War Of The Wikis: Online Democracy Takes PR By Storm, But Is It Ready?

The wiki phenomenon has a lot to offer the communications profession, but there is a good deal of confusion and controversy in the field about whether to use wikis, and how. In upcoming issues, we'll tell you what you need to know. Wikis have developed from an embryonic stage (which began with WikiWikiWeb's birth in 1995) to infancy, and they are popping up in PR portfolios with more and more regularity. Besides their "sex appeal" - what with being one of the new kids on the communications block and all - PR execs must struggle to harness the power of yet another uncontrolled medium. But there are many potential rewards: Wikis have internal and external business benefits based on their collaborative nature; it's just a matter of knowing where to look - and how to get started. A Primer: What's A Wiki? Simply put, a wiki is an online resource that allows users to add and edit content without restriction (unless the site is password-protected). It's a mass communications tool that thrives on its democratic (some might say anarchic) nature. Besides being highly interactive, it is able to link to unlimited external pages, which makes it even more collaborative than a blog. Plus, starting one is simple, all things considered. Just choose a wiki software, and follow the yellow-brick road. First, the business case for using a wiki: At a past Blog Business Summit, Nick Finck (publisher of Digital Web Magazine), Biz Stone (formerly of Blogger at Google) and Mary Hodder (information architect and interaction designer) gave a presentation entitled "Enhancing Internal Communications." In it, they offered these internal benefits for corporate wikis. Wikis: Help manage departmental, project and company-wide knowledge that previously resided in siloed systems or on individual desktops; Increase the ratio of acquired knowledge collectively; Enable your team to work more collaboratively; Migrate static and otherwise outdated documents to being live and dynamic documents; Localize information and increase 'find-ability'; Refine the organization of information; Formalize and informalize the info-sharing process; and Encourage people to share knowledge in writing who were previously reluctant to share due to loss of context. But, with all opportunities come challenges. Many employees may be reluctant to post commentary or news that will be edited by their peers, especially when those peers may be lower on the corporate hierarchy. A recent BusinessWeek article reported on this, in which Jeff Moriarty, collaboration technical architect of Intel's info tech group, said, "Employees can be frustrated that somebody else edited their work. It's a disruptive capability - it shakes things up." So how does a communications executive deal with this reluctance? One option is to let them get their feet wet with a wiki that just tracks news and trends, instead of opening it up to general commentary. But what's the most essential best practice for a successful internal wiki? A strong corporate culture. A culture that thrives on collaboration and cooperation will take to the wiki lifestyle instantly; those that are more shut off, independent and isolationist will resist it. Externally Speaking Beyond the confines of internal wikis, there is a wealth of opportunity for companies to use wikis to collaborate with outside audiences. The aforementioned BW article cited Microsoft as an example of this, as the company started a wiki in June 2006 "for partners who wanted to help with the documentation for Visual Studio, a software development product for computer programmers." Said Molly Bostic, program manager of developer content for the international team: "It's allowing us to enter new markets where the market isn't large enough to localize documentation." Companies that are brave enough to do so can harness the power of public wikis for their own communications purposes; or, they could just feast on the information that is available to them. Take CogMap, a wiki that provides organizational charts of companies including Intel and Verizon; what's more, these org charts are all created and edited by the people who work within the organization, so they are as up-to-date and accurate as possible. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft all have charts posted, and, at press time, the updates were as recent as January 16, February 16 and March 8, 2007, respectively. And then there's the infamous Wikipedia. This online, completely editable encyclopedia, which started the whole wiki explosion, has become a resource for every industry, but it's not without its critics. For example, in 2005, SVP of Edelman's me2revolution Steve Rubel commented on his blog, MicroPersuasion: "As Wikipedia is relied upon as a credible source by the press, will [companies] begin to edit articles? What guidelines should we follow? I don't have the answers to these questions ... My initial feeling is, if you can prove the article false, challenge it. If it's true, leave it. You'll only make matters worse. Besides, inaccurate information on Wikipedia doesn't stay that way for long." This issue of corporations creating and editing public wikis with overly/inaccurately favorable material is certainly an issue to contend with, but it's really the responsibility of the communications team to exhibit complete transparency. It's also an issue of international concern. In summer 2006, the German newspaper Die Welt reported on MyWikiBiz, an agency that used to specialize in optimizing commercial presence in wiki spaces (now defunct, having been absorbed by Centiare). The key with this technology, as with blogs, is to not over-do commentary to seem unreasonable in either direction; if outside users comment, take fair criticisms to heart rather than editing over every single negative piece of information so as to appear as the "perfect" organization. How To Do It In a session at the 2007 New Communications Forum Conference held in Las Vegas on March 7-9, Giovanni Rodriguez, co-founder of communications consultancy hubbub, presented a session that offered tips on how wikis can educate and train staff, best practices for collaborating on wikis, and how to use wikis to interact with the media. Following are some of the basic steps to get your own corporate wiki going: Step 1: Choose your software. There are more than 100 software packages that enable wikis; it's just a matter of doing a little research to find which one suits your needs best. Search "comparison of wiki software," "top 10 wiki engines" or wiki comparison," and you'll be inundated with information. Step 2: Decide how you will host it. Whether you intend the blog to be internal or external, you still have to make decisions regarding its features and capabilities. Will you outsource the wiki? Will you set up your own host site? Will you put it on your company's server? Will it be able to interface with other logins? Step 3: License your wiki. Intellectual property is extremely valuable both inside and outside the organization; licensing the wiki will protect your thought leadership. Step 4: Develop guidelines. This is an extremely important stage of a wiki's development. These guidelines will specify what is permissible and what is not, both in terms of editing and viewing content. With a few extra steps, you can add security features that will increase your level of control. Step 5: Spread the word. No one will know your wiki exists if you don't tell them. Promote it through internal e-mail distribution lists and on the company's intranet. It's also wise to host a meeting - via a podcast if necessary - that explains the purpose of the wiki and offers a "walk-through" on how to use it. This barely scrapes the surface of wikis' evolution and application to the communications function, but all evidence points to the increasing benefits of adding the tool to the PR mix. Look for more in-depth coverage of wikis in upcoming PR News issues, as well as a new Digital PR Report that recently launched on prnewsonline.com. PR News Digital Guidebook will present still more useful information in the future.

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