Sam Ford: Building a Participatory Marketing and PR Industry Alongside Wikipedia
August 8, 2016
Over the past year, a quiet debate has been bubbling between the inbound marketing and PR community and everyone’s favorite free, digital resource, Wikipedia. While Wikipedia remains an incredibly valuable source of information for a host of different topics, its position as an open-source encyclopedia has increasingly been threatened by PR firms, marketers, and community members who may act outside of its community guidelines.
While some of these violations can result in some minor vandalism on the online encyclopedia, others are more severe. On the lighter side of things, The New Yorker
profiled a Wikipedia page edit that resulted in a South American mammal acquiring a new nickname. In a more extreme case, some passionate sports fans made an inappropriate reference on their opposing team’s page that led to some hateful slurs showing up directly on Google’s Knowledge Graph
It’s pretty clear that having such a public, open-source resource can cause issues. However, participation and community are some of the pillars of the Internet. Even Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, has called Wikipedia “one of the greatest triumphs of the Internet.”
As a result, Wikipedia continues to rank on the first page for a plethora of keywords, remaining the top site in Moz’s Big 10 domains across all of Google search
. This inherent power has led Google to lean on Wikipedia for Answer Boxes and the Knowledge Graph, and keeps Wikipedia among the most relevant and powerful repositories of information on the entire Internet. Yet how do we keep such a valuable piece of digital media from becoming an electronic dump of discarded advertisements?
The issue lay not in the format of Wikipedia, nor the ability for these things to be freely edited and created, but instead in the willingness for marketers and PR professionals to start committing themselves to becoming vested members of the Wikimedia community, and most importantly, law-abiding citizens of the Wikipedia community guidelines.
Last year, a number of PR firms and advertising agencies released a joint public statement, emphasizing their commitment to preserving Wikipedia’s community guidelines, and called for other agencies to do the same. The statement comes as a fresh reminder for digital marketers to espouse the guidelines of communities they frequent as they fervently seek ways to better build their brand. I had the opportunity to speak with Sam Ford, Director of Audience Engagement for the communications and marketing strategy firm, Peppercomm
, who had co-signed the joint statement. Coverage spread far and wide, from AdAge
to the Institute for Public Relations
. Sam’s piece on Fast Company
is what first caught my eye, and I was grateful he took the time to catch up over the nuances of Wikipedia and what this collectively means for our industry to become invested in a more participatory digital marketing environment.
What do you do?
Sam: I am Director of Audience Engagement for communications and marketing strategy firm Peppercomm. In that role, I spend part of my time consulting with our account teams and our clients throughout the firm, particularly focusing on helping our clients think about their overarching narrative strategy and the moments where they are engaging directly with the audiences they seek to reach: many of which remain areas of discomfort or confusion for marketers and corporate communicators.
A lot of my work focuses on empathy—thinking about seeing the company, the company’s story, the company’s people, the overall communication experience—through the eyes of their audiences. I then spend part of my time on work within the industry but outside of our clients. I’m co-chair of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association
’s Ethics Committee. I write for places like Fast Company
, Harvard Business Review
, and Inc.
, and do public speaking and workshops on related issues.
In an article you wrote for Fast Company back in July, you explained that, by abiding by the Wikipedia community guidelines and making an appeal to add quality content to the community, rather than use the encyclopedia as a billboard for brands, can endear a company/client to PR contacts. What was your experience with interacting with Wikipedia community members? Discuss what inspired you to write this?
Sam: My position at Peppercomm is focused on advocating on the audience’s behalf. If companies are seeking the attention and engagement of their various publics, they should be treating those people with respect and ensuring that, above all else, the communication serves the people they are trying to reach.
With Wikipedia, there are two publics to consider: the volunteer Wikipedia editors, on the one hand, and the much wider audience who use Wikipedia as a resource. In theory, professional communicators have a lot to offer both those audiences. They have, at their disposal, access to a great deal of organizational information. Their ability to help Wikipedia editors and readers ensure that articles remain as accurate and up-to-date as possible has high potential.
“There are some bad actors and many more who were simply ignorant of Wikipedia’s rules that have not only failed to overcome the natural skepticism people would have from contributors with a vested interest about their own organization, but have helped turn that skepticism into cynicism.”
But, to be frank, there are some bad actors and many more who were simply ignorant of Wikipedia’s rules that have not only failed to overcome the natural skepticism people would have from contributors with a vested interest about their own organization, but have helped turn that skepticism into cynicism. Many who work with organizations know that Wikipedia is a site anyone can edit and that you don’t have to reveal your name. However, they don’t necessarily understand that it’s supposed to be objective, like an encyclopedia, and not a repository (or landfill) for dumping content. And many don’t understand the policies for disclosing if you have a conflict-of-interest that you feel people should know about.
I’m not a Wikipedian myself, but I have read and thought a lot about that project/community in my academic work and, in the communications/PR world, have encountered a lot of contemporaries in the field and clients who have been frustrated by misinformation, incomplete information, outdated information, etc., on entries about their organization that they can’t easily fix.
My article for Fast Company, and other things I’ve written on the subject, was intended to help those in the business world better understand why, if a project or community like Wikipedia is important for you reach out to, you have to really understand the context of what you’re asking. Companies typically understand that they can’t just jump into a foreign market and expect to operate with no cultural understanding. They typically know they can launch a new product line to a new customer segment if they don’t know those people at all. So why wouldn’t they take the same care when it comes to their communications and public relations?
Peppercomm released a statement reinforcing the community guidelines for Wikipedia. How was your statement received? Did this get the attention you were hoping it would?
Sam: Last February, I was invited to a meeting at the Donovan House hotel in Washington, DC, in which William Beutler of Beutler Ink brought together a handful of agencies to talk about contentious relationship between the Wikipedia community and the PR community. A lot of this was driven by a Facebook group Edelman’s Phil Gomes had created a couple of years back to discuss ethical corporate engagement with Wikipedia.
I came because of my role at Peppercomm, but also because of my work with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Ethics Committee that I co-chair and my academic work on participatory culture. Bill also had the foresight to invite a couple of professors who have done significant work on Wikipedia, as well as a couple of veteran Wikipedia editors. We were able to discuss the frustrations everyone had with the current situation and what initiatives might best help.
The reason we released the statement is because we realized many view all corporate representatives monolithically. None of us had necessarily said publicly that we had a policy in place that our employees will abide by Wikipedia’s various guidelines. And we certainly hadn’t put a stake in the ground on the subject to commit ourselves publicly to adhering to that policy. So we thought that would be a good place to start. But we also released the statement to generate greater awareness in the business world and the PR/communications world in particular about the importance of ethical engagement. There’s far too little regular discussion of ethics in our profession, and there’s a great need for education on understanding projects like Wikipedia and how dramatically different engaging with a Wikipedia editor is from engaging with a journalist, for instance.
We were happy with the breadth of coverage the statement received in the business press and the corporate communications trades. I was able to write about the project at various places directly, as were others. A few of us did a session at SXSW this year on the initiative. But some of the coverage about it only displayed the lack of understanding both journalists and the marketing/communications world has about Wikipedia.
Many reported that agencies who had been covertly editing Wikipedia vow to stop, which was not at all what we were saying. Some others reported that our agencies had “come to an agreement with Wikipedia,” which of course isn’t even possible, since Wikipedia is a volunteer community without a clear leadership structure. So I’d say the coverage both was helpful in getting more of a conversation started and more awareness that there are many in our profession who do care about ethical engagement online and in identifying some of the continued misperceptions and needs for education that we have to continue focusing on.
Have you seen similar trends with other online communities? Reddit? Quora?
Sam: Phil Gomes likes to say Wikipedia is important because the issues you face in trying to understand this community would help you in dealing with any online community. The same core principles of transparency would apply to platforms like Reddit and Quora. Although, of course, the particulars look different. It’s, of course, hard to know if someone isn’t being transparent unless they are caught. But, we see these issues popping up in everything from product reviews to “buying followers.” It’s hard to address these issues if we’re not talking about it and not, as an industry, ready to address areas where there are dubious practices occurring or a lack of education.
You say: “There’s no magic shortcut to the hard work of listening, empathy, and–ultimately–of seeing yourself as advocating to your organization on the community’s behalf as heavily as you advocate to the community on your organization’s behalf.”
In an agency environment, where things are fast-paced, deliverable-focused, and an emphasis is often placed on scalable tactics — Obviously, these two pieces of advice seem somewhat mutually exclusive. Do you recommend that agencies should be more invested in developing their relationships within these communities? Do you recommend agencies should have dedicated roles to building community relationships in certain niches?
Sam: It’s a great question, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. A good portion of this has to do with changing the way we do things as agencies. If we don’t have time for thinking about the publics we’re trying to reach in communication fields, then we appear to have gotten something very wrong in the way we’ve built this profession. And this happens to all of us. The issue of not being able to think or talk about ethics much is part of a more systemic issue of not really being able to think bigger-picture.It’s hard to think about culture in the 20 minutes between one meeting and the next and amidst all the deadlines and deliverables you are working on, whether you are in-house with an organization or working for an agency. It seems to me that agencies need to focus on being hired to be advocates for the audiences an organization is trying to reach, rather than a representative of that organization, if we’re ever going to get to a situation where we put this kind of priority and emphasis on thinking about what truly matters to the audience. But changing the core logic of an industry is extremely difficult, so we all find ourselves instead trying to make a case for it while hacking away, little example by little example.
Business thinkers like Carol Sanford
argue that being responsible to the customer should be the top focus of an organization, and having that focus is the single greatest way to ensure the long-term reputation of an organization. Thinkers like Grant McCracken
advocate that companies have to spend a significant portion of their time listening to and thinking about the patterns happening in culture and in the lives of the people they are trying to reach in order to stay relevant and ahead of the curve. Corporate leaders like Lara Lee
at Lowe’s are in the process of trying to enact organizational ways of thinking that put people in the shoes of the audiences they seek to reach. Marketing practitioners like Jason Falls
have said that we have to be able to look at our communications from the audience’s view and ask whether it would make them say, “Holy smokes.” (If not, why else do it.)
At Peppercomm, we advocate for an approach called “audience experience,” which encourages our clients to constantly challenge themselves to see their organization from their audience’s eyes. If we don’t have that ability to empathize and listen…how do we ever think we can not just tactically enact marketing and communications campaigns but rather serve audiences with the texts we create and perhaps even bring important business intelligence back into the organization?
“This Wikipedia example is about a lot more than Wikipedia in particular. I’d argue it’s about a marketing and communications industry that lost its way, or—arguably—never completely had it to begin with.”
I’m working on a piece looking at these issues right now for a book on Controversies in Digital Ethics, edited by Amber Davisson and Paul Booth for Bloomsbury Press. Perhaps the best thing we can do is be sure that the places we gather—industry trade publications, Twitter, the blogosphere, conferences—are at least places to elevate the importance of these ways of thinking. Long story short (too late!): This Wikipedia example is about a lot more than Wikipedia in particular. I’d argue it’s about a marketing and communications industry that lost its way, or—arguably—never completely had it to begin with.
Sam and Peppercomm’s position on Wikipedia and the marketing field certainly begs the question of how responsible marketing can still create user value in an open-source environment. It’s important to realize that this is by no means a call to marketers to cease using Wikipedia in its entirety, but a moment to pause, reflect, and refocus on your greater objectives.
Our conversation brought to light several things, but some actionable insights I felt worth including are below:
Never let the allure of a link, a mention, or positive press cloud your judgement when it comes to abiding by community guidelines.
As mentioned throughout the piece, Sam, Peppercomm, and the rest of their cosigners don’t recommend abstaining from Wikipedia, but merely opening a dialog about how to ensure our actions our in line with the community guidelines. Communities like Wikipedia, Quora, Reddit, and others are valuable to the Internet, and have their own inherent value to marketers. Be sure to respect the community if you want the community and its readers to respect you in turn.
Wikipedia still has great application for SEOs and Digital Marketers.
Wikipedia can still be an incredibly valuable source for digital marketers. From discovering opportunities to create pages and citations, to merely interacting with people who consider themselves an authority on the topic, there are a plethora of ways Wikipedia can still benefit your digital marketing strategy. Consider improving the community by using a better resource to reclaim a citation that’s needed or a broken or dead link, rather than merely editing or creating pages for the sake of creating pages.
Digital Marketers and PR departments have a long way to go.
The relegation of digital and online marketing strategies to just the digital arena is fast becoming blurred, as more and more components of online PR, SEO, and marketing are now grouped into a company’s greater marketing team. As our role continues to evolve, so too must our tactics.
Guide your engagement with Wikipedia by asking the question: “How will this provide value to the user?” As digital marketers, not only do guiding questions like this bring a smile to Wiki moderators worldwide, but they also shape actionable, shareable, valuable content that is far more effective.