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PR: If You Want to Understand Wikipedia, Become a Wikipedian

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In February I wrote about the real opportunity that the 'dark arts' scandal around Wikipedia offered - to build mutual understanding between the public relations community and Wikipedian community worldwide. Since then, the question of the most appropriate way to engage with audiences through Wikipedia has become a global conversation. I also wrote that those wishing to interact with the Wikipedia community must first understand it. Educating the public relations community about Wikipedia was the initial stage that must be completed before we could properly engage in a constructive dialogue.

I am pleased to be able to report that progress is being made. On Saturday, Philip Sheldrake and Neville Hobson spoke as public relations professionals at the Wikimedia UK AGM. Yesterday evening Wikimedia UK published the CIPR's draft best practice guidance for PR professionals on engaging through Wikipedia, with the aim of getting the views of the widest group possible.

It is open to public relations professionals to offer their view, but most importantly, we want Wikipedians to give us balanced and constructive feedback on our proposal. The end result will be a set of guidelines for public relations professionals to use if they want to engage with or through Wikipedia. Take a quick look at the talk page and you'll see that debate is already extensive. Take a longer look and you'll see the challenge that lies ahead.

Wikipedia is a community which has taken on the trust of creating and maintaining a source of easy-to-find information on almost anything in an eminently sharable and citable way - a noble, but ambitious project for a community of volunteers. Like anyone else with a day job who gives their spare to something they care about, their time is in short supply. An appreciation of the time pressures facing this group of volunteers is key to our community gaining greater respect - respecting their space, their values, must be at the forefront of our approach. If Wikipedia is an element in your online reputation management strategy you need to learn how it works and make informed judgements about the changes you wish to propose to correct any factual inaccuracies through the correct route of the talk and discussion pages. Central to this is understanding and respecting their ideas on writing and editing from a neutral point of view.

By taking this approach, we can then challenge the opinion of some in the Wikipedia community that public relations professionals only exist to conceal, mislead and misinform. A fundamental misunderstanding of our profession this may be, but it is not confined to this community. If public relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding, then this is a challenge we should meet. If Wikipedia is an element in your online reputation management strategy you also need to be open about what you want to achieve with Wikipedians and seek to engage and inform.

I think that Wikipedians and ethically minded public relations professionals share similar goals -providing accurate, factual, and up-to-date information about a topic, organisation or individual. I support Neville Hobson and Philip Sheldrake's pledge to embrace the platform and support fellow professionals to do the same. If you want to understand Wikipedia, become a Wikipedian.

I believe that only by openly sharing our views in a constructive and mature debate we can achieve mutual understanding and progress towards an outcome in which both communities can comfortably co-exist in the online space. I urge people to spread the word on this project and encourage members of our community to build bridges through open dialogue. The first step is always the most difficult, but is also the most important.