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Working with Wikipedia

Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in the world according to web information firm Alexa; beaten only by Facebook, Google, YouTube, Yahoo and Baidu.com.

It is a crowdsourced online encyclopaedia of more than 20 million topics in 285 different languages and is frequently the start point for online research.

Critics claim that Wikipedia has become too powerful and that it operates without the recognised processes or oversight common for more traditional media.

This is the issue that puts Wikipedia in conflict with the public relations industry. Errors in traditional media can be dealt with swiftly through well-established processes. Changes or additions to a Wikipedia article require engagement with the community and, crucially, adherence to its rules.

Just as you wouldn’t expect to be given access to the production environment of a news organisation to make changes to online articles you can’t jump onto Wikipedia and expect to be able to start hacking the content.

The relationship between the public relations industry and Wikipedia is an uneasy one although there have been numerous efforts in recent time to bring the two constituencies closer together.

Herein lies the issue. The Wikipedia community did not set out to create a business directory.

“The issue I have with PR editing is that it just takes up too much time. Wikipedians didn’t turn up to help manage a business directory written by PR and advertising folk, they were attracted to Wikipedia for some far less worldly subject: philosophy, in my case, or military history or whatever it might be,” said Tom Morris, a Wikipedia editor with more than 10 years-experience.

While an individual may contribute or edit articles on Wikipedia they may not do so where you have a conflict of interest. That means that if you have a vested interest in an organisation, individual, client or product you may not edit content. The Wikipedia community claims that editors with a conflict of interest make bad Wikipedians.

“What I have found – and the evidence for this is pretty comprehensive – is that people who are acting as paid advocates do not make good editors. They insert puffery and spin. That’s what they do because that is what paid advocates do,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

The CIPR recently published guidance on working with Wikipedia (PDF) for public relations practitioners. This 18-page document, produced by the CIPR’s Social Media Panel, sets out clear and detailed advice on how public relations practitioners should engage with the Wikipedia community.

I’d urge you to download the document and read it for yourself. In the interim here’s a five-point summary of the guidance.

  1. Anyone can join the Wikipedia community and edit and contribute to content on the site. Register a personal rather than a corporate account and disclose your conflicts of interest on your user page.
  2. If you are concerned about the accuracy of a Wikipedia article but have a conflict of interest you must address this via the community. Don’t edit any page you have a conflict of interest on, except to remove vandalism.
  3. Head to the Talk page for the Wikipedia article concerned and draft your response. This works in almost all situations however if you don’t get a response then raise it on the relevant noticeboard.
  4. Escalate with kindness and don’t be an idiot. When faced with a situation where you have a choice to be an idiot or not be an idiot, choose to not be an idiot.  Following this rule will mean you will very rarely get into difficult situations.
  5. You can freely contribute articles related to your profession, hobbies and interests, where you do not have a conflict of interest. In fact Wikipedia actively encourages this and it’s a great way to get to know how Wikipedia works.

The advice that I have repeatedly received from Wikipedia editors is to join the community and contribute to its work. It’s without doubt the best way of understanding how it works.

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Stephen Waddington

European Digital & Social Media Director at Ketchum and President of the CIPR. Author of Brand Anarchy and Brand Vandals; and editor and contributor to Share This and Share This Too.