Reputation and Wikipedia

[Originally written for the CIPR Friday Roundup]

What does the Wikipedia entry for your organisation / client / brand say? What about brand references in other entries? All cosy on the Wikipedia front? And recognising that a neutral point of view (NPOV) is one of Wikipedia's "five pillars", you have resisted editing anything where your neutrality is questionable. Right?

Let's face it, Wikipedia is amazing. I had the pleasure of attending the Wikipedia 10th birthday party in London last year and I wasn't the only one there who admitted to not appreciating Wikipedia's potential back in the day. Seriously? A website anyone can edit?! Yeah right, that'll work. Not.

And yet today Alexa ranks Wikipedia the sixth most popular site on the web. Search for a company or brand in Google or Bing and there's the Wikipedia entry tempting you with its neutrality, familiarity and ease of use. The Wikipedia community plays a significant role in brand reputation.

This week, one of my favourite Conversation contributors, Stuart Bruce, spotted Member of Parliament Tom Watson's interest in Wikipedia and PR practice. He found Watson's contribution, Wednesday, to a Wikipedia talk page:

"I suspect a number of PR firms have edited entries for their clients potentially breaching conflict of interest rules. I am going to write to the trade bodies to ask that they work with Wikipedia to issue guidelines."

For those of you unfamiliar with Tom Watson MP, he played a significant role in exposing the News International phone hacking scandal according to Wikipedia, and wants to "crack open the lobby cartel".

At more or less the same time, CIPR Social Media panel member Marshall Manson emailed the panel to point us to his colleague Phil Gomes' open letter to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales pleading for dialogue "about how communications professionals and the Wikipedia community can/must work together."

All this ties nicely into the PRSA's current #prdefined debate too.

If you think PR is one-way persuasion, then get on Wikipedia and edit away despite Wikipedia's rules and simple guidelines for PR representatives. You'd also have to dump any regard for ethics in your PR definition however, particularly if you try to make such edits anonymously.

If you think PR is ethical two-way communication seeking to achieve mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics, then you respect Wikipedia's rules and others' points of view. Your ultimate goal is to help achieve the organisation's goals, so you cannot claim a NPOV. Period.

In which case the place to jump in is on the Wikipedia talk pages, and not the main entry itself (excepting the simple guidelines above). Simple as.

This raises the question, what if it doesn't get the immediate results I'd like to see on the Wikipedia entry in question? And I'm afraid the answer right now is, tough. You have to continue to engage with the Wikipedians until one takes interest; and perhaps the best way to win a Wikipedian's respect is to be a good Wikipedian yourself.

The CIPR has run training sessions on Wikipedia for a couple of years, debuting with the 2010 Social Summer series, and a statement has been issued today in response to the MP's concerns. Check it out.

Wishing you a prosperous 2012.

12 thoughts on “Reputation and Wikipedia

  1. Great post, Phillip, and an important topic. I wanted to underscore that I think you're right: At the moment, if you want to engage transparently on Wikipedia, you are limited to posting to the 'talk' page of the relevant entry. And if Wikipedia's editors take no action, tough. Indeed, at present, my firm has a simple policy when it comes to Wikipedia: Don't make edits. Period. And we advise our clients not to make edits as well.

    The problem is that the number of derelict entries within Wikipedia seems to be on the rise. It's certainly been my experience that on many (if not most) corporate Wikipedia entries, submissions to the talk page are rarely viewed by editors, and almost never seem to attract any sort of engagement or response. This is especially true for business and brands that aren't in the top-tier of awareness or conversation, and even more true for brands with a low profile in the U.S., where most of Wikipedia's editors are located. As a result, pages that are important resources for information about global businesses and brands are wildly inaccurate or deeply slanted.

    So, while I agree that the current situation is quite black and white -- just as you've said -- I think there is merit in Phil's suggestion that we need have a conversation about moving to a more nuanced model. Transparency must remain at the centre as must Wikipedia's neutral point of view requirement. But surely there is a limited role for companies to make transparent, solely factual edits to their own entries.

    And here's another perspective: As we've seen repeatedly, the present policies are pushing corporate activity on Wikipedia into the shadows. Wouldn't we be better served by encouraging such activity to be brought into the light of transparency and putting limits on acceptable behaviour? I would be happy to go a step further as well: Allow activity with strict regulation and harsh penalties for misbehaviour.

    Having said all of that, I don't mean to suggest that anything I've said is a definitive solution. Rather, that there needs to be a dialogue between the Wikipedia community and the PR community that tries to find a workable approach.

  2. In terms of talk page neglect, one (I'm guessing) Wikipedian suggested that someone try the COI noticeboard to try to obtain resolution. This strikes me as another dev/null at best and another round of unnecessarily beating up PR people at worst. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to try this approach. Many thanks for weighing in.

  3. As always Philip, a great point. You cut to the point, which is certainly needed.

    One of the issues that exists is that PRs and other broader communicators are looking for a quick-fix solution to how they can continue broadcasting the views of their clients and paid-employers. Editing pages on Wikipedia to ensure that the brand is clean and on-message might seem as the optimal solution for many. This though is something that highlights the lack of understanding that exists of the community and how they and the individuals within them today source information.

    After all, as I ask ib my post, was it wise of Portland to try and edit out their clients brand from the page for Wife-beater? The decision was very one-dimensional and forgot how such changes would attract attention to their actions.

    If work takes places to 'launder' a brand online you can expect people to notice this and raise it into a newsworthy event.

    Phil Gomes rightly points out the need for a conversation to take place to inform the work that takes place. This lack of understanding and transparency is what in the short-term is continuing to damage the reputation of PR and the business community that uses these skills.

    The cases in the UK are just the tip of the iceberg and I do think that Wikimedia as a whole needs to work with us to ensure that what solutions can be found can be implemented globally. PR is a global industry after all.

  4. All good and valid points. Wikipedia needs to be trusted.

    Which is precisely why PR agencies or comms and PR people within organisations need to be allowed to update their pages. Most journalists think that although it's against Wikipedia rules, it's a rule already often broken, and rightly so.

    For there are times when a journalist needs to rely on a quick factcheck on Wikipedia. I'm talking background not main facts, such as a quick comparison across a range of different organisations. If basic info like market capitalisation or number of employees or locations are out of date then Wikipedia becomes time-wasting at best, harmful at worst. Marshall is right - once the original editor has posted this data, they are not likely to update. The only people with a vested interest are the organisations or their counsel.

    That one of the largest and most respected agencies advise their staff and their clients not to update Wikipedia should be seen by the Wikimedia Foundation as an urgent call to action.

  5. Here's what it boils down to. Suppose you're a PR firm, and your client is a fast food restaurant chain. One of the chain's obscure franchises in Missouri just terminated the employment of a 19-year-old community college student who was consistently late to work and had two customer complaints about his rudeness. This pink-slipped employee is also a Wikipedia administrator, but he doesn't have to disclose to anyone on Wikipedia who he is, where he used to work, or anything of the sort. And, he never disclosed to his former employer that he was a Wiki whiz.

    Guess what? This administrator now takes it upon himself to modify the Wikipedia article about his former employer, such that he finds every single bit of mainstream and regional press that ever had a negative thing to say about the restaurant, and he adds it to Wikipedia. Where a "Criticisms and Controversies" section in the Wikipedia article didn't exist, it now constitutes 60% of the article.

    The PR firm begins to question the "balance" of the article, using only the "Talk" page, of course, but young admin man simply e-mails a few of his friends (also high-volume Wikipedia editors), and they counteract the complaint with multi-voiced assurances that these "reliably sourced criticisms" of the company are free knowledge and must be shared.

    So, the PR firm begins to edit the article to increase some of the content about the accomplishments and community service commitments of the restaurant. Now the admin calls for a "CheckUser" search on the IP address of the "new" editor who is "blatantly" puffing up the article with "advertising". The CheckUser determines that the IP traces to the headquarters of a PR firm that is known to serve the restaurant as a client. Next thing you know, Mister Administrator is anonymously sending a news tip to the New York Times, showing how the restaurant is trying to "bias" their Wikipedia page. A story comes out in the Times two days later.

    The PR firm then complains to Jimmy Wales about what had happened, but Jimmy sees this as a dispute between a "trusted, long-time Wikipedian" and a "corporate PR hack trying to infiltrate Wikipedia with promotional advocacy", and guess whose side Jimbo aligns with?

    As a paid editor of both first and last resort, I have heard literally dozens of stories like this from exasperated clients who turn to me for advice and assistance with Wikipedia disaster situations -- almost always not of the ethical company's "fault".

    A Wikipedia article about even a slightly controversial subject is like a football game, where one side is the "pro / favorable" subject team, and the other side is the "con / critical" subject team. The only thing is, the "con / critical" team can have a couple of players whose dad and uncle are referees in the game; and the "pro / favorable" team has a very ethical cornerback, middle linebacker, and safety who are all bound by a special rule that they have to ask the referees for permission before tackling any player on the "con" team.

    It's a ridiculous situation that has been allowed to develop and fester on Wikipedia, and the Wikimedia Foundation should be ashamed of its juvenile approach to "fairness" on such an important reference resource as Wikipedia.

  6. There are alternatives to simply leaving a request for changes on the article's talk page. Scan the article's history and see which editors have made many edits or recent edits. Visit those editor's own pages and check their contribution histories. Are they still active editors? If so, leave messages on their talk pages asking for help. In many cases, there will associated project pages where you can contact editors who are interested in that sort of topic. Take a look at the edit history of closely associated articles to find active interested editors who can give you a hand. The vast majority of active, experienced editors want to improve verifiable accuracy of any given article.

    As for the input from professional editor Gregory Kohs, please tell us what is the name of that fast food chain? What is the Wikipedia user name of that vindictive administrator? When did this incident occur? What is the current status of the Wikipedia article about that fast food chain? Unlike on other internet discussion sites, on Wikipedia, we like to look at real evidence, not hot air and speculation and hypotheticals. So, if this incident really occurred as you describe, please furnish all the facts so that independent neutral parties can investigate. Wikipedia is not perfect, but I don't think that a vindictive 19 year old and his pals created the #6 website in the world, with 3.8 million article in English and millions in other languages. I am an experienced editor, and use the name "Cullen328" on Wikipedia. Visit my talk page at any time, and I will do my best to help you if you are willing to play by the rules.

    1. Thanks Jim, a clear, simple and constructive response.

      I was of course including editors' talk pages as well as the talk pages of the articles, but that might not have been apparent to the casual reader. So thanks for breaking that out here.

  7. There's also a debate from the company owner's perspective where the COI is presumed even greater. I recently created a wikipedia page for the online accounting software that I founded, http://www.clearbooks.co.uk. Why? Because I didn't want to hang about till who knows when for someone else to do it who is completely independent.

    In terms of transparency, I used my own name so it was clear who I was.

    In terms of bias, I tried as much as possible to simply present the facts and link to third party references.

    The result? The article is now up for its second AfD debate. Very few of the editors promoting deletion are actually feeding back constructive criticism or helping to improve the article in any way.

What do you think?...