There are more than 21 million users and 33 million informational pages on Wikipedia, and a whopping two billion edits have been made since the Wikipedia Project launched in 2001.

Because use of the site is so widespread, it's not surprising that many companies are intently focused on ensuring their pages paint them in the best light possible. As a result, over the years companies and the PR firms that represent them have altered company pages in a more favorable--and not always accurate--manner. Such moves are a breach of Wikipedia's conflict-of-interest guidelines for editing, and have created tension between the industry and the Wikipedia community. 

On Tuesday, however, some of the largest agencies took a major step in resolving the conflict, publishing a statement on Wikipedia pledging to respect the site's terms of service.

Typically the only time PR agencies and Wikipedia have appeared in news headlines together has been when an agency violated the site's rules, said Bill Beutler, the founder of Beutler Ink, one of the firms that signed the agreement. This was something he sought to change.

At the end of last year, Beutler reached out to a handful of PR professionals about coming together on the issue of agencies altering company pages. Then in February, he convened a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. of representatives from the Wikipedia community, the PR industry, and academia, which led to the decision to craft the statement issued yesterday.

Eleven agencies, together accounting for more than a billion dollars in revenue, signed on to the agreement. Their statement reads in part as follows:

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.

A History of Violations

"There have been far too many examples where firms working on companies' behalf have done things that are a violation of the guidelines provided by the Wikipedia community," said Sam Ford, director of audience engagement at Peppercomm, another agency involved in the statement. 

Last October the Wikimedia Foundation (the parent company of Wikipedia) issued a statement condemning unethical editing practices after Wiki-PR, an Austin-based public relations firm, was caught using fake accounts to edit clients' pages. The statement read:

Being deceptive in your editing by using sock puppets or misrepresenting your affiliation with a company is against Wikipedia policy and is prohibited by our Terms of Use. We urge companies to conduct themselves ethically, to be transparent about what they're doing on Wikipedia, and to adhere to all site policies and practices.

The agencies that signed yesterday's resolution are seeking to set up guidelines on how to deal with future violations of Wikipedia service terms by PR representatives. Beutler said he believes that the majority of infractions in the past have been a result of ignorance, not malice.

"We want to show that there are top agencies that are learning about Wikipedia and want to get it right," he said. "I am very optimistic that educating both sides on the fact that people on the other side are not necessarily out to get them could lead to a better relationship overall in the future."