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Copyright 2006 by Brian Wasson. This article was published in the March 2006 issue of PR Tactics, the member newspaper of the Public Relations Society of America.

The wide world of Wikipedia, and why PR practitioners
should take note

By Brian Wasson

Wikipedia seems to be the buzzword of the moment in electronic media circles. A Google search for the term turns up a staggering 196 million references. Yet, many communications professionals do not really understand what it is, and why they should care about it.

Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Articles on just about any topic can be freely submitted and edited by any user.

How big is Wikipedia? As of March 2006 its English-language version had over one million distinct articles and more than one million registered users (view current statistics). By comparison, the online Encyclopedia Britannica has approximately 120,000 articles. Including Wikipedia sites in more than 200 other languages, it had 3.1 million articles. It's quickly catching on as an information resource of choice on the Web. In November 2005 Nielsen//NetRatings ranked it in the top 10 news and information sites, and also pegged it as one of the top 10 fastest growing Web brands.

Recently there have been complaints about inaccurate information on Wikipedia, with calls to avoid it as a research source. While most reporters probably know by now not to take Wikipedia information as fact without corroboration, undoubtedly many still rely on it as a first introduction to a topic. And, as the above figures show, the site is growing in popularity with the general public.

Wikipedia is probably the most well known and popular use of "wiki" software, which allows users to collaborate, create and edit Web pages in real time. Wikis rely on special software that automatically creates Web pages for users, even if they have no knowledge of Web design or publishing. Users can track revisions, make edits, and easily revert to a previous version if desired. It's a bit like working with a team to edit a document using the "Track Changes" function in Microsoft Word.

Wikipedia seeks to harness the essentially unlimited knowledge of World Wide Web users, channeling it to useful content freely accessible to the masses. Its core concept is that collaboration and editing among a multitude of users eventually creates the best content and the widest knowledge base possible.

However, this open source approach is also a potential downside to Wikipedia. For example, there was the case of John Seigenthaler, a prominent journalist and one-time assistant to Robert Kennedy, who was falsely implicated in the assassinations of the former attorney general and his brother, President John F. Kennedy in a Wikipedia entry. In response, the site now requires users to register before they can create articles. However, people can still modify existing articles without registering.

Still, unlike traditional encyclopedias, there is no formal editing process to assure that content contained in an article is accurate. An article can change in a second, and once-correct information can be replaced with fallacies. The site acknowledges this limitation, but maintains that, over time, Wikipedia will mature into a comprehensive, well-vetted informational resource.

So, if Wikipedia is such a popular site, and anyone can add an article, shouldn't savvy PR folks proactively submit an article about their organization or client? Well… maybe. The Wikipedia community takes several concepts very seriously. First, an article topic should only be submitted if it has broad enough appeal to be in a normal encyclopedia. Second, all information should be independently verifiable from external sources. And, finally, all articles should strictly adhere to a "neutral point of view," representing views "fairly and without bias." This is considered an inviolable principle, and articles that show a disregard for the neutral point of view rule will be quickly removed or edited by other users.

Wikipedia also discourages posting what it calls "autobiographical" articles about yourself or subjects in which you are personally involved (e.g. your organization or client). It maintains that if the topic is important enough to be on Wikipedia, then eventually somebody not directly involved will submit an article.

This is where it gets a bit touchy for the PR professional, especially if your organization doesn't already have a listing or you see inaccuracies in an existing article. Since it is possible to edit articles anonymously, it's tempting to slant the text in favor of your organization. Here are 10 guidelines to consider if you plan to contribute to Wikipedia on behalf of your organization or client:

  1. Before jumping into the Wikipedia world, carefully review the community's operating principles.
  2. Assign one person responsibility for Wikipedia edits, and make it a policy that other employees should not contribute to articles about your organization. Wikipedia contributors are anonymous, but the edit history page may show the Internet (IP) address from which the edit came (which often can be easily identified with a particular organization). Even if it's a stockroom clerk editing your page for fun on his lunch hour, if the posting is tagged with your organization's IP address it could negatively impact your organization's image. For a perfect example of this, see the Washington Post article about the fallout resulting from Capitol Hill staffers editing Wikipedia entries to make their bosses look better.
  3. Educate your organization's leadership about the open-source nature of Wikipedia and the impossibility of completely controlling the message. Doing this proactively can help stave off unreasonable requests and misunderstandings.
  4. Be transparent, not anonymous. Clearly identify yourself as a representative for your organization and create a user name under which all your organization's edits will be referenced (perhaps something like "companyXrepresentative"). Although you do not need to sign in to edit an article, you do if you wish to create a new article. It's also possible to associate a "user information page" with your user name -- you may want to create a brief page explaining that you are a paid representative for your organization and are posting on its behalf. Only use this user name for work-related Wikipedia entries; if you get bit by the Wikipedia bug and want to edit articles on your own time about, say, poodles in 19th-century France, create a different user name. Transparency up front can help avoid a lot of trouble down the road.
  5. Carefully consider whether your organization or client actually warrants a Wikipedia entry. If you are an independent practitioner, a listing for "jane doe communications" probably won't really be of interest to anybody. If you represent a well-known organization, then go ahead and post an article (if there's not already one there).
  6. When creating or editing an article, always stick to verifiable facts and a strict neutral point of view. This can be challenging, as by the very nature of our profession we want to make our companies look as good as possible in public. But creating a skewed article about a topic that you have a vested interest in can draw the ire of other users, and can quickly get picked up by blogs and other media outlets, creating significant bad press for your organization. Resist the urge!
  7. If you come across an obvious inaccuracy about your organization, feel free to correct it. But make sure you provide a reference for your change so that it can be independently verified. Do not post copyrighted material, even if it's from your own Web site and you are authorized to do so. Material on Wikipedia is considered open source and may be picked up by other Web sites without your permission.
  8. Review other topics related to your organization and contribute when appropriate. If you represent an automobile manufacturer, for example, you may also be able to contribute to related pages about transmissions or engines ("Car company X was the first American manufacturer to offer the V8 engine"). Again, be transparent and provide the means for independent verification.
  9. The "external links" section at the bottom of each article can be a valuable way to drive traffic to your Web site. When appropriate, add your URL to this area.
  10. Bear in mind that others may edit articles seconds after they are posted (or edited). You can waste a lot of time tracking article changes and trying to stay on top of them. If you are a registered user, use Wikipedia's "watchlist" function to track changes on articles of interest to you. Check back regularly, but don't be obsessive about it. And, don't take the edits of others personally.

The growing popularity of Wikipedia as a research tool for reporters and consumers means it should not be ignored. However, it should be worked into your ongoing communications strategy in concert with other tactics. Be certain to balance the relative value of time spent updating your Wikipedia entry with its value to your organization. Its explosive growth, though -- Nielsen estimated Wikipedia's traffic increase at nearly 300 percent between 2004 and 2005 -- means that Wikipedia is an information portal that bears watching.


Postscript: This simple article started a big discussion among the Wikipedia community. I even got a personal e-mail from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who took offense to my article and wanted me to write a retraction (I put him in contact with the Tactics editor, who subsequently did a Q&A article with Wales).

Comments on this article? Contact the author.

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