Wikipedia poses a challenge to the communications community as its popularity and perceived credibility have greatly increased. Recent high-profile incidents of organizations, including PR firms, misusing Wikipedia’s open editing format have forced communicators to reexamine their approach to Wikipedia. Rather than viewing Wikipedia as a marketing tool, communicators must think differently about the utility of the platform, instead focusing on engaging in meaningful discussion and contributing valuable, accurate information in compliance with the community’s rules.
In December 2011, UK firm Bell Pottinger was exposed for making more than 1,000 edits to its clients’ Wikipedia entries, which consisted largely of removing detrimental information. Missteps like these have placed increased scrutiny on communicators and their role in Wikipedia editing, which is expressly covered under the conflict of interest (COI) rules.
Driven by its popularity and influence as a research tool, Wikipedia is undergoing a natural transformation whereby editors are no longer “gatekeepers” of information but “preservers” of the Wikipedia approach. For an information platform that was founded under the notion that the purest form of information is local, as Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales told Reason Magazine in 2007, communicators find themselves in a difficult position as they often have access to the best and most accurate forms of information.
Operating within this framework, however, there is an opportunity for communicators to engage the Wikipedia community in a productive and transparent manner. Here are a few suggestions on how this can be accomplished:
Follow Wikipedia’s COI rules carefully and use the “Talk” pages to propose and verify edits rather than making them directly.
If following the COI rules doesn’t get the intended result, correct factual errors directly while explaining the purpose.
The fact that Wikipedia is based on a system of media references is a major advantage for communicators. Prominent entries can be influenced via the media relations process.
There is also an important movement underway to address the COI issue as it relates to communicators. In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations announced that it will work with Wikipedia to develop a guide for PR professionals on properly using the platform. A Facebook group has also been created for PR professionals who want to engage with Wikipedia. This momentum needs to be sustained.
Just as important moving forward, as more and more stakeholders use Wikipedia as a research tool, the value of the platform lies in the fingerprint of referenced material in each Wikipedia entry, often in the form of notable media stories. This is something that plays right into the strengths of communicators and keeps with what Wikipedia values the most – referenced statements of fact.