Wikipedia continues to be one of the most trusted sites on the Web and is regularly listed in the top one or two places on any search. The search engine visibility factor drives every marketing person to peek into what Wikipedia says about their own company or product. That pressure may drive a well-intentioned, but uninformed marketing person to push for inappropriate changes.
Often, PR and marketing people are the ones asked to create or edit a Wiki entry for their client. Creating an entry for a company that you work for is against the Wikipedia conflict of interest policies. Although it is frowned on by the Wikipedia community, everyone has a story about a marketing friend that edited their company's entry and was never caught.
In response to this problem, I drafted this detailed set of guidelines in 2008. Because this piece continues to be my most popular post, I thought it would be good to update the information and re-post it. You may find it overly detailed, but I worked to address every editing temptation that an eager executive could press upon a PR person. I've also linked to nearly all of the sources so it is easy for you to navigate the conflict of interest labyrinth.
Although there are a lot of "No Nos" in this post, at the end there is a clear path for an ethical communicator to address true inaccuracies found in a Wikipedia entry.
If you enjoy the piece and use it, please drop me a line and let me know.
Wikipedia Editing Guidelines for Marketing and Public Relations Professionals
Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference Web sites, attracting at least 684 million visitors yearly by 2008. There are more than 85,000 active contributors working on more than 14 million articles in more than 273 languages. Entries to Wikipedia often rank high in search engine results and are generally held in high regard by online communities. This trust is fueled in part by Wikipedia’s emphasis on transparency.
Wikipedia includes a list of guidelines that govern its use. When observed, contributors can freely make edits and advance the Wikipedia project. Violations of these guidelines are looked upon negatively by the Wikipedia community and will be removed. Occasionally, an editor or organization that violates these rules is exposed in a public way that diminishes their credibility with customers and other constituents. A simple Internet search of “conflict of interest Wikipedia” returns dozens of stories and blog posts exposing companies that updated a Wikipedia entry. Even factual changes made contrary to the guidelines can damage trust. Content guidelines should be reviewed before an editor makes changes to Wikipedia.
Conflict of Interest
Wikipedia’s conflict of interest page is the recommended first stop for all marketing and public relations professionals. This short article clearly outlines that Wikipedia aims to produce a neutral, reliably sourced encyclopedia. Directly from the Wikipedia site – “COI editing involves contributing to Wikipedia in order to promote your own interests or those of other individuals, companies, or groups. Where an editor must forgo advancing the aims of Wikipedia in order to advance outside interests, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.”
Although an employee at a company may be the best expert on a topic, technology or product, they have a conflict of interest if their comments benefit that company. According to the guidelines, they should not edit Wikipedia pages “in areas where there is a conflict of interest that would make the edits non-neutral (biased).” Remember that changes are forever recorded in the history section and Wiki editors use tools to trace changes back to individuals to assess their conflict of interest.
Wikipedia operates on the principal of assumed good faith and its editors follow etiquette guidelines. People come to the site to collaborate and write good articles and in return expect transparency and open disclosure.
· Sign and date posts to talk pages
· Work towards agreement
· Argue facts, not personalities
· Recognize biases and keep them in check
· Observe conflict of interest guidelines
· Make all entries verifiable by including references and evidence for each claim or fact
The list of what Wikipedia is not helps contributors understand that the site is not a soapbox, publisher of original thought, advertising outlet, repository of links, directory, democracy or a battleground.
Wikipedia does have an outlet for circumstances in which information on a Wikipedia page is incorrect and the editor has a conflict of interest. For example, if a page on a specific company incorrectly states the inventor of the company’s key technology, a PR or marketing person can justifiably initiate a correction process. This entails making an appeal to the discussion page located on the top row of tabs of each Wiki entry. This is a place where editors can discuss the contents of the pages and mediate their disagreements. By making an appeal on the discussion page, the contributor is asking a fellow editor without a conflict of interest to make changes. On pages where there is frequent discussion and monitoring, changes can be made quickly by a neutral community member.
Neutral third parties, such as industry analysts and user group members, can be contributors to articles in their subject area. By scanning the list of previous contributors, you may find a neutral party whom you already know. Contact that person through the user talk page to discuss your update.
Experience shows that it can be effective to publish correct information on a company-sponsored page and release it for publication on Wikipedia, giving a neutral third-party editor all the information needed to make a correction. Please see below a letter from Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder on this topic.
Encouraging experts without a conflict of interest to contribute to Wikipedia speeds the correction process and builds reciprocal trust.
Recommendations for appeals to the discussion page:
1. Clearly disclose your affiliation and conflict of interest. Transparency is key to building trust.
2. State your recommended changes and cite verifiable references.
3. Explain your recommendations so others can see their validity. You are working towards a compromise and a balanced presentation.
4. Feel free to discuss the issue on the discussion page. You may even post your recommended changes on this page.
5. Check back on the discussion page to answer questions from the community about your request.
6. Follow wikiquette guidelines.
7. Maintain a neutral point of view.
· Wikipedia: Five Pillars – Summarizes official polices and guidelines
· Letter from Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia:
I think we need to be very clear in a lot of different places that PR firms editing Wikipedia is something that we frown upon very very strongly. The appearance of impropriety is so great that we should make it very very strongly clear to these firms that we do not approve of what they would like to do.
It is all well and good to say, well, it is ok so long as they remain neutral, but if they really want to write neutral articles, they can do so, on their own websites, and release the work under the FDL [MIT’s GNU Free Documentation License], and notify Wikipedians who are totally independent.
Additionally, it is always appropriate to interact on the talk pages of articles. If a PR firm is not happy about how something is presented about their client, they can identify themselves openly on the talk page, and present well-reasoned arguments and additional information and links.
Of course it is always going to be the case that unethical practitioners may get involved in inappropriate behavior, but I think this is no argument for simply accepting it. Rather, it is a strong argument for asking people to do this the right way: transparently and allowing independent editors to make the actual editing decisions.
- Nabble.Com Mailing List
August 21, 2006
This document was drafted by Travis Murdock on August 28, 2008. This document paraphrases and copies text from several Wikipedia articles. These articles have been referenced where possible with their corresponding URLs. Last updated on January 31, 2010.