The issue of public relations professionals editing Wikipedia is back in the spotlight following an article that accused BP of “rewriting environmental record on Wikipedia.” For years now, Wikipedia has asked public relations professionals not to directly edit articles of their company or clients. This is because they believe that public relations professionals have a conflict of interest. Instead of directly adding content to pages, requests should be made using the Talk page on each Wikipedia article. My research last year found that the problem with this process is that it often takes days, weeks, and some never get a response – something Jay Walsh, director of communications for the Wikimedia Foundation, has agreed can be a problem.
While I believe that public relations professionals should not be treated differently than any other group (like activists and disgruntled employees) on Wikipedia, I strongly advocate that their rules are followed. In the case of BP, they were following Wikipedia’s rules, as Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia commended. Arturo Silva used the Talk pages to request edits with an ID that clearly identified himself as a BP employee, but they still wound up with backlash.
Apparently Wikipedia is now considering if public relations professionals should be allowed to submit content for their company or clients at all. Wikipedia articles have high prominence in search engines and often contain errors, but they have great potential to provide the public with information on a variety of topics and companies. As BP spokesman Scott Dean told PR Week in an article earlier this week, “Our participation in the editorial process undoubtedly has resulted in greater accuracy, which, after all, should be the primary concern of everyone who relies on this resource for information.” With the goal of accuracy in jeopardy, restricting who can contribute most probably weakens it. I’ll be sure to update you if policy changes are made.
Dr. Marcia W. DiStaso is an Associate Editor for the IPR Social Media Research Center, a Senior Research Fellow for the Arthur W. Page Center, and an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Pennsylvania State University.