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July 14, 2010
Crisis Collaboration at Wikipedia
You can't turn an organization over to its employees, but you can benefit from their talents and insights via collaboration. This is a potential of social media -- its use in internal/external relations -- that likely hasn't yet been much explored. (If we're wrong on that, please comment! What, indeed, is "social media" called when it's used on an internal employee network? What software is recommended?)

An example of the possibilities, this one in crisis collaboration, comes from Wikipedia, the open source encyclopedia and Web milestone of collaboration. Sandra Ordonez was Wikipedia's communications manager during a crisis there and reports in a Mediashift post on the help she got from the Web-dispersed "crowd" of Wikipedians.

When Ordonez arrived at Wikipedia's headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla., a little over three years ago, she was one of only four employees in "a thrifty 'rent-by-the-month' office building – an administrative assistant, a fundraiser/hardcore Wikipedian, and a CFO." In short order, a PR crisis hit: A Wikipedian operating under the screen name Essjay was revealed as having lied to a writer for The New Yorker about his academic credentials. (He had none.)

"Not surprisingly," Ordonez writes, "the years of crisis communication training I received was (stet) useless in the context I found myself in. For a brief moment, I honestly thought that my career as a PR specialist had come to an end."

Then Wikipedia's volunteers took charge.

"They created a Wikipedia entry that documented the event in gruesome detail. It was honest, direct and, amazingly, had no PR spin."

Even though some critics were arguing that the incident ruined Wikipedia's reputation, it has since "grown both in content and in language versions." Its reputation for crowdsourced accuracy has been unscathed.

Ordonez leaves us with some learning insights on the Wikipedia incident, on which she elaborates a bit:

• Trust the Crowd; Its Smarter than You

• Diversity and Creativity Are Intrinsically Connected

• Collaboration is Messy

• Be Open to Receiving and Giving Criticism

Now, Wikipedia is a rarefied (though not small) group of collaboration devotees, but the rallying-around-the-flag response that the Wikipedians demonstrated in The New Yorker crisis indicates the energy available from collaboration at a time of stress. Imagine what might be contributed even when things are going well, and you want them to stay that way! 

(Photo from Wikipedia's 2007 annual conference that Ordonez helped organize.) 




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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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