question, but I do believe that both PR and Wikipedians value the same thing in the end: accurate entries. For PR folks, I would tell them to follow the rules of a community; not liking a particular rule is not a justification in itself for breaking it, but one could certainly make reasonable arguments for their change. For Wikipedians, I'd encourage them not to dismiss a PR person's contribution outright, especially if he or she has played by the rules.
Take the recent example of "Arturo of BP," who may not necessarily have been breaking any of Wikipedia's rules, but nonetheless supplied an exhaustive amount of information for consideration by Wiki's page editors. Do feel he was acting ethically?
Absolutely. He was 100% up-front with his affiliation. Near as I can tell, the controversy around this has been fomented by just a few users. Beating someone up for doing things the right way strikes me as counterproductive. Unfortunately, public shaming of corporate representatives who do things badly has proven to be an over-used tactic. It's not terribly fair to reflexively apply that same tactic to someone trying to do right by the community and his employer.
CREWE exists because there are corporate communicators who want to do it the right way and there are Wikipedians who believe that educating those communicators is a better way to go.
“While Wikipedians have always been sensitive to the idea that there are corporate barbarians about to storm the gates, this simply hasn't happened."
So do you think more PR professionals should be using Wikipedia?
I think the PR industry in general needs to attain a visceral understanding of hacker and open-source culture if it is going to continue to be meaningful in an always-on, hierarchy-averse, release-early-release-often world. Mastery of Wikipedia norms is certainly one way to build these instincts.
Most certainly, PR professionals need to address Wikipedia--respectfully and transparently--in the course of responsibly managing an organization's online reputation. This requires more than simply addressing a particular Wikipedia article itself, but really getting a handle on how decisions are made and consensus is achieved across all Wikipedia sites.
Is there anything a PR agent or firm should not do on Wikipedia? Is there any standing set of 'best practices' that they should keep in mind?
Getting the obvious stuff out of the way, a company representative should proactively disclose his or her affiliations and interests in participating in Wikipedia. Generally speaking, there's no reason they should be in the mainspace of an article.
(I believe there should be an exception made, however, for summary-box items that typically contain purely factual items, like a founding date, CEO name, or annual financials. Many disagree with me here, viewing the problem of a "conflict-of-interest" or "COI" edit as an absolute rather than a matter of degree.)
There are avenues such as the entry's talk page, the conflict-of-interest noticeboard, the WikiProject related to the entry (e.g., the entry on ACME could be part of WikiProject:Widget Industry), and as last resort, email@example.com.
Have you ever personally gotten involved in the Wikipedia editing process? How so?
Professionally, I advise companies on how to engage with the Wikipedia community as part of my overall focus on reputation management and integrating social media principles within companies. The community's relationship with the company is, I believe, more valuable in that instance than a strictly mediated one.
Personally, I've been meaning to get to the entry on Brazilian cachaça. (It's a hobby of mine.)
Can you expand on that? What do you advise companies to do, in particular, to engage the Wikipedia community? How do you specifically suggest companies or PR agents approach amending Wikipedia articles?
Going through the relevant entry's Talk page under full disclosure, primarily, and escalating to the COI noticeboard or other avenues as required. But, more importantly, I encourage companies to focus on how to frame the discussion--not with a marketing focus but as an exercise in debate, inquiry, and well-supported persuasion.
What might the PR community do in general to alleviate some Wikipedians' skepticism about its motives?
We'll do well by doing good--showing that we are able to improve entries and participate in good faith. I'm under no illusions that PR doesn't operate at a trust deficit on Wikipedia. Our trade isn't particularly good at its own PR and the Hollywood-curated popular imagination offers caricatures like Aaron Eckhardt's tobacco shill in Thank You for Smoking, Colin Farrell's morally bankrupt wheeler-dealer in Phone Booth, or Tony Curtis's rather desperate publicist in The Sweet Smell of Success. (Jim Carrey in Fun with Dick and Jane offers the only example in recent memory where the PR guy was depicted as having a soul.) Oh, Kim Cattrall's Samantha from "Sex and the City" was no help. And don't get me started on E!'s "The Spin Crowd."
Do you consider conflict of interest as the most pervasive issue in this debate? I know you argue that the aim of both PR pros and Wiki editors alike is to relate accurate information, but curating that information is a highly arbitrary process--and a PR agent in the employ of a certain company has a distinct incentive not to share negative information about it.
This is true. But every participant in Wikipedia comes in there with a bias. One would never ask of an activist group "Do you have a distinct incentive to not share positive information about this company?" It's up to the more neutral volunteers to mediate this, hopefully getting to somewhere in the middle.
That introduces a uniquely obtrusive element into the calculus that determines how information gets presented, and, if the aim is to get the best possible information, couldn't you argue it'd be better to simply remove that element?
Not sure why a company's point-of-view is necessarily deemed irrelevant here.
If not, how specifically does paid editing provide the public with better information than we'd get otherwise?
This is a current and important discussion because, in many cases, the "otherwise" simply wasn't happening.
But, also, here you're conflating paid editing with public relations. There are plenty of people in the "paid editing" camp who are not in "public relations." In my case, we're helping companies find their own voice online and guiding them through a process that is both dynamic and labyrinthine.
Which takes us to what I see as the key problem with the practice of paid Wiki editing: That companies that can afford to hire services like yours have a lot more resources than unbiased parties.
Not necessarily true. The nature of Wikipedia is a great equalizer that, in many ways, takes away much of the economic advantage that a company might potentially have. While Wikipedians have always been sensitive to the idea that there are corporate barbarians about to storm the gates, this simply hasn't happened. CREWE is showing that there are folks in the PR trade who want to do right.
But isn't allowing paid Wiki editing still stacking the deck in favor of companies like BP, which can afford to pay someone 8 hours a day to chisel away at improving the company's image online?
I don't know what "Arturo of BP's" day-to-day duties are, but I do know that he operated completely above board and according to currently acceptable practices. Co-founder Jimmy Wales even went so far as to defend Arturo's approach.
The fact that most editors don't have an issue accepting submissions from paid editors only seems to make it more problematic: Even if the information may not be false, it will more like come from sympathetic sources, and it will surely be composed in a way that is designed to elicit a positive view of the company, no?
"Most editors?" Certainly not to my knowledge!
If a submission is composed in a way deemed non-neutral, the nature of the encyclopedia admits of having that entry examined and rectified.
I'm not impugning the efforts of the innumerable editors who do amazing, scrupulous work pro bono, with the aim of doing a great public service to internet-surfers everywhere. But they are working hard, and, again, for free, and will be more likely to accept accurate-looking, well-manicured information from a corporate PR desk. (Of course this applies to PR teams with NGOs and activist groups, but most of those can't afford to be repped by Edelman.) How does this not stand to overwhelm the site with corporate-friendly information?
Like I said... This topic has been a long-term sensitivity with Wikipedians, but the issue hasn't actually happened yet. I'm not really sure it ever will. They'll keep companies honest and all parties will ultimately be better for it.
And I guess I'm still having trouble seeing how allowing corporate PR teams to exert influence over an institution built on the promise of free, open information is a net benefit to society. What do we gain?
I don't think I'm overstating the matter when I say "accuracy." A Wikipedia entry relies on a diversity of points of view. I would ask why a discussion should happen about a company, on a site that aims to be a reference source, where that company is not invited to participate in the discussion. (I'm not advocating editing of the mainspace here. Note that BP participated in the Talk page and Wikipedians reviewed the material and moved it into the mainspace.)
Everybody else has to add information upon their own volition and on their own time—why should corporations get special privileges?
Corporations aren't asking for special privileges. They want their point of view to be heard on a site that shows up at the top of searches for their name. I don't think that's unreasonable. The best thing that people in my trade can do is educate clients on how they might comport themselves within such a community.
Also wanted to add that I enjoyed this discussion, and appreciate the exchange. Thanks again.