Wikipedia editors debate role of PR professionals

NEW YORK: A Wikipedia spokesperson said Friday that its editors have not determined a policy for whether PR professionals should be allowed to submit content on behalf of clients. The issue is again in the spotlight after a BP spokesperson reportedly rewrote nearly half of the oil giant's Wikipedia page.

NEW YORK: A Wikipedia spokesperson said Friday that its editors have not determined a policy for whether PR professionals should be allowed to submit content on behalf of clients. The issue is again in the spotlight after a BP spokesperson reportedly rewrote nearly half of the oil giant's Wikipedia page.

Wikipedia advises contributors to make clear if they have a conflict of interest on a subject and to refrain from directly editing articles about themselves, their business, clients, or competitors.

The organization also asks neutral editors to review article drafts before publication. However, some Wikipedia editors are questioning whether contributors with a conflict of interest should be able to draft content at all, said Jay Walsh, head of communications at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia.

“It's been a discussion from the early stages of Wikipedia about how individuals who possess a conflict or interest could or should participate in a project,” Walsh said. “Wikipedians want to make sure everyone in the world, particularly in the PR and communications industry, understands first and foremost that if you have a conflict, you should not be editing pages. They want everyone to respect the neutrality.”

Some Wikipedia editors accused Arturo Silva, a member of BP's corporate communications department in Houston, of rewriting an estimated 44% of the company's main Wikipedia page, including sections about its environmental performance.

Silva appeared to stay within Wikipedia's guidelines by identifying himself as a BP employee and not directly editing the article, and some editors have defended his actions. However, parts of Silva's drafts were copied and pasted into BP's page, and at least two Wikipedia editors published his content without noting that it came from a BP representative.

“BP operates within Wikipedia's guidelines for how company representatives should interact with the site's editors,” said BP spokesman Scott Dean, via email. “For nearly a year now, we have been fully transparent, never directly editing any copy and always disclosing that any suggestions we offer to Wikipedia's editors have come from a BP representative.”

Dean added that the company has also “acted objectively, often proposing language that contains negative information about the company.”

“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,” he said via email. 

BP is in the middle of a civil trial to determine its liability for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Walsh said Wikipedia maintains millions of articles and has “tens of thousands” of editors who regularly review the quality and sourcing of information.

“People presume that the [Wikimedia] foundation formalizes editorial policy decisions, which is absolutely not the case. The procedures and policies that are there were decided by Wikipedians,” he said.

Last year, the Public Relations Society of America said it would like to see PR professionals have more freedom to edit Wikipedia.

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