Why Wikipedia Should Shoulder Blame for Violations

Wikipedia is for everyone.

Because they do a lousy job of explaining themselves.  I’ll get to that momentarily.  But first why is Wikipedia hands off for PR people?

The reason is simple:

Because Wikipedia isn’t an owned, earned or paid channel.

For those of us who don’t work in marketing or communications, those distinctions are how the industry identifies media channels:

Owned media are those assets under the direct control of a brand: dot-com content, Facebook page, Twitter account, a blog or even packaging.

Earned media is getting or enticing others to write or share your content: a news article, a TV segment, a retweet, a blog post, etc.

And finally paid media is content that a brand purchases to distribute: TV or online advertising, sponsorships and advertorials.

Wikipedia doesn’t fall into any of these categories.  Yet PR and marketing people don’t seem to understand this distinction when it comes to Wikipedia.

There’s a disconnect and a big reason why falls on Wikipedia.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by clients to change, add or delete content from their Wikipedia entries.  When I explain that Weber Shandwick has a hands off policy on Wikipedia there is nearly always push back.  The most common refrain is: “But it’s our page!”

“But it’s not your page,” I explain.  “It belongs to Wikipedia and it’s community.”

This explanation is generally met with one of several reactions: dismissal, disbelief and even a “Can they do that?”

Um.  Yes, they can.

Last week, Bell Pottinger, a UK-based PR agency, was called out by Wikipedia for having their consultants altering Wikipedia posts about their clients.  Wikipedia took the drastic step of suspending the accounts of 10 consultants who work for Bell Pottinger.  Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales claimed that Bell Pottinger “embarrassed their clients” and questioned the firm’s ethical standards.

That’s way too strong considering the convoluted way Wikipedia presents its policies.  Altering an entry on a social platform that in its own rules claims “anyone can change articles” should be careful with its criticism of those who take that claim literally.  Because, as it turns out, it isn’t true.

You have to dig deeper to get here:

“Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles (except in certain cases where editing is restricted to prevent disruption or vandalism). Users can contribute anonymously, under a pseudonym, or with their real identity, if they choose.”

I’ve added the emphasis.  As you can see, this passage from Wikipedia’s rules page is far from specific.  Discovering what exactly are those “certain cases where editing is restricted” is more difficult to find.  But you’ll find it in Wikipedia’s conflict of interest section where it states:

“If one of the points underneath applies to you:

  1. you are being paid, in money or other rewards, to change Wikipedia for a company or group (whether you are working for the group, or for a company paid to advertise the group); or,
  2. you expect to gain money or other rewards from changing Wikipedia; for example, by being the owner or other stakeholder of a company or other organization about which you are writing;

then we very strongly encourage you to not make changes to Wikipedia in areas where there is a conflict of interest, because that would make your edits non-neutral (biased). Wikipedia’s neutral point of view policy states that all articles must represent views fairly and without bias, and conflicts of interest do stop Wikipedia from being able to do this. If your changes would not be neutral, do not post them.”

Emphasis on this one belongs to Wikipedia.  Frankly, they are not “very strongly” discouraging they are forbidding it.  So Wikipedia should come right out and say so.  As you can see Wikipedia’s own policy is not clear.

So is it any wonder that some PR and marketing people don’t understand – or can even find – the policy?

It’s true that anyone who has worked with Wikipedia knows the editors are ruthless about forbidding representatives of companies from posting content, but not everyone comes armed with that experience.  If Wikipedia wants to crack down on edits from brands and PR people then it needs to do a better job of explaining and publicizing its own policies.

What do you think?  Have you worked with Wikipedia before?  Have you edited copy there?  What has your experience been like?


BBC News story on Bell Pottinger and Wikipedia scandal

About Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s Conflict of Interest policy

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