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.
Marketing, public relations, legal and other risk management professionals are often in a tug-of-war, when it comes to establishing corporate policy on Wikipedia. Without professional consulting, the team is left interpreting Wikipedia's conflict of interest guideline or vague and sensationalized media headlines. The decision is like an old Shakespeare riddle, "to edit or not to edit." This presents companies with two extreme and equally poor decisions to either take the dangerous path of editing Wikipedia or ignoring the most influential website on the planet. There are other alternatives.
Below is the company policy/strategy selection chart from EthicalWiki's Overview of Wikipedia for Marketing. The chart helps align the best approach to Wikipedia based on corporate attributes.
Companies with a negative reputation or that struggle generally may find that improving Wikipedia would only inform the internet about their struggles and criticisms. Small businesses that do not meet Wikipedia's notability criteria should ignore it and product companies that don't invest in brand or reputation-level marketing may not prioritize Wikipedia. Other organizations that don't invest in marketing generally or those with excellent volunteer-written articles may choose to adopt a hands-off policy.
Monitoring & response
Companies that already have an article, but aren't motivated to improve it may choose a monitoring & response program. This involves watching the article for overt factual errors, vandalism and other issues. Wikipedia's policies and guidelines allow you to remove blatant vandalism, improve spelling or grammar and other edits, which it calls "non-controversial" edits.
A PR approach to Wikipedia should be the defacto default for most reputable companies and an area that only requires a basic, achievable level of understanding of Wikipedia. If you think of Wikipedia like any independent, autonomous news and information site (like The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal) none of these publications would openly invite the company to write their own corporate profile. On the other hand, Wikipedia is the only major online publisher that writes full-length feature stories on corporations without even talking to them.
As a volunteer editor I see dozens of examples where companies spent time writing content that was removed, when they could have been more helpful by sharing sources and answering questions so the article could be improved by Wikipedia's citizen journalists, who are veteran Wikipedians. In some instances editors are literally asking the company to chime in on the Talk page to answer a question, only to be answered by crickets. Doing PR on Wikipedia is about being helpful to impartial citizen journalists on Wikipedia, just as we do with the media. This means transparently introducing yourself on Talk pages, doing research and providing well-formatted citations, offering technical expertise and answering questions.
This approach is excellent for articles that are basically decent and for companies that don't want to make a large investment in Wikipedia. This is also where I would encourage PR agencies to operate.
Content marketing involves creating great, balanced, encyclopedic content Wikipedia loves and transparently offering it to the site's editors. The experience of the Wikipedia community is that companies rarely provide content that meets their needs (rather the whole problem). It takes professional consulting, an experienced Wikipedian and a lot of hard work to educate internal stakeholders on Wikipedia's definition of neutrality and create academic-quality work. An independent consultant more qualified to be impartial helps as well. This is EthicalWiki's bread and butter and the only area that lends itself to recruiting expertise.
Content marketing is a fit for companies that want to invest the time, attention and resources into Wikipedia; generally ones that invest in marketing and branding, have positive reputations, are proud of their heritage, want to clarify their corporate identity, or have derelict articles. It's the only way to address the undue weight issue of articles that are exclusively focused on controversy, create an article on a company that doesn't have one, or achieve high-quality articles on companies that don't attract interest from volunteers. Content marketing is a way for reputable companies that want to do Wikipedia properly and need vast improvements to articles unlikely to be written by the community.
Directly editing Wikipedia is against the guidelines established by the Chartered Institute of Public relations and supported by PR bodies around the globe. It's also against the best practices established by Jimmy Wales and is generally disruptive and discouraged. However, there's no denying that smaller companies and startups don't have the reputational risk of public humiliation for astrotrufing Wikipedia, or the resources to do Wikipedia properly. I strongly discourage this approach, but also must admit it exists and some companies are currently able to achieve the intended outcome with it.
Most companies today either directly edit Wikipedia in violation of ethical best practices or have a hands-off policy. Companies can find better middle-ground by not ignoring one of the most important websites on the planet, but not being disrespectful to it either.