The debate over the quality of information available in Wikipedia has been lively since the site became part of the commons. Concerns have largely pivoted on the academic value of the information in the articles and the credibility of individual contributors. A series of events have amplified those concerns. Among them, Wikipedia ranks highly in most Google search results, and scandals like the one involving Bell Pottinger just over a year ago.
It was the Bell Pottinger scandal that led to renewed rigor in the Wikipedia community. They don’t want their trusted resource to be devalued by communications professionals who might see Wikipedia as another online outpost they control with an eye on managing and even improving their clients’ reputations. Damn those spin doctors!
A number of public relations associations collaborated with a group of Wikipedia editors to create Wikipedia Best Practice Guidance for Public Relations Professionals. The instructions are pretty clear: be transparent and don’t do something that is or could be perceived as a conflict of interest. I agree with those funamental values. On the other hand, the guidelines put communicators at a significant disadvantage in dealing with imbalance on the site.
For example, interest groups and other critics have long exploited Wikipedia to itemize their laundry lists of concerns about particular organizations and individuals without the same level of scrutiny applied to PR pros. The level of depth in the criticisms is often mesmerizing, balanced at best by a few passing-positive notes elsewhere in the article. Sure, there are occassions when blatant imbalance is removed or addressed. However, much of it settles in like a cyber-squat, doing nothing more than causing a disclaimer at the top of the article in question “The neutrality of this article is disputed. Relevant discussion may be found on the talk page. Please do not remove this message until the dispute is resolved.”
In recent months I’ve seen neutrality disclaimers dating back to 2008. For a community that prides itself on how much more agile it is than its failing competitors such as Encyclopedia Brittanica, Wikipedians haven’t done much to address lingering and imbalances. PR pros following the procedures for restoring neutrality may find themselves waiting indefinitely for a response.
Wikipedia is definitely a valuable resource. It has many fantastic contributors, articles and qualities. I use Wikipedia in my own research, admittedly with a well developed critical-thinking cap applied to some articles. My concern is the accumulation of unaddressed neutrality disclaimers and the lack of responsiveness of Wikipedians in dealing with legitimate concerns from anyone (including he PR community) chips away at the trustworthiness of the site and may well support the case for PR professionals having endorsement to edit.
Perhaps Wikipedia should consider establishing a certification for PR professionals allowing them to edit articles. A routine audit of the accredited accounts can be used to ensure adherence to ethically-minded editing.