It is time to add Wikipedia to your list of communication skills.
Yes, you should know how to create and edit a Wikipedia article.
Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia. If you represent a company or client that pays you, though, writing and editing are, for the most part, out of bounds. Your Wikipedia competency must include an understanding of the often labyrinthine process for changing an article.
The issue of marketing and PR workers editing articles on their clients’ behalf has been around nearly as long as Wikipedia has. But the mounting revelations of misbehavior did little to curtail the practices, mainly because there wasn’t a specific mandate for communicators to abide by Wikipedia’s often confusing, and sometimes contradictory, policies and guidelines.
Most people in the Wikipedia community don’t seem to have a problem with a paid representative making simple, factual corrections. Say your client employs 15,000 people, but the Wikipedia article says 150,000. It’s OK if you delete that extra zero.
At a recent meeting of Wikipedians and PR representatives, one Wikipedian said the belief that “PR people’s shadows are never to darken the door of Wikipedia” is over. “That ship has sailed,” he said.
Substantive edits, though are another thing altogether. The rules are clear: If you have a conflict of interest, you shouldn’t edit an article.
I disagree with this policy. A lot of people who aren’t paid by a client have a conflict of interest. Anybody on either side of a controversial issue (e.g. gun control or abortion) has a conflict of interest—he or she is trying to promote a point of view. Yet there’s no Wikipedia opinion on these edits that compares with Wikipedia’s belief that PR people are only there to help their clients sell products. The fact is, a lot of PR people simply want to ensure accuracy—like adding missing years’ worth of financial data.
Be that as it may, though, the rules are the rules. It’s up to the PR industry to figure out how to achieve accuracy and factuality while playing by the rules.
That’s what Michael Bassik did when he ran Burson Marsteller’s digital shop. After seeing Burson staff walking across the street to get online under a non-Burson account so they could edit client articles, Bassik introduced a global hands-off policy. He set up a contract with William Beutler’s consultancy, Beutler Ink, which guides clients on the proper use of Wikipedia’s protocols.
In recent weeks, a number of events have cast new light on the need for PR professionals to adhere to those protocols:
- The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the United Kingdom has updated its Wikipedia guidance. According to a post by CIPR chair Stephen Waddington, the guidance “is intended to provide clear and detailed advice on how public relations professionals should engage with the Wikipedia community … It highlights best practices and equips public relations professionals with the advice needed to navigate Wikipedia engagement and with an understanding of how to protect an organization’s or client’s reputation openly and transparently.” (The guidance is available as free download from CIPR.)
- Ten global PR agencies—including some of the world’s biggest—announced they had signed a commitment to abide by Wikipedia’s principles. They also promised to make sure their employees and clients do, as well. Those who signed include Edelman, Ogilvy & Mather, Burson-Marsteller, FleishmanHillard, Ketchum and Peppercomm.
Other agencies are welcome to sign the commitment. Several already have; the list of agencies has expanded to include Hill+Knowlton, Porter Novelli, Voce Communications, Weber Shandwick, Waggener Edstrom and MSLGROUP, among others. Phil Gomes, Edelman Digital senior vice presiden—arguably the most important voice in the PR-Wikipedia discussion—wrote in a post that the firms signing the commitment “certainly don’t believe this is the finish line. We also recognize the statement, by itself, isn’t enough—actions count. This is the start of an industry-wide commitment.”
While it is lamentable that some in PR felt it acceptable to break the rules to satisfy clients, it’s clear from these recent moves that those days are over. Ignorance of the rules is not a defense. Resources are available to help guide you through the process.
There’s no doubt Wikipedia wields huge influence. People Googling a company typically find its Wikipedia article among the first few results. It is incumbent on communicators to ensure those articles are accurate. If you haven’t had to deal with an inaccuracy in a Wikipedia article, you will. Ignoring it is like not developing a crisis plan because your company has never had a crisis. Behaving ethically by following Wikipedia’s rules is no longer just one of your options. It’s the only option.
A version of this article originally appeared on Holtz.com.