All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view. This means that editors should avoid stating opinions as facts, avoid stating seriously contested assertions as facts, avoid presenting uncontested assertions as mere opinion, use non-judgmental language, and accurately indicate the relative prominence of opposing views.
One can easily see how these five attributes may be in conflict with the way many PR professionals do their jobs. Whether it's cranking out news releases (where "news" is obviously very loosely defined) or getting paid for covert smear campaigns, the PR industry isn't exactly known for being a bastion of authenticity and impartiality. It's no wonder Wikipedia has advised against PR pros editing articles directly. There seems to be a pretty clear conflict of interest that exists. Paid advocates making edits that are supposed to be impartial, fair, and balanced? Would you want a judge presiding over a hearing where his/her son is the defendant? Would you want to read a restaurant review from a reporter who is also part owner of said restaurant?
That's a big reason why most PR professionals have avoided Wikipedia for so long, fearful of the wrath of the editing community. Even if their edits were truthful and impartial, many would think they weren't, citing their conflict of interest. That's the thing with conflicts of interest – often, the mere perception of a conflict of interest is almost as bad as an actual conflict.
Unfortunately, Wikipedia is now experiencing the unintended consequences of locking out PR pros. According to a study conducted by Marcia W. DiStaso, Ph.D., co-chair of PRSA's National Research Committee and an assistant professor of public relations at Penn State University, 60% of Wikipedia articles about companies contain factual errors. Moreover, when asked how long it took respondents to actually engage with one of Wikipedia's editors via the respective Talk pages, 40% said it took "days" to receive a response, 12% indicated "weeks," while 24% never received any type of response. A recent infographic by David King further illustrates Wikipedia's problem with keeping company Wikipedia pages up to date – according to his research, 86% of company pages are incomplete and 56% of the article tags are flagged as needing better citations.
Here's the problem. PR pros, the people who often have the most accurate and up-to-date information about these companies, are advised against sharing it directly with the Wikipedia community and subsequently improving the quality of these pages. Are our only options to ban PR pros from editing Wikipedia pages, accepting incomplete, inaccurate information OR concede impartiality and allow the rampant addition of puffery and marketing-speak? I don't think allowing PR pros to edit Wikipedia directly and preserving impartiality and factual information have to be mutually exclusive. Just like other industries have created extensive processes and policies to mitigate potential conflicts of interest, so too should public relations.
This year, at least two separate groups have been created to help improve the relationship between the public relations industry and Wikipedia. The Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE), started by Phil Gomes, and the WikiProject Cooperation, started by David King, are taking the first step in bridging this gap. PRSA itself has also weighed in on the subject, with PRSA Chair and CEO Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA saying,
"The issue over edits made on Wikipedia is one that affects more than just the public relations profession. It has implications for every business, organization and institution around the world, given Wikipedia’s widespread use as an information resource. We believe there is a case to be made for PR professionals to responsibly edit client Wikipedia entries in an ethical and transparent manner. At its most basic level, it is a matter of serving the public interest.”
There's clearly a need to transfer the knowledge that PR professionals into the largest encyclopedia in the world. There are too many incorrect and incomplete entries that could easily be fixed and made more valuable for the community if the people with this information could more easily edit and add it. However, I don't think this is Wikipedia's problem as much as I think it's the PR industry's problem. Even if what a PR person says is completely true, there's a perception that it's propaganda and that we're hiding the actual truth. For years, PR pros have been caught in scandals, lies, and unethical practices. Just like when we were in school and a few bad kids ruined it for the rest of us, so too have a few unscrupulous PR firms and people ruined the public perception of our industry. The dishonesty of a few has burned too much trust with the public, the media, our clients, and within our own organizations. We have to earn back this trust as an industry before we can expect other people and organizations to trust us to be impartial, transparent, and honest with anything, much less Wikipedia.
Corbett says that PRSA wants to work with Wikipedia to develop rigorous and explicit editing guidelines that can be used throughout the profession. That's great, but unfortunately doesn't help address the thousands of alleged "PR professionals" who aren't, never were, and never will be, members of PRSA. We can't disbar unethical practitioners like lawyers can. We can't take their license away like doctors. We can't even take their medallion like taxi drivers. As long as anyone can practice public relations and call themselves a PR pro, we will always suffer for the sins of a few unscrupulous ones. That's why I think the relationship between the PR profession and Wikipedia will always been adversarial.
The real opportunity for initiatives like CREWE and the WikiProject Cooperation lies not in lobbying for the profession as a whole, but in working hand-in-hand with Wikipedia to create higher (not lower) barriers to entry for PR professionals. ALL PR professionals shouldn't be able to edit Wikipedia – I would instead prefer to know that those who do have been vetted, trained, and advised by the community. This "Wikipedia Editor License" for PR pros would serve as a clearinghouse for Wikipedia to ensure these select few individuals would understand how to properly disclose and mitigate any potential conflicts of interest and edit according to the community standards. In short, this issue may present us with opportunity to bring some regulation to a profession sorely in need of it.