Wikipedia has fundamentally altered the way reputation is created. On Google search results, the Wikipedia entry pops up on the first page. For any subject of a Wikipedia entry, its contents are of immense importance. It’s a nerve-wracking business – the page will be written largely by anonymous contributors.
There is now a problem. The people who set the rules at Wikipedia have significant global influence. But the organisation’s stance fails to reflect this. Tensions have developed between Wikipedia and the public relations industry over whether PRs should directly edit the pages of their clients. Wikipedia insists that PRs must not do this and wants PRs to argue for changes via talk pages.
This would be fine if the process were fast, easy to engage with and even-handed. But getting anything changed on Wikipedia tends to be slow and arcane. Wikipedia is effectively demanding that organisations fight back at opponents with one arm tied behind their back.
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and public face, does little to dispel the view, apparently widely held by Wikipedia’s overseers, that PRs are less likely than the rest of the population to supply accurate information. This is ridiculous – a PR’s reputation depends on the accuracy of the information they supply.
PR people also know that puffery inserted on a client’s page can be traced back to their IP address. You can’t fool the internet for long and PR is now, more than ever, about supplying facts that cut through the babble, rather than providing worthless spin and artifice.
Wikipedia’s stance on PR shows the gulf between its view of itself as a plucky upstart and its real position as a highly complex global organisation. It has largely escaped the regulatory and ethical controversies that have struck Facebook and Google. But, as a global distributor of information, is Wikipedia that different from companies in closely-regulated sectors like broadcasting and publishing?
Wikipedia is the well of information from which the world drinks. With that huge influence comes a duty to position itself responsibly and to be properly accountable.
That means doing more to ensure that duff information about real people doesn’t linger on the site, as well as understanding that real people are entitled to expect accuracy and fair treatment at all times. It means acknowledging that, if the world’s most powerful public forum writes about you, you are within your rights to seek professional advice. It’s time for Wikipedia to display the wisdom and maturity its place in the world demands.
Rory Godson is the managing partner of Powerscourt.