This Q&A with Ethical Wiki's David King was originally published on Wikipedia's community news site, The SignPost
and has been translated into German here
Editing Wikipedia anonymously as a PR rep may be illegal?
The Federal Trade Commission requires that those with a financial connection to a company provide clear and obvious disclosures regarding their affiliation. If readers presume Wikipedia's content is written by independent, crowd-sourced participants, but it is actually a corporate communication or promotion, this may be an illegal form of covert advertising that is misleading to readers. The FTC's .com disclosures guide and the findings of a German court case seem to uphold similar principles. It's hard to say how the law would be interpreted in different circumstances, but companies should proceed with caution.
Do I support the Bright Line rule that PR reps not directly edit articles?
Any organization that is acting in good-faith, should respect Wikipedia's autonomy and take the extra step of making sure their proposed changes are supported by the community. It would be irresponsible for the community to encourage public relations professionals to take a risky course of action that is an ethical and legal minefield, such as directly editing the article. Exceptions like grammar, spelling and genuinely neutral editing fall under our common sense principles, but should not be communicated explicitly. They are likely to be taken advantage of by bad-faith participants or weaken a professional's ability to push back against corporate pressures to make COI edits.
Does the Bright Line work?
Not very well, but it's not as if direct editing by PR reps has better results for Wikipedia. Editors complain that it is difficult to assess whether a PR rep's contributions are neutral and PR contributors complain that it's difficult to get anything done without bold editing.
We can fix the community's complaint by quickly dismissing requests to micro-manage the exact language of the article. Even if the PR rep is correct, these are generally unhelpful and the community has better things to spend our time on. We can address the complaints of PR pros by creating a consistent wizard-based process for routine requests that can be handled by a single editor.
Are PR editors mistreated here?
Sometimes it can look like mistreatment from the PR rep's perspective, because we are frustrated not to get our way or feel passionately about what a correct article looks like. In other cases, the harassment is genuine, but this is also a problem volunteer editors experience.
The community does not accurately assign good-faith or bad-faith to COI editors, because we do not have access to enough information on-Wiki to evaluate an editor's intentions. Some would claim that we should therefor always assume good-faith, but this is not a good use of the community's resources, especially in the most obvious cases of bad-faith. The easiest way to handle this is to provide straightforward instructions on the proper way to participate with a COI and distinguish between those that follow instructions and those that do not.
Can paid editors be neutral?
The Wikipedia community accepts mediocre contributions from everyone. Public relations professionals do not need to be top-grade editors to be welcomed here, nor do we even need to be any more neutral than the average editor.
The only thing an organization needs to do to avoid hostility, risk and controversy is prove that they are not an advocate. If they are not an advocate, any bias is accidental and inconsequential and if they are, advocacy is broadly prohibited.
Not an advocate?
The normal role of a public relations professional is to communicate the company's point-of-view, but Wikipedia's expectation is that the organization attempts to be neutral about itself, including adding perspectives the employer or client doesn't agree with. The extent of which an organization and its PR rep are able to bridge this gap between their de-facto role and Wikipedia's expectations scales with the amount of acceptance they can expect on Wikipedia.
Organizations that are unable to meet Wikipedia's expectations about their role accept additional risk and other problems, because advocacy is broadly prohibited, regardless of what rules are followed, how policy-compliant the content is, or how polite they are. Strategic public relations professionals will advise clients to avoid advocacy, because this will have the best outcome for them long-term. It is even a viable strategy to over-compensate for a conflict of interest intentionally, so editors can trim-down the contentious content rather than speculate over what's missing, or whether there is cherry-picking and slanting.
What about the bad guys?
Every spammy, promotional article that slips through the cracks has three competitors looking at it and thinking "why can't we have an article like that?"
One approach is fighting against promotion on-wiki, but it's an uphill battle. The other strategy that is needed is preventing bad-faith COI edits from occurring in the first place. This can be done by educating the PR community, providing straightforward advice and by making an example out of the bad guys.
It's crazy that blatant Wikipedia astroturfing firms are operating in broad daylight like it's a legitimate business that doesn't need to hide in the shadows. I would like to see the Federal Trade Commission establish some precedence that blatantly astroturfing Wikipedia is illegal and unethical.
In a perfect world, experienced, thoughtful volunteers would bring every article up to Featured status. But in practice we have lots of articles that need to be created, are owned by POV pushers, or are just terrible in general and the PR rep is the most motivated to improve it. There are many cases where, though I may have a bias, I can be much more neutral than volunteers have been on that particular page.
I don't know at what frequency we can realistically expect organizations to take-on the unusual role Wikipedia expects of them. I turn down more than half of the business inquiries I get, because the prospect just wants something too different than Wikipedia for us to deliver the expected outcome within the scope of our ethics policy. It would help if Wikipedia was more clear about communicating its expectations.
It's contradicting that some in the PR community take it for granted that their role on Wikipedia is the traditional one of communicating the client's point-of-view, but also see no reason for controversy when acting as "just another editor." Each circumstance is different. A lot comes down to whether the community trusts a specific company and/or individual and whether that organization is able to exhibit trust-building behaviors.
If Wikipedia doesn't have an article about your company yet, you may want to consider creating one. This can be done ethically by going to Wikipedia's Articles for Creation
page and following the wizard-based process. Add a comment at the top of the proposed article saying that you are affiliated with the company and wait for one of Wikipedia's editors to accept or reject the proposed contributed article.
There are a few things you should consider before submitting an article for consideration:
Learn Wikipedia first
While editing Wikipedia is easy, learning how to do so well takes time. The writing style is unique. Beyond the well-known rules like citing independent sources and writing neutrally, there are commonly accepted norms for what gets included and what doesn't, especially around executives, awards, and product reviews. Often time and resources are squandered making repeatedly declined submissions without investing the proper amount of time to learn how to make a quality submission that will be accepted the first time around. Consider making the up-front investment to make sure you have a quality submission.
Are you notable?
Wikipedia's guidelines require that there be at least two significant profile stories on the company in independent sources for it to qualify for an article. In practice, the requirements are higher, more complex and nuanced. Wikipedians do look at factors like the age and size of the company and whether they are a market-share leader in the respective field. The main question is whether there is enough information in independent, credible sources to create a subsantial body of work on Wikipdia on their basis.
What does a neutral article look like?
If there is a lot of controversial or negative information about the company published in credible, third-party sources, creating an article is going to attract other editors who will add this content. It is prudent to operate under the assumption that it will get added eventually. Some companies will decide to get in front of it by creating an article anyway, with all the negative information included, as oppose to waiting for it to appear. This way you can work with editors up-front to make sure it is compliant with Wikipedia's standards of neutrality, rather than wait for angry consumers or brand antagonists to add the content for you.
Will you keep an eye on it?
After the article is created, it may become quickly outdated, subject to trolling, riddled with factual errors or tagged with problems. Keep in mind the article isn't stagnant and will change over time. If you don't keep an eye on it and engage the site's editors on an ongoing basis, you may regret it later on when the quality of the page deteriorats.
Make sure to follow social media disclosure laws by disclosing your financial connection to the company and offering content to the site's editors.
An honest, straightforward question: Can I edit my company's Wikipedia page? As of writing this, Wikipedia's conflict of interest guideline
mentions the Talk page 25 times, and specifically tells public relations, social media, SEO, marketing and other professionals not to edit the page. However, to make matters confusing, there's debate within Wikipedia's editorial community on whether editors like PR professionals should be able to edit the page and a plethora of blogs on the Web providing tips and best practices
that seem to suggest it's ok to edit away. Some of them don't even mention legal and ethical requirements
to disclose your affiliation with the company and engage the site's editors.
Jimmy Wales advocates for "the bright line
," a single simple rule that marketing professionals never directly edit articles they have a conflict of interest with; a rule enforced through media humiliation for those that violate it. This has been re-inforced by best practices established by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations
and a common sense application of social media disclosure laws
. Marketing editors that edit Wikipedia pages are routinely humiliated in the media, blocked and ridiculed on Wikipedia, create contentious relationships with the site's editors and in some cases have even found themselves in legal trouble.
In general the ethical approach to Wikipedia is to leave important editorial decisions up to the site's editors, who serve the reader's best interest. Use common sense when it comes to fixing grammer, cleaning up citation errors and edits that have been clearly approved by the site's editors. When in doubt, defer to the community.
Gall Pharma, a German nutritional supplements company, was fined €250,000 by the Munich High Regional Court for edits made to Wikipedia, according to the German Wikipedia's newsletter. The company's edits highlighted that their incense products were available in German pharmacies and elaborated on why their competitor's products were not, a contested claim that could influence buying decisons.
The German court found that:
- The company's disclosure on the Wikipedia article's Talk page did not suffice, because readers can't be expected to see it
- Readers have an expectation that Wikipedia is written by objective and neutral editors
- Wikipedia is a form of advertising and content on the site may constitute an "endorsement" of a product
- These edits constituted a form of covert advertising
The ruling may set a precedence on how the European Unfair Practices Directive is interpreted regarding the legality of Wikipedia astroturfing and it will be interesting to see if the US-based Federal Trade Commission has a similar interpretation of its own Endorsement Guides, which require marketing professionals to disclose their affiliation in online communications:
"When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed."
Many Fortune 500 companies have - perhaps without considering the legal and ethical ramifications - written glowing product reviews on Wikipedia that are not far afield from Gall Pharma's editing. Additionally, huge swaths of Wikipedia's English articles on companies are written by the company's representatives anonymously. Are all these edits unlawful?
What it means for marketing
The news reinforces what EthicalWiki's position has been all along, that directly editing Wikipedia is - at the very least - ethically and legally ambiguous. Many PR professionals have been advocating against Jimmy Wales' "Bright Line" rule that public relations pros not directly edit Wikipedia. It turns out it may not just be his rule, it may also be the law.
That being said, like many of Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, the FTC's regulations have language that encourages common sense. I don't forecast companies will get fined for correcting grammar, removing vandalism or offering content for consideration. Rather the ruling re-affirms that Wikipedia is an atonomous site; that PR professionals are not correct to portray ourselves as just another member of the public editing; and that there are some disclaimers in Wikipedia being the site "that anyone can edit."
Marketing is not without recourse for improving our Wikipedia articles. According to Jimmy Wales, "using the talk pages, wikiprojects, notifying other editors on notice boards, coming to my talk page, emailing OTRS - these are all valid options that work successfully. Editing directly is extremely likely to prove embarrassing for your client."
Any contribution to Wikipedia of any size that is genuinely valuable to the site can be made in a format that leaves content decisions in the hands of impartial editors where they belong. EthicalWiki has overhauled controversies, re-written articles and made 5,000+ word contributions without ever touching the page.
The take-home message? Stop editing Wikipedia and start doing quality public relations and content marketing with the site's editors.
This post was first shared on SocialFresh.
It is with the utmost civility
and an assumption that both parties are making a good faith
effort to serve the public good that I'm writing this open letter asking the Institute of Public Relations and the PRSA to reconsider their position on the role of public relations professionals on Wikipedia. Both organizations have advocated against the "bright line
," an informal best practice for PR professionals not to directly edit articles on Wikipedia on behalf of their employer or clients. The concept is a favorite of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
Wikipedia is an autonomous news and information source, not unlike The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. The difference being that it is run by citizen journalists, its content needs are based on a set of rules and it uses different models of communication. To provide some perspective, lets consider if we had the same lobbying platform against another form of independent media, like The New York Times:
- Imagine asking the New York Times to allow PR people to directly edit company profile stories
- Picture lobbying against the media, because they are not responsive enough to your voicemails (the Talk page)
- What if you were complaining to the media that it is too difficult to figure out how to meet their content needs?
We have made a science out of determining and fulfilling the content needs of the media, influencers and social media audiences. Why are we asking Wikipedia to make changes to our benefit, when the model has almost always been the other way? Wikipedia isn't that different from traditional PR. We can write contributed articles, make factual corrections, provide perspective on controversial issues and pitch them to impartial editors
For one PRSA event
, the following abstract was provided:
"With his grave misunderstanding of our profession, he [Jimbo] has decided that PR people are biased and thus are not allowed to create or edit Wikipedia pages for our organizations or clients – even simple corrections of errors like the misspelling of the CEO’s name. So we are left with a confusing, cumbersome process to do our job when it involves Wikipedia."
A recent report
from the Institute of Public Relations is focused on "the problems with Wikipedia's editing rule for public relations." In advocating against Wikipedia's rules, we have actually validated their need. Content from both sources verify that it is difficult for us to remain neutral, as neither represent "all majority and minority viewpoints" nor are they written in encyclopedic tone. Additionally, the one-sided media articles secured by the PR industry's efforts actually show our ability to corrupt the neutrality of trusted sources, merely through well thought-out, but one-sided, arguments. In these media stories, none of the volunteer editors at Wikipedia were given a voice to share the other side. Through the availability of resources, a bias has been created to rationalize a very extreme point of view on a complex subject.
Issues of fact
There has been substantial circulation of factual errors resulting from the inherit bias a frustrated PR industry has on the issues. For example, the "bright line" is a best practice that merely exists as a concept and essay that many editors support. There is no "rule" to change and no authority at Wikipedia who could ever change it. There is no possible outcome to advocating against the very existence of an idea. This is portrayed as "changing a rule," but what we're talking about is eradicating an idea. This is like taking an axe to split vapor. It has been repeatedly stated that PR professionals aren't allowed to make simple spelling or grammar changes, however the COI Guideline
specifically allows direct editing in these circumstances. These efforts are seen as so aggressive and hostile, there is actually - apparently - a rumor on Wikipedia that PR professionals will show up in mass at the Wikimania conference to astroturf the perspective given on paid editing. Many of these efforts presented in the public sphere is extremely offensive to a volunteer community that pours their free time into a community they cherish, love and believe in with an unparalleled sense of mission. If these efforts were ever intended to support meaningful change at Wikipedia, it is very likely it will have the opposite effect, creating even more hostility against us by presenting a spotlight example of the reason they don't want this kind of advocacy to reach Wikipedia.
A better solution
We need to collaborate with the community on their
terms, based on their
content needs, by communicating in the ways they
prefer, just as we always have with the media. After all, it is their
turf. I am just one person. I can't compete with the PR engine at work. However, if I have instilled any doubt in your mind on your current position. If you're hesitating right now thinking, maybe we should be humbler, learn more, ask more. Maybe we
are the ones that need to change, there are several more productive things we can do.
Image source: Shutterstock.com old letter and ink
- If the COI guideline is confusing, lets work with the community to improve it.
- If not enough PR professionals know the rules, lets educate them.
- If there is a weak relationship between the Wikipedia community and PR, lets improve it through our actions.
- If the rules are confusing, maybe there is an essay we can improve or create to help.
This post was first shared on SocialFresh
Over the last couple days the UK media has been covering the actions of Bell Pottinger, a PR firm that was busted
by blogger Tim Ireland for editing over 100 Wikipedia entries
from an estimated 20 Wikipedia accounts spanning 1,000 edits
. The PR Firm’s defense is that they didn’t break the law
and according to Jimmy Wales own tweet stream, the firm is insisting that they have been following the rules
of Wikipedia. Tim Ireland, who uncovered the PR firm’s inappropriate actions is - by his own admission – enjoying himself at Bell Pottinger’s expense. Anytime there’s a crisis like this, especially of such gross ethical misconduct, it’s difficult to assume good faith
and most of us have exaggerated, over-simplified reactions. But I would like to presume for a minute that Bell Pottinger really didn’t know any better (just for fun). That they really had no idea what they were doing was inappropriate. Lets educate them, and our readers, right now on where their missteps were.
Didn’t Break the Law
Bell Pottinger claims the firm didn’t break the law. Last year a firm called Reverb Communications settled
a complaint filed with the FTC, because they were posing as ordinary consumers online, when they were actually paid-for advocates. I’m no lawyer, but I think Bell Pottinger‘s employees were posing as ordinary volunteer contributors in much the same way. It appears they may have even gone through great lengths
to create fake identities on Wikipedia. I wonder what the FTC would think about their claims of lawfulness.
Didn’t Break Wikipedia’s Rules
Oh my, where to start. Bell Pottinger claims not to have broken Wikipedia's rules. Wikipedia’s policies require conflict of interest editors to:
- disclose their conflict of interest, not edit from anonymous accounts with fake identities
- use one account per person, not create 20
- allow the community to edit their work, not nominate an article for editing protection right after you got it the way you like it
- maintain a hands-off policy on controversial content, not publicly boast about editing the Wikis of countries accused of human right violations
Lets dig into the edits of just one user Biggleswiki
Pages they edited have been flagged. And plenty of public humiliation. Years of poor edits are being reversed. I wonder how much their clients paid them for work that the volunteer community is now pouring time into reverting.
I don’t know what to say. Maybe I should suggest marketers use common sense. After all, Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy says to do just that. But what the Wikipedia community knows is common sense on the site often isn’t well understood outside of it. Maybe I should tell you to follow Wikipedia’s rules and policies – all 200+ of them. Will you read them? I could jump up and down waving my arms. Consider hiring someone with experience to help you contribute ethically and tell you when not to. (*uhem). Or to stick to monitoring, Talk pages and noticeboards if you’re not sure. That’s a decent option as well. Wikipedia’s been rated as the most influential website on the planet. Wikis on the site show up in the top ten of 95 percent of all searches. We can’t ignore it, especially when false information shows up routinely. But we can make ourselves a better part of it. We should be making Wikipedia a better, more informative, more complete encyclopedia, not this.