How PR Can Forge Peaceful Coexistence With Wikipedia

There is tension between PR pros and Wikipedia, and you can cut it with a knife. On Jan. 4, 2012, Phil Gomes, SVP at Edelman Digital, wrote in his blog (blog.philgomes.com) an open letter to Jimmy Wales, co-founder and overseer of Wikipedia. Gomes states that Wikipedia’s relationship with PR pros is teetering: “I’m not sure the public is properly served by this state of affairs. Contrary to popular imagination, most corporate communications practitioners want to do the right thing.”

The problem is that Wales just doesn’t believe that PR agencies can do the right thing when it comes to creating and editing articles in Wikipedia. He said so in a comment to Gomes’ post on Jan. 9: “Best practice is very simple and no one in the PR industry has ever put forward a cogent argument (and seldom bother putting forward an argument at all) why it is important that they take the potentially (especially if I have anything to do with it) reputation damaging step of directly editing entries where they are acting as paid advocates. The simple and obvious answer is to do what works, without risking the reputation of the client: talk to the community, respect their autonomy, and never, ever directly edit an article.”

Yet PR professionals—agency or corporate—aren’t banned from Wikipedia; they are dissuaded from directly editing articles. This can be problematic if you’re a PR practitioner whose job it is to keep your organization’s content accurate and up to date. That is why it’s a good idea to know what Wikipedia is and isn’t, says Dan Gould, manager of digital PR at Sourcefire, a security software company. “Wikipedia is the most trusted, default online encyclopedia,” says Gould. In addition, it’s usually the first thing that comes up in a Google search.

PR pros who dabble in Wikipedia might be familiar with the conflict of interest note.

What Wikipedia isn’t, continues Gould, is a soapbox. “Wikipedia uses that word a lot,” says Gould. The site prohibits advocacy, propaganda and recruiting. It’s not a marketing tool, not a social network and they don’t publish original content. “Wikipedia is committed to preserving its reputation, and it actively monitors your posts, so if something is found that’s not kosher you’ll get a note or they will pull the content down,” he says.

And it isn’t Wales himself doing the pulling. It’s the large community of Wikipedians that patrol the site (the current number is 16.2 million. Source: Wikipedia). So how should you tread on Wikipedia? Lightly, but you can still tread, says Gould. Wikipedia allows objective information that’s neutral in the description of the topic. And it’s best to provide a third-party reference for most entries. “So if you’re updating financials on your site, link to a straightforward article from a reputable news source that validates your numbers,” says Gould.

TALK IT OUT

The trouble begins when a PR pro goes in and starts making wholesale changes to a company description. Marcus Messner, an assistant professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, says that kind of editing draws red flags. “Minor changes are OK, but if you start editing whole paragraphs, you must have a discussion on the Talk page of your article first,” says Messner (each entry has a “Talk” tab at the top of the page).

The Talk page is where you should take advantage of your communications mojo, says Gould. “Get to know Wikipedia editors, and find out what they are really looking for,” he says. On the flip side, it’s good to look at Talk pages of other organizations, to examine how editors treat their posts.

PR pros often hesitate to get involved with the inner workings of Wikipedia, and there are valid reasons for this hesitation. David King, founder of the consultancy Wikipedia Ethics, finds it ironic that there is so much information and tips on using Twitter and Facebook, yet Wikipedia requires expertise that is a barrier to entry for many. Perhaps it’s the bevy of rules and guidelines that are offered up on numerous Wikipedia pages. Perhaps it’s also because of the rule that says: “If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.”

USE THE COI

One area that PR pros who do interact with Wikipedia should know about is the conflict of interest guidelines (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Conflict_of_interest). “There are lots of rules here, and exceptions to those rules,” says King. “They change over time through community consensus.” (See the screen grab for more.)

It’s one thing to go overboard on the PR-speak on your own Wiki; it’s another if someone else goes into your page and adds something scurrilous. Tip: If that happens, says King, go into the COI Notice Board, say there’s a case of bias and ask for a neutral editor to intervene.

This is one reason why Sourcefire’s Gould visits his company’s page every couple of weeks, making sure copy stays accurate and unbiased. “Look for passages that might be problematic, and look at your sources,” says Gould. Also do a Wikipedia-wide search for your brand to see if other pages are mentioning you.

Here are Messner’s key Wikipedia takeaways for PR:

Monitor First: While PR pros focus on Facebook and Twitter, Wikipedia gets short shrift. Double-check sources.

Be a Minimalist Editor: Avoid editing large amounts of content. Arguments can be made around your facts, so keep your posts short and back them up.

Be Transparent: Pretending to be someone else on Wikipedia can only cause headaches.

Just remember, despite the debate about whether PR should be involved with Wikipedia, PR pros are not banned from the site. Just familiarize yourself with the rules, and—as it says on Wikipedia itself—if there isn’t a rule to follow, use some common sense. PRN

[Dan Gould will be a presenter at PR News’ Digital PR Conference on Feb. 16 in San Francisco.]

CONTACT:

Dan Gould, dgould@sourcefire.com; Marcus Messner, mmessner@vcu.edu; David King, dking@wikipediaethics.com.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01