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Wikipedia: the real public relations opportunity

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It is a neat irony that the furore surrounding public relations agencies who have been editing Wikipedia presents our profession with a classic public relations opportunity.

Wikipedia is the world's fifth most-read website. It is an online encyclopaedia with over 20 million articles and often the first port of call for millions of people researching a topic, individual or company. And, at the heart of Wikipedia is its community. Wikipedia has over 100,000 active contributors, also known as 'Wikipedians', a community in the most positive, engaged and pro-active sense.

As a second port of call (after Google) for millions of people who might be looking for a starting point in planning or research, homework or even for a disputed answer to a pub quiz question, Wikipedia potentially wields a great deal of influence over reputation and it should come as no surprise that public relations professionals take a great deal of interest in the content. It influences knowledge and perception and mirrors sentiment. Stella Artois is on the "wife-beater" page because it is a nick-name in common currency for that brand of strong continental lager. The brand managers who want to change this have a wider repetitional issue to address, editing the term from a Wikipedia page will not get rid of this association.

With its clear emphasis on a being written from a neutral point of view, it is questionable whether it is ever right for a retained advocate to edit a Wikipedia page that relates to their employer or client. Wikipedia's policies can be difficult to interpret; some Wikipedians can be unresponsive or slow to make required edits and the natural neutrality of the human editorial could in some instances be challenged. But the neutral point of view rule is clear. It amounts, in my mind, to a "thou shalt not edit..." for public relations professionals. An encyclopaedia should not be leveraged for competitive advantage, whatever your perspective, or point of view.

Those wishing to interact with the Wikipedia community must first understand it. Public relations professionals must be clear about its aims and ambitions, and before engaging they need to adopt its etiquette. You do not have to accept mistakes or misunderstandings on Wikipedia, but you do not have the right to edit the content so that it reflects what you want it to say. Wikipedia is not going to provide a public relations professional with a quick win for a client or employer. Accepting that and explaining it should now become part of our professional etiquette.

The CIPR has had initial, productive discussions with Wikimedia UK, the local affiliate of Wikimedia Foundation, the not-for-profit operation behind Wikipedia. It has confirmed what we felt about the current negative view of public relations among Wikipedians. We will build upon our existing social media guidance, to provide public relations professionals with a best practice approach and an ethical case study that has wider relevance. After all, wiki's are a collaborative form of communication and for many who are used to corporate or press relations, this is a new form of communication. We want to help the profession understand not just the style of wiki communication but communication across many other new, evolving and emerging platforms.

This guidance will be the first step in the process of both communities reaching a better appreciation of each other's point of view. We will also work with Wikimedia UK to provide training for public relations professionals on how best to engage with the Wikipedia community and ensure there are opportunities to share knowledge and improve mutual understanding. Ethical public relations professionals work in the public interest and have a contribution to make. What is needed is a widespread understanding and acceptance of the most appropriate way for public relations professionals to go about this.

For the time being, we may have to start with an acceptance that Wikipedians have a problem with our profession and this reputation has unfortunately been earned. We can't change this overnight but by working in partnership with Wikimedia UK and Wikipedians, through outreach, diplomacy and dialogue, we can make a difference. This is an opportunity to demonstrate the core values of public relations to a sceptical community and one that our profession needs to embrace and do well.