Getting ahead in the age of distraction
We all know Wikipedia is important. When your customers research a product or brand online, chances are its Wikipedia page will feature highly in the search results and is likely to influence their decision.
Whether that page is specifically about your brand or more generally about a type of product, what people read there will inform their buying behavior. So, obviously it would be great if you could somehow control the information on those pages.
First the good news; the whole point of Wikipedia is that anybody can edit the content of pages – it’s a crowd-sourced encyclopedia.
Now the bad news; it’s against Wikipedia’s policies for people with a conflict of interest to edit pages. If you represent a brand, you shouldn’t be editing that brand’s page, or any pages that are related to the brand’s areas of business.
Maybe you work in the PR department of a camera company and you’ve noticed that the Wikipedia page on digital cameras doesn’t mention the cool new technology that your company invented, so you think there can’t be any harm in adding a few facts about it. That still counts as a conflict of interest, especially since you’re unlikely to present a truly balanced view of the technology.
OK, so you realize that updating the page isn’t entirely legit, but if you do it anonymously and you’re really, really careful to write the copy so that it sounds balanced, nobody will ever know and you’ll probably get away with it, right? Wrong. It’s easy for Wikipedia to identify which organizations have edited different pages and it’s not unheard of for PR people to be named and shamed for ignoring the conflict of interest rules.
This is all starting to sound a little impossible – how is a brand supposed to have any control over the way it’s represented on Wikipedia with all these restrictions? That’s the point. Wikipedia does not exist as a mouthpiece for brands, political organizations or anybody else; it’s intended to be an unbiased and factual source of information.
There have been some recent high-profile examples of organizations editing Wikipedia in breach of the conflict of interest guidelines, and one positive outcome of this is that it’s ignited a debate in the PR industry about how we approach the issue. More importantly, it’s encouraged the site’s founder, Jimmy Wales, to engage with the industry to clarify his position and this will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the rules. Neverthless, it’s a little disingenuous to pretend the rules for PR people are confusing – the rules have been in place for a long time and are fairly clear for anybody who cares to read them.
While you can’t control the content of Wikipedia pages, you can influence it (and isn’t that what PR is all about?). Behind every Wikipedia article is what is known as a Talk Page, where people can discuss the content of the article and propose changes, and it’s here that we can suggest edits and amendments to pages. Usually the moderator community will respond to your suggestions and, with a little negotiation, you’ll be able to get the changes made; so long as you follow the guidelines.
According to Wikipedia’s published rules for PR people, you are allowed to directly edit pages to correct things like grammar and spelling errors, fix pages that have been vandalized, and add independent references/sources to verify the content. But you cannot remove content that you don’t like, or add content that is designed purely to promote your organization’s interests.
I have included Wikipedia’s guidelines for PR people below but the golden rule is that if you’re not absolutely clear on how to do this correctly, don’t make any changes and get advice from somebody who understands the process clearly.
I work in PR, and would like to fix up the article about the person or company I represent. Is that okay?
Possibly, if you do it in a way that respects Wikipedia’s goal of being an accurate, unbiased source of information.
- revert obvious vandalism
- fix minor errors in spelling, grammar, usage, or fact
- add or update facts, such as a person’s date or place of birth; a company’s location or number of employees; or details of a recent event
- provide accurate references for information that’s already in the article
Please do not
- try to use Wikipedia to promote or advertise your client(s)
- remove negative material
- copy-and-paste content from another site, even if you manage the other site
- add information that cannot be independently verified, or that isn’t significant for an encyclopedia article
- work on material that’s particularly controversial or has disputed facts
If you’re not sure a particular edit will be welcomed, then please feel free to ask in advance on the article’s talk page.
Please be aware that other people will edit what you’ve written, and that each article’s history page is public and will reflect exactly what you have changed. If you aren’t willing to accept that, then you should not edit.