Ten marketing agencies have come together in a pledge to play by Wikipedia’s rules, like disclosing their client affiliations and making suggestions rather than outright edits to client pages.

Ogilvy & Mather, FleishmanHillard, Peppercomm, Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Porter Novelli/Voce Communications, Edelman, Beutler Ink,  Allison+Partners, as well as its holding company MDC Partners signed the statement that was published on Wikipedia’s “talk pages” this morning. It says:

On behalf of our firms, we recognize Wikipedia’s unique and important role as a public knowledge resource. We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors. Our firms believe that it is in the best interest of our industry, and Wikipedia users at large, that Wikipedia fulfill its mission of developing an accurate and objective online  encyclopedia. Therefore, it is wise for communications professionals to follow Wikipedia policies as part of ethical engagement practices. (Full statement here).

In 2012, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales put out an advisory saying that paid advocates should not edit Wikipedia articles directly, but instead, should propose edits on the site’s backend “talk” pages.

Last year, William Beutler, president of Wikipedia-focused firm Beutler Ink, started reaching out to fellow communications firms looking to repair the relationship between the industry and Wikipedia’s community of volunteer editors. A group of marketing agencies met on February 7 and decided to issue the statement as a show of good faith to the Wikipedia community and to urge other agencies to adopt its standard.

“There’s no illusion that this statement will solve everything — it’s a first step,” says Beutler. “Wikipedia is an influential website. PR folks and other interested people will try to make changes. You can’t get rid of them entirely — and the prohibition model doesn’t work,it just sends them deeper underground. So what’s a policy that we can all live with?”

There’s been a history of disputes between the PR industry and the Wikipedia community. For instance, in 2013 the president of Qorvis Communications (which became part of MSLGroup earlier this year) sparred with Wales about Wikipedia’s policy towards paid advocates. Other industry professionals have tried to ease relations with the editor community. In 2012, Edelman’s Phil Gomes (who led the agency’s involvement in today’s statement) created a Facebook group Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE) that advocates for the PR industry’s involvement on Wikipedia while also looking to build relationships with Wikipedia’s editors.

Much of the friction concerns the involvement of PR firms that have engaged in unscrupulous editing practices on Wikipedia on behalf of their clients. "We recognise that there are people who have been bad actors, and we hope that won’t happen again," admitted Social@Ogilvy EMEA MD Marshall Manson. "There's nothing we can do about that. All we can say is we represent some of the biggest firms in the industry; hopefully that has some value."

Gomes says the next step following today’s statement “will be dictated by the reaction we get.”

Whether the statement helps the PR industry make inroads with Wikipedia’s volunteer community remains to be seen, but even the statement’s backers acknowledge the long road ahead — and the reality that there will continue to be PR agencies that violate Wikipedia’s policies.

“Many in the Wikipedia community are so cynical now that they direct [their frustration] at comms or PR people coming at Wikpedia from an ethical channel,” says Sam Ford, director of audience engagement at Peppercomm. “So there’s deep frustration on both sides.”

There are no current plans to ensure that firms are collectively accountable for today's statements.

“We aren’t an industry policing group, we are each speaking on behalf of our own company and saying this is our policy,” Ford says. “But as organizations, we also have to show the Wikipedia community — not just tell them.”

 Featured photo credit: Niccolo Caranti