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CW Bulletin

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Point of View

How Corporate Representatives Can Work
Better with Wikipedia

by David Gerard

Public relations professionals have often had a rocky relationship with the Wikipedia community. Fortunately, the problems can be resolved to the benefit of both.

To people who are unfamiliar with it, Wikipedia can be daunting because it works like almost nothing else out there. The key is to understand that Wikipedia itself is not an organization, but a community—made up of thousands of individuals, with varying opinions and motivations, but all committed to the project of writing an encyclopedia. They're amateurs, doing it for love, and if anything comes from outside that seems like it might interfere with that, they hit the roof.

The problem
Every day Wikipedia editors deal with large volumes of poor edits from corporate advocates who aren't familiar with its content policies, or with the appropriate etiquette for editors who have a conflict of interest. Worse, a lot of these people label themselves as "PR representatives," even the ones who are really just spammers. As a result, many Wikipedia editors have grown weary or resentful of cleaning up vast quantities of low-quality promotional editing.

There's also a philosophical conflict that adds to the discord: A corporate representative is a paid advocate, but Wikipedia is all about neutrality.

Working with Wikipedia, not against it
PR professionals who spend the time and effort to learn Wikipedia's content policies and behavioral etiquette concerning conflict-of-interest editing will help both Wikipedia and themselves. If you respect the community, you will generally receive respect in return. Those who put in the effort to participate and engage with the Wikipedia community properly will find editors who are willing to spend their time helping them. Companies that provide value to Wikipedia will find Wikipedia providing value to them.

It's worth trying your hand at Wikipedia yourself. See if you enjoy contributing to Wikipedia on topics not linked to your work. If you see something wrong and you have a reference to support it, click edit and add it! Be utterly upfront about who you are, where you're from, your client list and your conflicts of interest. This is not for everyone, but it is the quickest way to understand Wikipedia from the inside.

Image contributions, under a proper free-content license, are also both useful and good for your reputation.

Solving your problem
Not everyone wants to take up Wikipedia as their hobby. If all you want to do is correct factual errors and fix other overt problems, it's easy to ask for help. Articles' “Talk” pages aren't always monitored, but if you have a conflict of interest and need help with an edit, there's a {{request edit}} template to flag. There's also the {{help}} option and the conflict-of-interest noticeboard. If there's something seriously problematic (e.g., defamation of a living person) or something that you would like handled in a non-public forum, you can email Wikipedia at info@wikimedia.org.

Conflicts of interest
Above all, if you have a conflict of interest, don't edit the Wikipedia article page itself. Wikipedia's guidelines say you can edit an article about yourself in certain circumstances, but, based on personal observation, I would advise against this—the media and general public have repeatedly pilloried editors and companies with a conflict of interest who have tried to alter their Wikipedia pages, even when they were arguably acting within reason.

What's a conflict of interest? It's what the phrase means in conventional English. Here’s a rule of thumb: Consider whether the media and/or the general public would think you have a conflict if they looked through your work a year later? If so, don't do it.

Neutrality is king. Your client may superficially want to skew sentiment to their apparent favor, but neutrality is better in practice—because if negative information is in the public record, someone will find it.

Come work with us

I advise you to engage with the others on the site as fellow human beings. There is no individual at Wikipedia who can give you permission to do a particular thing (including me—this article is my advice, not a set of rules)—and if you see a guideline and immediately look for loopholes, you've got the wrong idea about Wikipedia and its purpose, and things aren't going to go well. But if you see other Wikipedians as your fellows, they will see you that way in return.

Writing for Wikipedia is not like writing copy for a newspaper. It's a culture of collaborative writing where what really matters is contributing ideas and thoughts to the topic at hand and achieving a synthesis. This writing process can appear to be very robust from the outside, and it certainly takes some time to get used to. But the results are that one of the top 10 websites in the world is, of all things, an encyclopedia. So something's clearly working. And you can join us.


David Gerard is a volunteer media contact for Wikipedia. He has edited Wikipedia since 2004. Contact him at dgerard@gmail.com.