Subscribe

Ask a question

Follow me

The Wikipedia Marketing Blog

Current Articles | RSS Feed RSS Feed

Q&A on Public Relations and Wikipedia


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.

Creating a Wikipedia article about your employer or client


Find more informationon this topic in our ebookIf a person or company wants to create a new Wikipedia article about themselves, they should do so through the site's Articles for Creation  tool. Here, marketers can disclose their affiliation with the company or individual and offer a draft article for consideration by the site's editors. If the content is neutral, properly cited to independent sources and the topic meets Wikipedia's requirements for an article, a Wikipedian will approve it.

There are a few things you should consider before preparing a submission.


Can I edit my company's Wikipedia page?


JanitorAn 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.







German court finds direct Wiki-editing unlawful


describe the image

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.

Open letter PR professionals: Reassess our role on Wikipedia


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.

Some perspective

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.

Unnecessary hostility

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 reportfrom 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 Guidelinespecifically 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 weare the ones that need to change, there are several more productive things we can do.
  1. If the COI guideline is confusing, lets work with the community to improve it.
  2. If not enough PR professionals know the rules, lets educate them.
  3. If there is a weak relationship between the Wikipedia community and PR, lets improve it through our actions.
  4. If the rules are confusing, maybe there is an essay we can improve or create to help.
Image source: Shutterstock.com old letter and ink

Wikipedia blocks 10 users from PR firm bell pottinger


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 faithand 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 lengthsto 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

The Punishment?

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.

Lessons Learned

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.
All Posts