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Cannes 2013: Jimmy Wales Asks PR People To "Treat Wikipedia With Respect"

EMEA, Global, North America

Arun Sudhaman 21 Jun 2013

CANNES--Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has called on PR firms to treat the influential online encyclopedia, and its editors, "with respect."

Wales made the comments at the Cannes Lions 2013 Festival, during an interview with the Holmes Report.

The PR industry has had a troubled relationship with Wikipedia, a website that now plays a critical role in shaping corporate reputations online. Last year, PR firm RLM Finsbury apologised after it was exposed for editing the entry of Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov to remove negative information.

In 2011, meanwhile, Wales accused Bell Pottinger of "ethical blindness" after it emerged that the agency had used numerous accounts to edit its clients' entries.

Wales told the Holmes Report that "reputable, honest PR firms find it very easy to use Wikipedia."

"The issue comes when unethical, or more often, stupid people think that the right thing to do is to create a fake ID, argue with people in an unfair way and that just ends up embarassing the client," said Wales. "You wouldn’t hack into the New York Times computers to change a story - you’d call them up to complain about something that’s wrong. We’d ask to be treated with the same level of respect."

Wales also dismissed PR industry complaints that correcting inaccurate Wikipedia entries is a cumbersome process.

"It’s very fast, it’s very easy, I don’t buy that argument at all," said Wales. "Obviously a PR firm has an interest in presenting their client in the best possible light, and we’re certainly happy to run corrections or add perspective if they’ve published a response."

"But if you have unrealistic expectations that you can somehow go on Wikipedia and make something disappear that’s a legitimate controversy, then of course you’re going to be disappointed in the end."

Wales noted that, as long as a PR firm is behaving professionally, "there's no reason for conflict."

"That means, be transparent, don’t pretend you're some random member of the public," he continued. "Come and say: 'I’m the rep of this firm, we have concerns about this particular thing that you’ve printed. We feel that it’s not fair, the source is a tabloid or you’ve got one side of the story.' Treat us with respect."

Last year, two PR industry bodies published joint guidance for using the site, advising that PR people should disclose their interests, be transparent and engage with the Wikipedia community. The guidelines also warn against creating entries from scratch, removing negative material and promoting clients, and include step-by-step guidance on correcting entries. 

Wales said that he could only think of rare cases where Wikipedia editors have "dropped the ball and not done as good a job of responding as they should have done."

"The more common situation is somebody sends an email, good editors look at it and we resolve it very quickly."

Wales spoke to the Holmes Report after taking part in a Mofilm panel that explored how crowdsourcing will change advertising.

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