You click on your organization's Wikipedia file, and—grrrrrr.
The information's out of date, but you're afraid to update it, lest you get caught up in a Wikipedia editing scandal of the sort that has hit organizations caught sprucing up their entries.
A report released today by EthicalWiki indicates that 85 percent of brand pages on Wikipedia were incomplete or suffered from poor-quality information furnished by Wikipedia users.
Here's the rub: Companies that edit their pages often find themselves getting pushback from Wikipedia users upset about image-polishing, says EthicalWiki Owner David King.
"For me, ethics is not a choice, but an obvious necessity," says King, whose company helps organizations change their Wikipedia entries without stirring up a backlash.
Wikipedia-editing scandals have hit companies such as the U.K.'s Bell Pottinger and politicians including Newt Gingrich. This has left some companies unsure of how to safely make updates.
Today's EthicalWiki report parallels findings of a study published this spring by PR Journal, a quarterly publication from the Public Relations Society of America.
Web automation tool
EthicalWiki's report relied on a Web automation tool that collected data from 2,578 company articles on Wikipedia. It determined that 85 percent of brand articles are incomplete or of low quality, and 51 percent of requests for improvement to a brand page are related to providing credible third-party sources.
King says companies have become experienced in working with Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, though they haven't become as sophisticated about Wikipedia.
"To me this creates huge opportunities for some companies to excel where other companies have failed," King says.
To bridge the gap between Wikipedia and PR professionals, Phil Gomes, senior vice president of Edelman Digital, co-founded Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement in January. It now has 300 members, including communicators and Wikipedians alike.
The group is trying to educate PR pros about best practices on Wikipedia, but it also wants to let Wikipedians know that many in the industry are trying to do the right thing, Gomes says.
"PR to a great degree misunderstands Wikipedia, and Wikipedia very often misunderstands PR," he says.
To explain the process of getting a correction on Wikipedia, CREWE created a flow chart. (An update is in the works—crowd-sourced, of course—at Creately.Com, and Gomes is seeking contributions.) But the complexity of the chart also suggests how difficult the process can be.
"It's a little bit byzantine," says CREWE co-founder John Cass, author of "Strategies and Tools for Corporate Blogging" and a writer at the PR Communications blog.
He notes that a British PR professional organization is also studying best practices in dealing with Wikipedia edits.
PR pros often know best what's accurate
Arthur Yann, vice president of public relations with PRSA, says PR professionals need to understand Wikipedia standards but that they're sometimes best positioned to know whether information about a client is current and correct.
"It could be something as simple as the CEO or annual sales—things that are published in an annual report, for example," he says. "There should be no reason why a PR professional can't go in and edit those things directly."
David Goodman, a volunteer Wikipedia editor and administrator with a doctorate in molecular biology, says organizations aren't objective about their Wikipedia profiles.
"The suggested way to avoid difficulties is to put the material on the article talk page," he says. "If there is no response, ask any of the editors who have worked on the article to take a look at it, or any other editor who has worked on the general subject."
The alternative way is through Wikipedia's Open-source Ticket Request System, he says. It might take a week or two, but everything sent there is followed up by experienced people. Requests for changes must refer to reliable independent sources, not blogs or press releases.
PR Journal noted that 24 percent of those who used the talk pages to try to correct errors never got a response.
Though good ethics should simply be a matter of practice, there is a return on investment for ethical behavior on Wikipedia, EthicalWiki's King says. Companies can avoid reputational risk or "vengeful editing" by editors that don't appreciate edits by interested parties.
Promoting better understanding
Robert Lawton is a Wikipedia administrator and an early member of CREWE. He has sought to "direct CREWE away from being a place to rail against Wikipedia and toward a place where we can learn from each other and promote greater understanding."
(Wikipedia editors are volunteers, and Lawton also has a digital consulting practice.)
He provides a link to Wikipedia behavior guidelines regarding editing when there exists a conflict of interest.
"I would guess most editors have no problem with people updating facts so long as they are sourced and noncontroversial," he says. But he adds, "Other editors agree with [Wikipedia founder] Jimmy Wales that editors should never edit an article with which they have a conflict of interest."
Bad edits, Lawton warns, "are like little land mines waiting for someone to find. Numerous examples of scandals exist from elected officials to the CIA. In additional to scandal, some edits have merited police investigation, and others have resulted in the termination of an employee."
King says communicators need to come to grips with Wikipedia, just as they would with a mainstream media outfit.
"The underlying assumption of this report, in order to have some kind of lasting benefit with Wikipedia, some mutual benefit, we have to understand their content needs," he says.