What PR Firms Need to Know About Wikipedia

Public relations and advertising firms have a long history of working in, being harassed on and even being driven from Wikipedia. To firms that have traveled this path, it’s no mystery that the guidelines that govern Wikipedia and the editors that help manage the Wikipedia community don’t appreciate the idea of PR firms meddling in their non-commercial world.

Ask many Wikipedia editors what the place of agencies and public relations firms is in Wikipedia, and they would say they have no place there, except to humbly suggest changes on talk pages. But talk page discussions are slow, and they seldom result in positive actions. Inevitably, agencies are going to get directly involved with Wikipedia if their clients want their help in this venue.
There are many things a PR or advertising professional should know if they want toget active on Wikipedia. Here are a few of the most-important ones:

Wikipedia is not an advertising board
Wikipedia strives to be entirely non-commercial. Wikipedia defines itself by what it isn’t, more than by what it is. The organization publishes a list of 16 “Things Wikipedia is not”, and one of these 16 is that “Wikipedia is not a soapbox or means of promotion.”

There are thousands of people who donate huge amounts of their time to Wikipedia, and they take great exception when someone else wants to use their labor of love as a means to promote themselves or their client. Wikipedia is not an advertising board, and submissions that advertise, promote, or even reference a client or its product can be quickly and permanently removed as spam. And the contributors and editors that submit this content quickly become distrusted and lose their ability to effectively edit.

Content needs to be referenced
Any information, claim, fact, or even falsehood that appears on a Wikipedia page is supposed to be backed by a reference. Wikipedia isn’t supposed to be the source of anything; rather it is supposed to be a collection of information from “reliable sources” that illustrates a topic.
Certainly not all content on Wikipedia is directly sourced, but an article needs several sources with meaningful coverage of the topic to meet Wikipedia’s guidelines for notability. And within an article, specific names and dates and anything controversial needs direct attribution to a source, or it might be removed.

Referenced material is difficult to change.
If it is difficult to add material that has not been properly referenced, it is at least equally difficult to remove content that is properly referenced, no matter what it is. And removing negative content is often a primary concern for PR and Advertising agencies as they try to manage their clients’ reputations. A scandal, a lawsuit, or even allegations of one can have a damning effect on the reputation of a person or a business, and the same visibility and prominence that makes Wikipedia an attractive place for reputation building makes it a very unappealing place for negative information to be available.

For example, consider a Wikipedia biography page for a prominent life coach, fitness expert, trainer, financial manager or other provider of trust-based services. If this person was ever a party to a lawsuit that was covered in a local newspaper, that can be referenced and used to add extensive passages calling the subject’s morality and trustworthiness into question, even if they were eventually exonerated.

In one case on Wikipedia, a well known author of self help books and seminars was named as a party to a lawsuit; one of his associates was accused of cheating clients he met through the author. An investigative journalist for a mid-market newspaper wrote a series of articles following the lawsuit and mentioned the author in them. Later, someone with an apparent grievance against the author edited his Wikipedia page so that coverage of the lawsuit, referenced to these articles, made up over half of the content on the page. The content mischaracterized facts and claims made in the article. It was written to claim that the author was the primary defendant in the lawsuit and didn’t include that the lawsuit was later settled without a judgment. But because the information was apparently well-referenced it stayed on the Wikipedia page for several years before it was corrected … which leads us to another fact of Wikipedia:

Negative content is sticky
There are so many people trying to add positive and promotional content onto Wikipedia to benefit their commercial interests, that concerned editors looking for Conflicts Of Interest (COI) focus heavily on removing promotional information. There are controversial subjects where editors also monitor for negative COI (think religious topics, politics, conspiracies), but for articles about companies or people, most negative contributions are given minimal scrutiny, especially if there are references to back them up.

And attempts at removing this content are reflexively seen as attempts to promote and are often reverted. And the editors that attempt to remove or change negative content, even if it is patently false, can get labeled as working promotionally, warned and eventually banned. Any attempt to remove negative content has to be done carefully, even if it is the right thing to do and follows all of Wikipedia’s policies. A negative toned article can be refocused over time by a series of small edits, but this isn’t easy or fast.

Only proper references are acceptable
When it comes to sources, Wikipedia doesn’t settle for just any reference. There are specific guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not. Generally, newspapers and magazines are good, wile a company’s website, a blog, or a partner site are not.

And if that weren’t confusing enough, and there are lots of gray areas. For instance, self published content is not an acceptable reference. News releases are self-published content, so they aren’t appropriate references. But an article in a magazine, written by a paid editor, is an acceptable reference because of the idea of editorial oversight… by writing about this topic, the editor is essentially endorsing that it is notable to readers. But if that same paid editor takes a company press release, re-spins it and creates an article from it, that suddenly is back to being self-published and isn’t an acceptable reference anymore, despite the editor’s apparent endorsement.

Products are a red flag
Mentioning a client’s product in any obvious way can quickly draw negative attention, especially on prominent Wikipedia pages. As a rule, information about products, especially pictures, comparisons or claims of capabilities will be considered inappropriate. And unless products are considered notable in their own right and have a Wikipedia page dedicated to them, it is usually considered improper to have references, links or pictures of a commercial product on Wikipedia.

The Outlook for PR firms and agencies on Wikipedia
For a PR firm or ad agency to effectively work for their clients on Wikipedia, they will need access to specialist knowledge and skills. In Wikipedia’s “one strike” environment, attempts to change content can result in severe backlash and can bring lots of unwanted attention to a page if not done skillfully. Editing accounts that show a history of promotional edits get recognized and then get watched closely. IP addresses are also watched, and they can often be traced back to your agency to positively ID you and your edits as being promotional. In the end, building this skill set in house may be expensive, time consuming, and eventually, unsuccessful. And if an editor’s account becomes recognized as representing an agency, vengeful Wikipedia editors can trace back through months and years of edits, removing content, tagging articles with COI and calling into question every effort ever executed on behalf of a client through that account. Zach is a Wikipedia Writer at WikipediaWriters.Com