Draft best practice guidelines for PR

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Philip Sheldrake and Neville Hobson discussing Paid Editing at the WMUK 2012 AGM


These guidelines contributed by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) are intended to provide clear and detailed advice on how PR professionals should engage with the Wikipedia community. By following the best practices in this guideline, public relations professionals may protect an organization's reputation by participating in an open and transparent engagement, while being able to participate with Wikipedia to make genuine improvements that benefit its readers.


PR practitioners should make themselves aware of the legal considerations of engaging with social media in their relevant legal jurisdiction (CIPR members should refer to the CIPR social media guidelines). You should also review regulations specific to the relevant industry. For example, a member working in the UK pharmaceutical industry is advised to review the policies and guidance of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), and members working in the UK financial services industry should refer to the Financial Services Authority (FSA). These guidelines do not constitute legal advice. The CIPR, supporting institutes and associations, and Wikimedia UK cannot accept any liability for any action taken or not taken as a result of this information.


The Wikipedia article on conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia details a long and sordid history of organizations being publicly humiliated for editing Wikipedia with a conflict of interest. These include a dozen or so large global corporations, major governments around the world and high profile politicians. These portrayals aren't always fair. In addition to high profile cases that draw national attention, Wikipedia deals with large volumes of non-neutral edits from article subjects, which drains community resources, builds contention and makes good-faith collaborations more difficult. The large volumes of non-disclosed COI editing and general gaming and deceit has proven to be damaging to Wikipedia, to the organizations that participate and the public good.

On the other hand, Wikipedia is the world's seventh most-read website with editions of Wikipedia in 285 languages. It has more than 20 million articles and is a first port of call for millions of people researching a topic, individual or company. The subject of an article may be materially effected by its contents and ethical participation by public relations professionals may improve the neutrality and coverage of articles. Many believe the Wikipedia community is not taking its power seriously enough (although see Wikipedia is in the real world). Due to Wikipedia's crowd-sourced model, the quality, balance, accuracy and completeness of articles often create areas that urge public relations professionals to participate or aren't fair to the subject of the article.

Primary Thesis

As a public relations professional, we have a vested interest in an organization, individual or client and so we have what Wikipedia refers to as a potential conflict of interest. Wikipedians have found that editors with a conflict of interest (COI) find it difficult to maintain a neutral point of view. Wikipedia's policy is that editors are strongly discouraged from editing articles where they have a conflict of interest. This leads us to the most important assertion in this guidance: PR professionals should not edit articles about their clients, their employer, related brands and issues, or competing organisations and associated brands.

You should seriously consider sticking to talk pages, however there are possible exceptions. Warning: many Wikipedians feel these exceptions create unwelcome loopholes. These exceptions include:

  • Add or update facts such as a date, location or numbers. If the facts are being disputed in the talk pages, make sure you engage with contributors there rather than edit directly.
  • Fix grammatical or spelling errors. For example, correct a misspelling or your organisation’s name or CEO's name.
  • Provide accurate references for information, statement or opinion that is already in the article.

You are, however encouraged to:

  • Edit where you do not have a conflict of interest, such as for hobbies and personal interests. This is a compelling way to gain experience with Wikipedia before contributing with a conflict of interest.
  • Engage with regular contributors on the article Talk page if you feel the article is imbalanced or factually erroneous. If a request is ignored on the Talk page,, there are ways to progress the issue further. See A Step-by-Step Guide: How to improve articles.

Principles of Wikipedia

Wikipedia's 200+ policies and guidelines are based on five founding principles called the "Five Pillars of Wikipedia":

  1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia
  2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view
  3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute
  4. Editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner
  5. Wikipedia does not have firm rules.

In addition to these pillars, Wikipedia has three core content policies that PR professionals contributing to Wikipedia should understand:

  1. Neutral point of view – All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopaedic content must be written from a neutral point of view, representing significant views fairly, proportionately and without bias. Fundamentally, where there is a contentious issue associated with a topic, Wikipedia content should be a good reference for the debate. In a few words, neutrality means this: report the debate, don't take part in it.
  2. Verifiability – Material challenged or likely to be challenged, and all quotations, must be attributed to a reliable, published source. The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth — meaning, in this context, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true.
  3. No original research – Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source. Articles may not contain any new analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position not clearly advanced by the sources.

These policies determine the type and quality of material that is acceptable in Wikipedia articles. Because they complement each other, they should not be interpreted in isolation from one another. Readers should keep in mind that this is an overview and many policies overrule one another or have community-accepted interpretations. In most cases we should rely on the judgement and feedback of experienced and impartial editors.

Wikipedia works with the concept of "reliable sources". Like talking about "mainstream media", this concept cannot be pinned down completely; and just as news media can get things wrong, reliable is not the same as infallible. For current events the mainstream media are the main reliable published sources, and (for example) most press releases and blogs are not taken as reliable.

Practical approaches

Wikipedia is an Encyclopedia
  • Material in Wikipedia articles should be reference-quality information, and nothing else.
  • Besides the skills needed to write in that fashion, what is needed to participate successfully in the site is a set of social and collaborative talents.
Ask for help

Ask other editors for information, help and advice. A good example would be "where do I go to raise this issue I have?" Another would be to ask how a guideline should be applied in a given case. Just remember that the other editors are unpaid volunteers. Ask them to help you do it. Don't make them feel like you've asked them to do your homework for you.

Operate within the system

Be honest and open at all times. On the positive side, don't be afraid to "escalate the query". If you post to an article's talk page and nobody responds, there are ways to progress your query further. If Wikipedia editors don't reply to you within a certain time scale (the time scale is dependent on the severity of the issue, the history of the article and the people involved) then take further action. Decide on the course and next step on a case-by-case basis. Whatever route you take, be sure to leave a detailed note on the talk page about edits and route of action. This will save the time of others doing any "audit", and probably your time also.

Understand the complaints system

It is not so widely known that Wikipedia has a general email system allowing anyone to raise issues about its pages (see OTRS below). You should always try to work with the community on the web site first, but this is an excellent fall back option.

Be patient and reasonable

Getting changes made for the better in Wikipedia pages is sometimes a lengthy process when you act with the co-operation of the volunteer community. But changes made that way, with well-documented reasoning on the site and proper references, are more likely to be permanent. You must also act as if you believe the other parties are working in good faith too. On the English Wikipedia there are editors for whom English is not their first language.

Use good judgement

As with most elements of public relations, one size does not fit all. There will undoubtedly be times where you will have to interpret the guidelines and apply the code of conduct principles to real situations with all their complexities. Here you should use good discretion, particularly since Wikipedia is a very public place.

Handle conflict of interest

You must recognise what constitutes conflict of interest. Wikipedia works with a clear definition, which you can find in the Glossary here.

A Step-by-Step Guide: How to improve articles

This is a brief step-by-step guide outlining how to improve an article, leading up to "worst case scenarios".

  1. Create a Wikipedia account for yourself as a person. Make sure to avoid creating multiple accounts, sharing accounts or creating an account named after a brand name, product or other trademark.
  2. Go to the Talk section of the article (the tab at the top of a Wikipedia entry labelled "Talk"). Disclose your identity and make your request for a factual correction, balance or other content requests bases on available, independent sources.
  3. If there is no response, go to the edit history by clicking on the "View History" button to identify editors that are active on the page and have an interest in the subject. Click through to their user page and the corresponding Talk page to ask for help. You may also choose to click on the Contributions button under Toolbox on the left-hand side to see if the editor is still active.
  4. If you get no response, the next step of escalation may be a noticeboard. For an article on an individual, you can go to the Biography of Living Persons Noticeboard. For company pages the Conflict of Interest Noticeboard is a common resource.
  5. Email info-en@wikimedia.org in any situation where it may be hard to disclose yourself as a public relations practitioner on Talk pages, because it might inflame the situation for example. The mail address leads into what is known as the OTRS system. There are select people who manage this inbox who will act as your advocate within the community and offer advice. When you have a reply, keep the OTRS ticket number for future reference; it will be important if you need to chase up the query.
  6. If a subject is frequently vandalised, or there are continual 'edit wars' occurring, then you can apply for the page to be protected. There are various stages, from full protection, where only a Wikipedia administrator can make an edit, to semi-protection, where only Wikipedia editors who have been registered on the site for more than four days and have made at least ten edits are allowed to make changes. To apply, post a request at Requests For Page Protection. But note - you cannot choose which page version is protected. Once an article is fully protected then article development should shift to the talkpage, editors can discuss potential changes there and when they have an agreed wording they can ask an admin to change the page.
  7. As a last resort in the case of dispute resolution or in an emergency, the Administrators' Noticeboard can be effective in dealing with obnoxious conduct. They will almost never get involved in disagreements over the content of a page but they may ban one of the parties (from the page or from the whole site) for incivility or sabotaging efforts to get a consensus. If they get involved then listen to any advice they have to give you, even if it is not what you want to hear.
  8. Even if you think the other guy is only there to push his point of view you should nevertheless act as if you believe he is acting in good faith. This will help you later if the issue gets escalated to any of the dispute resolution mechanisms. Assume Good Faith is policy on Wikipedia.
  9. "See you in court" will not help you or a client. It can get you banned from editing while the issue is referred to lawyers. See Wikipedia:No legal threats.
  10. Remember that sometimes consensus is against you. Sometimes you won't be able to convince the other editors that your wording is the best. If you refer the dispute to the dispute resolution and they come back and say you are wrong and the other guy is right then you should probably accept that and move on.



  1. Be respectful and understand the rules of the road.
  2. Disclose your interests and be transparent at all times.
  3. Engage and earn goodwill with the Wikipedian community before you are seen to need it. Introduce yourself on the Talk page and meet editors that are active on your page before a reputational crisis.
  4. Remember that Wikipedia keeps a record of everything you do, forever, and makes it available for anybody to see, so don't try to hide or spin things. Wikipedia does have processes for removing certain types of edits such as defamatory ones. In extreme cases where information should be removed not just from the current page but from the readable history also, you may ask for revision deletion (selective removal of individual edits from the history by an administrator), but note this is not a routine action.
  5. Do use warning templates when you revert vandals. This will bring greater scrutiny to the subsequent edits of those vandals, and if you are seen to be using the templates correctly, other editors will have more confidence in you.
  6. Use your watchlist to track changes on pages you need to follow. An alternative is to apply the "related changes" function to a page listing those articles: in effect an open watchlist. Since an open watchlist is particularly transparent and can be used by others in your organisation, it has some advantages.
  7. Draft versions in your userspace and invite feedback. A successful draft may be copied as is or in part into an article by someone else; and it is an ideal way to display alternative wording and better references.
  8. Attend a Wikipedia meet-up near you to get to know the community and understand how it works. These events are just social, so leave the business cards at home. The list of meet-up events in your area can be found here.
  9. Release images. If you'd prefer to have the Wikipedia article of your client illustrated by good quality recent (and historical) photographs, you can release a better quality image. There is some work to do here: you will need to clear the release carefully with your photographer and legal department, given that Wikimedia uses licenses that they may not be familiar with. Are there any other images you could release? If your client has an archive of diagrams and photos of sprockets going back 200 years then see if you can get them released - wouldn't it be good if the photos on articles about sprockets in 200 different languages have a link back to your site?
  10. Work to put significant technical information under free licenses, or at least make it easily accessible on your website. Wikipedia researchers are always looking for authoritative sources of information.
  11. Promote some volunteer editing at Wikipedia. If you are an agency or otherwise employ PR people give your staff time to write about their interests outside work.
  12. Use noticeboards when it's appropriate to get admin help. For example, if a page is frequently vandalised or moved to an inappropriate name, Wikipedia's administrators can "semi protect" it to stop editing by new accounts and unregistered editors. You can post requests for protection. Using noticeboards rather than contacting individual admins will be regarded by Wikipedians as more open and transparent, and will usually get you a faster response.
  13. Use the requested edit facility on talk pages if no-one has responded to your talk page comment in a reasonable time. When you want to propose a change, start a new section at the bottom of the talk page. Disclose your conflict of interest and explain that this is why you aren't editing the article yourself. Describe the changes that you consider are needed, explain why they are needed and provide a reliable independent reference for the facts you want added or altered. (A professional news service such as the BBC would be fine for example). Some talkpages have Wikipedians who keep an eye on them and will action or discuss your proposal. If no-one has responded in a reasonable time then escalate matters by prefacing your remarks with "Requested edit" – this will alert other Wikipedians to look at that talk page.


Things to avoid range from infringements of 'netiquette' aspects that may be unfamiliar, through to editing that cuts across guidelines and policies, to (at the extreme) contravening the terms of use of the site. Here are pointers to some matters that are most likely to come up.

  1. Don't share your account by giving anyone your password: it's a no-no.
  2. Don't include a business name or product name in your account name, this is seen as promotional and will probably get you blocked. There is a user name policy.
  3. Don't create a Wikipedia entry from scratch for your organisation / client, brands or an individual for which you have a conflict of interest. Also, do not create an article relating to a phrase or term coined by your client. If a person, company or concept is of noteworthy significance a member of the Wikipedia community will create a Wikipedia entry. If you would like to bring it to the community's attention, please add it to the articles for creation (a list of articles waiting to be created by the community) and requested articles (where you ask Wikipedians to create an article on a particular subject or organisation).
  4. Don't use Wikipedia to promote or advertise your employer or client. Remember Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia; it is not your company or client's website. As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn't have submitted it to be included in a hard-copy reference work then don't add it to or suggest a Wikipedian add it to a Wikipedia page.
  5. Don't remove negative material (exception: any editor, including PR professionals, can remove material that violates Wikipedia's policy regarding living people). Remember a Wikipedia page aims to present different points of view. If a Wikipedian has included a sentence about your organisation or client from a reliable source then you do not have the right to remove it. If you feel your organisation or client is being unfairly represented and the Wikipedia entry fails to be neutral, then raise this point first on the talk page. Seek balance by following this guidance only.
  6. Don't casually copy-and-paste content from another site, even if you manage the other site. There is guidance for the release of copyright content submitted by the author or by someone on their behalf.
  7. Don't try to cultivate individual Wikipedians, or intrusively identify the people behind pseudonyms. Wikipedians, unlike journalists and some bloggers, do not operate in a public sphere. The systems and processes of Wikipedia do offer help, and you can access them in a way that Wikipedian volunteers are comfortable with. At an extreme, those who do favours for you can risk being suspected of covertly being a paid editor.
  8. Don't overman your Wikipedia effort. Limit the number of people a Wikipedian speaks to. Having several points of contact for a Wikipedian could be irritating or confusing. Where possible, we suggest restricting the number of people per organisation that maintain a relationship with a Wikipedian. Where you are trying to get a consensus on changes, it is not going to help to say your colleague agrees with you!

Next Steps for PR Professionals

Contact your professional body to ascertain the availability of Wikipedia training. The CIPR social media panel for example runs workshops to explain and test attendees on Wikipedia best practice. All those who attend and pass the assignment receive a certificate.

Log all of your Wikipedia activity relating to your employer or client (ie, to your conflicts of interest). Just as PR professionals keep a note of journalists they speak to and their areas of interest, PR professionals should keep a log of Wikipedians they’ve spoken to and their areas of interest. You may find that the history of your personal contributions to entries and talk pages, available from your user page, suffices, although your team may benefit from collating and centralising this information. This diligence will help identify bad practice internally before an external party identifies it for you.

Keep up to date on the codes of conduct and social media guidance from your professional body. Wikipedia is ever evolving, and this guidance will evolve too. It lives and breathes at http://uk.wikimedia.org/wiki/Draft_best_practice_guidelines_for_PR [SHOULD WE RENAME THE PAGE AS PERHAPS "DRAFT" IS NO LONGER APPROPRIATE POST-"VERSION 1"], and updates to the PDF version will be published and publicised whenever it's deemed that the updates to the wiki version warrant a new PDF version.

The Glossary

Code of Conduct
All CIPR members agree to abide by a Code of Professional Conduct, and other professional bodies in other countries may do so similarly. The Code of Conduct is one means by which the CIPR and its Members fulfil the purpose set out in the Institute’s royal charter: ‘to promote for the public benefit high levels of skill, knowledge, competence, and standards of practice and professional conduct on the part of public relations practitioners’.
Conflict of Interest
A Wikipedia conflict of interest is an incompatibility between the aim of Wikipedia, which is to produce a neutral, reliably sourced encyclopaedia, and the aims of an individual editor. Conflict of interest editing involves contributing to Wikipedia in order to promote your own interests or those of other individuals, companies, or groups. Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.
CREWE (Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement)
A Facebook group started in January 2012. CREWE lobbies for greater involvement by PR professionals in Wikipedia, with the stated goal of maintaining accurate articles about corporations.
To participate in CREWE go to http://www.facebook.com/groups/crewe.group/
Regular (or more spontaneous) face-to-face meetings of Wikipedians take place in cities around the world.
Neutral Point of View
All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopaedic content must be written from a neutral point of view, representing significant views fairly, proportionately and without bias.
Public Relations
Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.
Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.
Semi Protection
Semi Protection is a process by which a Wikipedia article can be restricted so that it can only be edited by established editors who are logged in. Typically this is introduced for articles that have experienced high levels of vandalism. For example, as of mid-2012, Wikipedia's articles on Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are both semi-protected. The article on the Deepwater Horizon explosion had to be protected for two weeks during 2010.
Talk Pages
A discussion page which Wikipedia editors and contributors can use to discuss improvements to an article or other Wikipedia page.
The Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. is an American non-profit charitable organisation headquartered in the United States. It operates several online collaborative wiki projects, including Wikipedia, collectively called wikimedia. Local chapters, including Wikimedia UK, are self-dependent organisations that share the goals of the Wikimedia Foundation and support the Wikimedian communities on the various wiki projects, including Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia community is a network of volunteers that make contributions to Wikipedia. Members of that community are known as Wikipedians or more generally Wikimedians if they also edit other projects. A division of labour exists whereby certain editors are elected as administrators gaining extra editing facilities in order to better administer Wikipedia.

Version History

This draft guidance was initiated by Chartered Institute of Public Relations social media advisory panel in May 2012.

This process was proposed as part of an ongoing conversation about how the public relations industry might work effectively with Wikipedians and Wikipedia. Public relations practitioners here want to understand the Wikipedia community better, and vice versa.

A presentation was made by Neville Hobson and Philip Sheldrake about these proposals at the 2012 Wikimedia UK AGM. You can see the slides here. A video of the presentation is available on the right of this page.

Version 1

The CIPR took a snapshot of the guidance here to disseminate it widely amongst public relations professionals in the UK and further afield as "version 1", 27th June 2012, with the support of the Canadian Public Relations Society, the PRCA and the Public Relations Institute of Australia. You can find the corresponding press release here and version 1 of the guidance here (PDF).

A future version 2

The guidance here on the wiki has grown rather lengthy as of the date of version 1, and perhaps a pursuit for concision would be an appropriate objective for "version 2"... to be discussed on the talk page.

Please use the talk page (the tab marked 'Discussion' above – 'how-to' for newbies here) to discuss any and all elements of this guidance and suggest edits. A page of links to background information and other resources is maintained here.

This introduction (everything to this point) will not feature in the guidance; everything hereafter will.