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PR Pros and Wikipedia: Can They Ever Get Along?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user bitjungle

All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view. This means that editors should avoid stating opinions as facts, avoid stating seriously contested assertions as facts, avoid presenting uncontested assertions as mere opinion, use non-judgmental language, and accurately indicate the relative prominence of opposing views.

One can easily see how these five attributes may be in conflict with the way many PR professionals do their jobs. Whether it's cranking out news releases (where "news" is obviously very loosely defined) or getting paid for covert smear campaigns, the PR industry isn't exactly known for being a bastion of authenticity and impartiality. It's no wonder Wikipedia has advised against PR pros editing articles directly. There seems to be a pretty clear conflict of interest that exists. Paid advocates making edits that are supposed to be impartial, fair, and balanced? Would you want a judge presiding over a hearing where his/her son is the defendant? Would you want to read a restaurant review from a reporter who is also part owner of said restaurant?

That's a big reason why most PR professionals have avoided Wikipedia for so long, fearful of the wrath of the editing community. Even if their edits were truthful and impartial, many would think they weren't, citing their conflict of interest. That's the thing with conflicts of interest – often, the mere perception of a conflict of interest is almost as bad as an actual conflict.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia is now experiencing the unintended consequences of locking out PR pros. According to a study conducted by Marcia W. DiStaso, Ph.D., co-chair of PRSA's National Research Committee and an assistant professor of public relations at Penn State University, 60% of Wikipedia articles about companies contain factual errors. Moreover, when asked how long it took respondents to actually engage with one of Wikipedia's editors via the respective Talk pages, 40% said it took "days" to receive a response, 12% indicated "weeks," while 24% never received any type of response. A recent infographic by David King further illustrates Wikipedia's problem with keeping company Wikipedia pages up to date – according to his research, 86% of company pages are incomplete and 56% of the article tags are flagged as needing better citations.

Here's the problem. PR pros, the people who often have the most accurate and up-to-date information about these companies, are advised against sharing it directly with the Wikipedia community and subsequently improving the quality of these pages. Are our only options to ban PR pros from editing Wikipedia pages, accepting incomplete, inaccurate information OR concede impartiality and allow the rampant addition of puffery and marketing-speak? I don't think allowing PR pros to edit Wikipedia directly and preserving impartiality and factual information have to be mutually exclusive. Just like other industries have created extensive processes and policies to mitigate potential conflicts of interest, so too should public relations.

This year, at least two separate groups have been created to help improve the relationship between the public relations industry and Wikipedia. The Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE), started by Phil Gomes, and the WikiProject Cooperation, started by David King, are taking the first step in bridging this gap. PRSA itself has also weighed in on the subject, with PRSA Chair and CEO Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA saying,

"The issue over edits made on Wikipedia is one that affects more than just the public relations profession. It has implications for every business, organization and institution around the world, given Wikipedia’s widespread use as an information resource. We believe there is a case to be made for PR professionals to responsibly edit client Wikipedia entries in an ethical and transparent manner. At its most basic level, it is a matter of serving the public interest.”

There's clearly a need to transfer the knowledge that PR professionals into the largest encyclopedia in the world. There are too many incorrect and incomplete entries that could easily be fixed and made more valuable for the community if the people with this information could more easily edit and add it. However, I don't think this is Wikipedia's problem as much as I think it's the PR industry's problem. Even if what a PR person says is completely true, there's a perception that it's propaganda and that we're hiding the actual truth. For years, PR pros have been caught in scandals, lies, and unethical practices. Just like when we were in school and a few bad kids ruined it for the rest of us, so too have a few unscrupulous PR firms and people ruined the public perception of our industry. The dishonesty of a few has burned too much trust with the public, the media, our clients, and within our own organizations. We have to earn back this trust as an industry before we can expect other people and organizations to trust us to be impartial, transparent, and honest with anything, much less Wikipedia.

Corbett says that PRSA wants to work with Wikipedia to develop rigorous and explicit editing guidelines that can be used throughout the profession. That's great, but unfortunately doesn't help address the thousands of alleged "PR professionals" who aren't, never were, and never will be, members of PRSA. We can't disbar unethical practitioners like lawyers can. We can't take their license away like doctors. We can't even take their medallion like taxi drivers. As long as anyone can practice public relations and call themselves a PR pro, we will always suffer for the sins of a few unscrupulous ones. That's why I think the relationship between the PR profession and Wikipedia will always been adversarial.

The real opportunity for initiatives like CREWE and the WikiProject Cooperation lies not in lobbying for the profession as a whole, but in working hand-in-hand with Wikipedia to create higher (not lower) barriers to entry for PR professionals. ALL PR professionals shouldn't be able to edit Wikipedia – I would instead prefer to know that those who do have been vetted, trained, and advised by the community. This "Wikipedia Editor License" for PR pros would serve as a clearinghouse for Wikipedia to ensure these select few individuals would understand how to properly disclose and mitigate any potential conflicts of interest and edit according to the community standards. In short, this issue may present us with opportunity to bring some regulation to a profession sorely in need of it.

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Identify the Right People to Manage Your Social Media Initiatives

A version of this post originally appeared on this blog last year. I'm re-posting it with a few minor modifications because I just gave a presentation based on this content at PRSA's Digital Impact Conference. The full presentation is embedded below and available here.

Who leads your organization's social media initiatives? Is it someone who rose up and took the role or is is someone who was assigned that role?

Social media isn't something that can just be assigned to someone any more than you can just assign someone to be the homecoming king. Adding "social media" to that junior public affairs officer's job description isn't suddenly going to turn your organization into the next Zappo's. While you're at it, you might as well add "organizational budgeting" and "legal review" to his job description too – those are two other things that he/she might be able to do well, but would you really entrust those duties to them?

This is why so many social media initiatives fail – not because of technology or policy, but because of people.  We talk often about what department should lead social media, how to get leadership buy-in for social media, or what technology should be used, and while those are important discussions to have, you should be focused on identifying WHO should be leading the social media initiatives.  Not whether that's the Chief Marketing Officer or the Director of Public Affairs or the Community Relations Lead, but actual names of people.  Remember, social media is driven by the person, not the position.

The best person right now might be Joe over in Marketing, but what if Joe leaves the organization?  Who leads the social media initiatives then?  The answer isn't necessarily Joe's replacement.  It might be Kim over in HR. It might be that new guy over in community relations, or maybe it's your webmaster.  The point is that social media doesn't fit nicely into just one job description.  There's a very real human element to it, and identifying the wrong person, even if it is the right position is often the biggest determination in the success or failure of your social media initiatives.

To find the right person to handle social media for your organization, look for people who:

  • LOVE your organization and really understand its mission – first and foremost, find the people who love their jobs and believe in your mission. This isn't a job for the person interested in just the paycheck.
  • Believe in the transformative power of social media – it's not about applying the same old processes to new tools. It's about fundamentally transforming the way your organization interacts with the public, your customers and with each other.
  • You enjoy being around – If a person is a real butthead in real-life, he's going to be that way online too, and you can't afford to have someone like that representing you or your organization
  • Have little fear of failure – Early in my career, a client pulled me aside after they shot down 3 straight ideas I had and told me, "I want to make sure that you understand we WANT you to continue bringing those off-the-wall ideas because it forces us to think of things we never thought of and even if we don't take your suggestions now, they all become building blocks for future ideas."
  • Enjoy working in teams – Social media is "social" – you have to enjoy working with a diverse group of people
  • Are responsive – There is no 24 hour news cycle any more. It's real-time baby. You need people who you KNOW will reply to emails, tweets, texts, etc. quickly and thoroughly. Interestingly, these are also often the people who are the most ambitious and passionate about your organization too.  (*note – these are also the people who may take longer lunches or come in a little late because they don't just "shut off" at 5:00 PM)
  • Can speak like a human being – Corporate marketing speak, statistics, facts, and figures are good, but when was the last time you got inspired by a pie chart? Find people who can connect with their colleagues/customers/clients on a personal level
  • Are very aware of their strengths and weaknesses and are open about them – One of the first things I tell new employees is to find out what you're good at and find out what you're not good at, and then find people who are good at those things and make friends with them. In social media, you're going to come across issues regarding privacy, IT, legal, communications, and HR, not to mention specific functional areas of your organization. You can't know it all – know what you don't know, and know who to contact for help.
  • Are humble -People mess up in social media. A lot.  It's ok.  Admit you're wrong, fix what you messed up and move on. Not everyone can do this, and very few can do it well.
  • Are diplomatic – The point of social media isn't just to get more followers and friends. It's to help your organization reach its communications, marketing, and sales goals. That's why social media managers need to know how to educate others across the organization and demonstrate how social media can help their business.
  • Are dedicated to building a scalable, sustainable team – People go on vacation. People take other jobs. People get transferred. Make sure that your social media manager has the organization's long-term interests in mind and isn't just focused on raising his or her profile.

Now that I think about it,these are many of the same qualities that exist in any leader, right?  So, what other qualities would you look for when trying to identify someone to head up a social media initiative?

This post was inspired by Andrew Wilson's "Innovation Lab | Who Should Be At The Table" post and Lovisa Williams' "The Intersection" post. Fantastic stuff (as usual) by the both of them.

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More Than Words: How to Really Redefine the Term “Public Relations”

There’s big news in the PR industry as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently announced that they are embarking on an international effort to modernize the definition of public relations. Chartered in 1947, PRSA is the world’s largest and foremost organization of public relations professionals and boasts a community of more than 21,000 members across the U.S. Their current definition of PR – “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other” was last updated in 1982, before Twitter, before Facebook, hell, even before you had a computer at your desk. Technology has changed a lot over the last 30 years. So to have the ways in which organizations and their publics relate to one another. It’s definitely time for a change.

Adam Lavelle, a member of the board of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and chief strategic officer at the iCrossing unit of Hearst, agrees. In the New York Times article linked above, he says:

“Before the rise of social media, public relations was about trying to manage the message an entity was sharing with its different audiences.” Now, P.R. has to be more about facilitating the ongoing conversation in an always-on world.”

Unfortunately,  ever since the days of Edward Bernays, PR has had its roots in “managing the message.” PR grew out of propaganda, spin, and manipulation – no wonder we’ve had an image problem for the last 100 years! Too many PR practitioners have become so focused on the message that they have totally forgotten the relations part of public relations. As The Cluetrain Manifesto taught us way back in 1999 (also before social media), “public relations does not relate to the public, companies are deeply afraid of their markets.” From press releases that sound like this and media pitches like this, PR practitioners have gotten lazy, hiding behind words and messages instead of building an actual relationships.

PRSA (disclaimer: I’ve been a member of PRSA or PRSSA since 2000) should take this same advice while redefining the definition of PR. The words might end up being totally accurate and insightful, but if PR practitioners don’t also change their actions, the perception of the industry will never change. I hope that all PRSA members would realize the perception of public relations is about more than words – it’s about actions. And with that, here are ten actions that I’d like to become part of the new definition of public relations:

  1. Instead of spamming my email pitches to massive distribution lists, I will put in more than ten seconds of effort and personalize it to the reporter/blogger/writer/anchor/editor I’m contacting
  2. I will stop being a yes-man for my clients and actually provide the expert communications counsel I’m (hopefully) being paid to provide
  3. I will learn how to speak with an actual human voice instead of the voice of mission statements, brochures, and marketing pitches
  4. I will not forget the relations in public relations and will try to develop real relationships with the members of the media I work with instead of treating them like pawns that can be manipulated
  5. I will stop snowing my clients and inflating my value through the use of ambiguous outputs like hits, impressions, and ad equivalency and instead focus on the outcomes that public relations has helped accomplish
  6. I can no longer be the man behind the curtain, ghostwriting messages and press releases while I hide behind my brand or organization. I will take responsibility for my strategies and tactics.
  7. Regardless of my age, I will recognize that keeping up with and understanding technology is now a job requirement
  8. Likewise, I will stop assuming that social media IS public relations and vice versa. Social media is becoming a much larger aspect of PR and present practitioners with new tools to use, but they are not one in the same.
  9. PR cannot exist in a vacuum – I realize that my PR efforts will be more effective if I collaborate and communicate regularly with marketing, advertising, strategy, operations and other groups throughout the organization.
  10. And finally, I will recognize that good public relations isn’t about manipulating media coverage – it’s about helping an organization create and maintain stronger relationships with all of its stakeholders.

Redefining “public relations” is a crucial first step, but changing the perception of public relations will require more than than words – it will require a shift in the thinking and the actions of thousands of PR professionals. Let’s start modeling the behaviors we hope to instill in all PR practitioners and start taking PR from messages to actions.

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Don’t be Like Cleveland – How to Succeed Even When Your Star Leaves

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When Your Star Leaves
Cleveland sign

Don't be like Cleveland...prepare for when your star leaves

UPDATE: Slides embedded!

We all know the story – local high school star LeBron James joins the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, becomes a star, leads his team to the playoffs for five straight seasons and then “takes his talents to South Beach.” Without their superstar, the Cavs finish the next season with one of the worst records in the league, something my home state of Ohio was very unhappy about!

What if your social media “star” left your organization? Would you turn into Cleveland?

Over the last several years, as social media has become increasingly ubiquitous in many of our daily lives; government, nonprofit and commercial organizations have begun using social media to connect with their internal and external stakeholders. While some organizations have taken a systematic approach to building out their social media presence, many, especially those that were early adopters, relied on social media advocates within their organizations – people who saw the value of social media and evangelized for its use.

We all know the type: the one that others call “that social media guy/girl” that was willing to take risks, challenge the status quo, and sometimes drag their organization kicking and screaming into having a Facebook Page, engaging with customers on Twitter or helping their research department to use a wiki to share knowledge. In my organization, Booz Allen Hamilton, one of those people is Steve Radick, who played an integral part in advocating for building out a social media practice for our clients as well as helping the firm to adopt our internal Enterprise 2.0 site, Hello. In my own work, I’ve helped clients to build social media programs from scratch, making first steps in taking advantage of the latest technologies to engage with citizens, patients and employees for Military Health System organizations and other agencies.

But what happens when your star leaves? What happens when your “social media guru” is promoted and doesn’t have time to Tweet like they used to? What happens when the consultant who has been updating your Facebook Page completes their contract? Or that intern you asked to make viral videos for you goes back to school? How do you sustain your social media program so that it doesn’t rely on the power of one or two personalities that have been driving it forward?

These are some of the questions I’m looking forward to engaging with PRSA International Conference participants in during my session “When a Star Leaves: How to Sustain Social Media Efforts Over the Long Term.” Based on the experience of myself and my colleagues at Booz Allen who have helped to build social media programs with staying power for Federal Government agencies, I will give you some best practices to help you think strategically about how to set up your program to stand the test of time as well as discuss what to do now to prepare for when your “rock star” moves on.

While I’ll have more to share in Orlando, here are five tips you can start thinking about in the meantime:

  1. Plan your social media program as if your star won’t be here tomorrow: Your star’s role will likely change in the next year, whether by their action or because of changes in leadership. Assume the torch will need to be passed to someone else, and plan for it
  2. Structure your social media program to be scalable and future-proof: Anticipate demand for help, for social media across your organization will increase as different departments see how it can be successful. Additionally, think about social media in a platform-agnostic way, creating practices, policies and strategies that are easily adaptable as technologies and trends change
  3. Don’t stop at a star, build a whole constellation of people who understand and use social media throughout your organization: Think about creating a social media coalition within your organization. Identify champions in different departments and engage them regularly in meetings to share successes and challenges
  4. Integrate and normalize social media into daily communication practice across your organization: Digital and social media are integral for communicating with your consumers and valuable for communicating in your organization. Find ways to incorporate social media into your communication, training and performance systems
  5. Make sure your star knows their success will be judged by your organization’s ability to sustain the social media effort after they are gone: Mentoring and nurturing talent is integral to long-term success. If your social media program disappears when your star disappears, your program, and your star, will be seen as a failure

Stick around for the last set of workshops on Tuesday afternoon at 2:15 before you head home (or to Disney) to join me in an engaging conversation on making your social media program stand the test of time. I look forward to talking with you, and will be providing an update of how it goes after the conference. See you there!

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