I think we all know that public relations has a rocky relationship with Wikipedia. Although I followed the CREWE (Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement on Facebook) discussions with interest, rather than getting involved in policy, I decided to stick with what I know best: public relations history. All you have to do is look at Wikipedia's brief description of history in the "public relations" entry to know that PR is inadequately described on the site.
I had the good fortune of being assigned to teach an honors section of the introductory public relations course this semester. With just 15 exceptionally bright and mostly hard working students, the class is perfectly set up for entry-level research and writing assignments. So, I had them work in pairs to conduct primary and secondary research on various pioneers in public relations history. They were asked to present this research to the class, and then to create or improve the Wikipedia biographical entry on their individuals.
If I'd imagined writing this blog post at the time I made the assignment, I would've pictured a series of links to the new and improved Wikipedia articles. (In fact, the existing entries on George Creel, Earl Newsom, and Whitaker & Baxter have been improved.) Instead, I present a list of the articles rejected by Wikipedians on the grounds that these individuals do not merit having an individual entry:
- Doris Fleischman -- she is mentioned twice, once for getting married and once for coauthoring a book, in the Bernays entry
- John W. Hill -- founder of the PR agency that was largest in the world for 30+ years. The history section in the PR article shows that his page was deleted before we even started this project. The students couldn't get past the gatekeeper with a finger on the speedy deletion button.
- Jane Stewart -- Wikipedia said that a peer reviewed Public Relations Review article on her was not a credible source... written by yours truly
I'm sure that the students could've done more to sell the importance of Fleischman, Hill and Stewart, but they tried multiple times to submit articles with verifiable references and clear descriptions of each person's contributions to the field, and in the cases of Fleischman and Stewart, to working women. In addition, attempts to edit the Arthur Page entry were apparently rejected, despite the fact that the entry is completely insufficient in my opinion as a historian.
When I ponder the garbage that does appear on Wikipedia, I can't help but think that these entries were rejected more because they're about public relations than because of the merits of the individuals' careers or my students' writing.
On the bright side, 15 undergraduates now clearly understand the limits of Wikipedia as a source of information.