This post was first published by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.
Whether you’re reading WOMMA’s Social Media Disclosure Guide, the newly updated .com disclosures guide from the Federal Trade Commission or the FTC’s application of advertising and marketing guidelines to crowd-sourced websites, the message is clear: Readers must know when the source of their information is someone with a material connection to the subject.
But many reputable and honorable companies haven’t thought about how this applies to Wikipedia or constructed policies to ensure compliance like they have for Twitter, Facebook, and other sites. Wikipedia has become a dark-spot in otherwise ethical marketing programs, leading to frequent media humiliation, contentious relationships with Wikipedia, and even lawsuits.
A precedence-setting court ruling in Germany found that editing Wikipedia to promote your company may be an illegal and covert form of advertising, since readers presume the content comes from crowd-sourced, disinterested editors, and not those with a financial connection to the subject. They ruled that even though the company disclosed their financial connection on the Talk page of the Wikipedia article, the disclosure wasn’t prominent enough to expect Wikipedia’s readers to know the source of the communication.
Here are three principles every company should should adopt to ensure compliance with the site's guidelines, with astroturfing laws and to avoid controversy:
- All of Wikipedia’s content should represent the editorial judgment of volunteers that serve the reader’s best interest.
- Corporate communications on Wikipedia should provide value to the editorial community and its readers.
- Marketers should avoid being an advocate.
Represent the Judgment of Volunteers
The simplest way to ensure that Wikipedia’s content “represents the judgment” of crowdsourced volunteers is to follow the BrightLine concept introduced by Jimmy Wales, which suggests we avoid editing the article entirely. Instead, marketers should request corrections, offer content for consideration, and discuss controversies with the site’s editors like you would for any independent website.
Some common sense is needed. Correcting citation errors, grammar, and spacing is acceptable as a matter of common sense. In some cases, Wikipedia’s editors will insist the marketing person make an edit as a manner of taking credit for their work. While your authorship is not disclosed to the reader, Ethical Wiki believes this is compliant with the spirit of the FTC’s guidelines, so long as the site’s editors explicitly ask you to make the change.
Wikipedia being openly editable often creates a sense of entitlement to contribute and even control the page. Some in the public relations community have argued that PR professionals are just “another member of the crowd” and are thus entitled to contribute “just like any other volunteer.” This is vastly out-of-sync with the Federal Trade Commission’s point-of-view - that those with a financial connection must act differently than crowd-sourced participants.
Marketing participants don’t necessarily need to write content or even be neutral to be valuable to Wikipedia. Some of Wikipedia’s best articles on companies were written by me on a volunteer-basis with the help of public relations professionals that offered corrections, answered questions, donated images, and provided access to hard-to-get source materials. Just like we strive to deliver results for our client or employer by bringing value to influencers, the same is true on Wikipedia.
While there is nothing illegal or unethical about advocacy in the general sense, Wikipedia discourages it. Some marketing professionals may engage in advocacy unintentionally, because they have strong views about the subject. In other cases, it’s valuable to provide the company’s point-of-view under the knowledge that it will be balanced by other viewpoints. You may give the appearance of advocating, even if you do not intend to, so this principle requires good judgment.
It is often due to the appearance of advocacy, micro-managing, "hovering," and other tactics that create contentious relationships on Wikipedia and expose the organization to the risk of controversy.