30 August, 2006

A code of conduct - would that do?

Constantin Basturea has written about the need for a code of conduct or "rules of engagement in social media commons" for PR professionals. This comes off the back of the revelation that some PR companies are offering to write wikipedia entries for clients, for a fee.

Now when I read this I got all high and mighty. In fact I can show you just how high and mighty because I sent Mr Basturea an email, and in it I said:
For the record I think that it is unethical for PR people to edit wikipedia
posts for their clients, the true facts will out as they say.

So despite my pomposity Mr B wrote back pointing out that he would like to see:
1. a mechanism that will allow PR pros to correct false information
2. a code
that PR pros could subscribe to - something that will back them
when their clients will ask them to do act unethical in Social Media Commons as
Wikipedia, del.icio.us or digg.

I wonder whether it is more telling about me, or the reputation both inside and outside the PR industry, that I instantly assumed that if PRs were changing things on wikipedia it would be on unethical terms, rather than righting wrongs.

Sometimes I worry the cynicism will get me, sometimes I think it already has.

If I could play devil's advocate, I would have to say that while it would be great for us all to sign a code of conduct, it would only take one person to sign it and then carry on regardless, acting unethically, for the code to be made a mockery of.

I suppose that is the joy and curse of this social media malarkey; everyone is included, no one could be excluded (and wouldn't that be unethical in itself?) and sometimes, as with all things, we all get tarred with the same brush.

On the positive side; if anyone were to 'cheat on the code' nothing escapes the blogosphere - and increasingly this is where potential clients are turning to for reference on their PRs. An unethical PR can no longer brazenly get away with it.

Social media has worked well to add to the 'human face' to the PR industry. People can go online and see that PR people function in just the same way as in any other industry. We are silly, serious, charming and (think we're) clever across the board, and it provides a transparency which shows that while there may be the occasional Machiavelli, we are all just people who do and enjoy communications.

Of course I would sign a code and abide by it (it wouldn't be a stretch), but would I put all my faith in it? Now there is a question.

I don't like to be the cynic and I certainly believe the principals of a code of conduct, but if we were all ethical we would not need the code, and signing a code is not going to make everybody ethical.

These are things I have been thinking about for quite a while, as - I'm pretty sure - everyone else does too, and a thorny subject like this deserves a lot of thought. I don't have the answers.

I shall certainly be watching this discussion with interest.


Richard Millington said...

I agree with this to an extent.

Yet to say PRs should not be allowed to edit wikipedia when they are willingly, and constantly, trying to release 'select' information into mainstream media seems a little haphazard.

So yes, there do need to be guidelines laid down that draws the line, but the line must be drawn between through all media once again.

Alex Pullin said...

Good point Richard,

It does seem that with this issue there are many 'sub-issues' that could even be major issues in their own right.

The use of Wikipedia I think is again based on how you view Wikipedia. There are people who rely on it for fact. Although I appreciate that nothing is bias-free, something doesn't sit right with me when the full facts are denyed to the public on purpose.

James Barbour said...

Is it OK for a CEO to edit the Wikipedia entry of his / her company? Is it OK for the CEO to delegate this task to someone else, perhaps an in-house PRO?

If it's alright (and it surely must be) for a company to edit its own Wikipedia entry, where does one draw the line - and how clearly defined is the line - between acceptable self-editing and the kind of "Wiki for sale" outfit upon which we all instinctively frown?

The 'mainstream' agency world seems to sit somewhere in this grey area, and the sooner we define our own parameters the better - before someone else does.

From my Public Affairs standpoint there are direct parallels with the ongoing debate into the need (or not) for the lobbying sector to either be regulated or to self-regulate - and whether / how this should apply not just to agencies but to in-house lobbyists, public policy lawyers and anyone else who seeks to influence the policy process.

Oops, this was meant to be a brief comment but has mushroomed somewhat.

Richard Millington said...

Just noticed your blog looks a lot like mine, you copycat!

Back to what I was saying, I don't think any restrictions should be made upon wikipedia because PRs do try to influence any main source of information im favour of their client.

Take any big trend at the moment. When people want information what do they do? They search for it in google. What are PRs currently trying to do? Influence search engine rankings by making press releases keyword-heavy. There is such a much larger issue at hand here and at the end of the day, end-users (like those on DIGG/Delicious) can correct any obvious mistake.

For Wikipedia, anyone that contributes or edits an entry has a motivation for doing so. For the best part, the information they contribute will have been gleaned from articles/shows in mainstream media. Articles/shows which could just have easily been influenced by PR in the first place.

John Cass said...

I believe that wikipedia is allowing PR professionals or anyone for that matter to write in comments about entries. That's at least provides some mechanism for discussion.

As for a standard, I think a few good case studies on the problems that arise from clients altering text in this way, might serve as the best way to convince clients such action is not a good idea.

David Phillips said...

Good debate. There is a real issue here. It is about trust. Who trusts the public relations agency, head of PR or Corporate Affairs.

That is why I think we need the institutions like CIPR (Farrington fun aside).

We also need to be ready to stand up and be counted and that will make a many of you unpopular (I am already but can be dismissed as grumpy old man).