Wikimedia Foundation strategy consultant Williamsworks also brings background in crisis reputation management

6 February 2017
By Pete Forsyth and Tony1

On January 11, the consulting firm Williamsworks was announced as part of the core team that will run the Wikimedia Foundation’s US$2.5 million strategic planning process. Williamsworks was founded in 2003 by Whitney Williams, a member of a prominent political family in the U.S. state of Montana. While the firm’s international and philanthropic experience clearly align with the WMF’s criteria for the role, it is also known for previously advising at least one organization with an ongoing leadership and public relations crisis — a skillset that may prove valuable to the WMF.

Nicholas Dirks, the outgoing chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, was a prior client of Williamsworks.

The firm — whose website advertises expertise in “public policy, politics, philanthropy, communications and global development” — was noted in August 2016 for having crafted an ambitious public relations plan for the University of California, Berkeley, one of the world’s elite universities. UC Berkeley’s chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, announced his resignation that month following sustained criticism over financial matters and over his reponse to a string of sexual misconduct cases. One widely reported example was the university’s construction of a $700,000 fence around Dirks’ residence, as well as an “emergency exit” — reported as a manifestation of mutual mistrust between university leadership and its students and community. Williamsworks crafted a plan to “improve the Chancellor’s strategic profile nationally and internationally”, and aimed to secure speaking engagements at prominent venues like TED Talks and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Like UC Berkeley, the WMF had substantial difficulties in 2016, and has since sought to rebuild trust in its community, in part through its promotion of former WMF communications director Katherine Maher to the post of executive director. Introducing his March 2016 Signpost interview with Maher, reporter Tony1 observed: “Getting people to trust each other and work together appears to be a hallmark of her style.” Subsequent Signpost interviews with several Wikimedia volunteers echoed the theme of trust.

Whether or not Williamsworks pursues top-tier speaking engagements for WMF leadership, it does appear to bring experience in one critical area beyond those explicitly identified in the WMF’s published criteria, which centered more on the international Wikimedia movement than the organization.

Williamsworks was one of several small organizations considered for the role by the WMF, starting in late 2016. Lisa Seitz-Gruwell, the WMF’s chief advancement officer, responded to a Signpost inquiry, confirming it was she who initially proposed the firm, along with several others, for consideration. Gruwell, who shares roots in Montana politics with Williams, said “Whitney is in my professional network”, but added that they have no family relationship, nor has she worked for Williamsworks.

Maher published her fifth update on the strategic planning process on February 2. In addition to Williamsworks personnel, the core strategy team will include Suzie Nussel, an executive marketing consultant initially retained by former WMF executive Lila Tretikov in her previous strategic planning effort, and Guillaume Paumier, a Wikimedian since 2005 and WMF staff member since 2009. The update also describes the core team’s initial plan for engaging Wikimedia community members.

The WMF has advertised for 17 language specialist strategy coordinators who are bilingual in English and at least one of a list of other languages. Interim chief of community engagement Maggie Dennis announced that these Wikimedians will be expected to:

  • conduct deep outreach to the specified non-English communities;
  • liaise between these communities and others to maximize participation of their communities in the movement strategy process;
  • monitor and summarise discussions about strategy topics; and
  • produce a summary report at the end of their contract.

Three further positions are available for Meta Wiki strategy coordinators, who will work alongside the language specialist coordinators and others to facilitate the Foundation’s inclusive strategy processes. Successful applicants will take up a three-month contract for up to 20 hours per week, beginning in early March 2017.

In this issue: 6 February 2017
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Originally published at on February 6, 2017.