Ethical Wikipedia Strategies for Brands


Wikipedia has been called the most influential website on the planet. It has more college-educated readers than Facebook or Twitter. According to the Wikimedia Foundation’s latest stats, Wikipedia gets 6.6 billion views a year and reaches 74 percent of the U.S. population and 26 percent of the population worldwide. In a world now filled with 140 character tweets and click-hungry infotainment news, for many, Wikipedia is the last bastion of deep, meaningful and genuinely neutral information, written by highly educated contributors (Wikipedia editors are more than twice as likely as the average American to have a master’s degree or Ph.D.).

However, many organizations and PR professionals don’t see it the same way. Neutral? Written by highly educated contributors? For them, the Wikipedia articles about their company define their brand, heritage, reputation, executives, and products for online searches. But for the Wikipedia community, articles about organizations are important, but not a priority. According to an analysis I conducted of 2,578 company articles on Wikipedia, only 10 percent are marked as high or top priority by Wikipedia’s editorial community. 

The quality and completeness of Wikipedia’s content can vary greatly. Oftentimes, controversies get more coverage, perhaps because they’re more interesting to Wikipedia editors. Articles on politicians, sports, science, and culture will typically have articles that are complete, well-written, properly sourced, balanced, and of a higher quality than most brand pages. Wikipedia’s editorial community is 87 percent male, many of whom are technology professionals. This leads to more than 100 articles on different versions of Linux, while major cosmetics brands don’t naturally attract interested editors.

What to do about it

While it takes more work, patience and expertise, the only completely safe way for PR professionals to make substantive improvements to their organization’s and brand’s Wikipedia articles is to do so without directly editing the article. This is the approach sanctioned by the Chartered Institute of Public Relationssupported by Jimmy Wales and recommended by Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guideline. Any content or correction of any length or complexity that is genuinely valuable to Wikipedia can be contributed through transparent community collaboration. According to Wikipedia’s editing guidelines, editors with a “financial conflict of interest” (which could include company representatives) are encouraged to use Talk pages and the {{request edit}} option to make changes to pages. 

Wikipedia is controversial, because its openly editable format leaves it vulnerable to censorship, advertising and corporate influence. When we as PR professionals ignore the fact that Wikipedia is openly editable, philosophically our relationship becomes similar to the one we have with professional journalists. We can offer contributed content, act as a resource, discuss controversial issues, and request factual corrections just as we do with the traditional media. Not directly editing the article doesn’t prevent us from overhauling bias controversy sections, contributing 5,000-word articles or reworking a substantial body of work—it merely leaves final content decisions in the hands of impartial Wikipedia editors that have only the reader’s interests in mind.

When legal and marketing departments establish their corporate Wikipedia strategy or policy, they often feel they are faced with only two choices: Ignore one of the world’s most influential websites with a hands-off policy or engage in the risky, controversial and ethically ambiguous practice of direct editing. In some circumstances these are both good strategies, but most companies can find more effective middle ground by engaging in PR or content marketing with Wikipedia’s citizen journalists—a safe and ethical way to make improvements that is valuable both for the organization and Wikipedia. In EthicalWiki’s strategy selection chart, only one of five strategies involve editing the article.

Content is king

Aligning corporate objectives with Wikipedia’s content needs is the fundamental building block of a successful Wikipedia strategy. Any Wikipedia initiative that brings long-term value to the company should also bring value to Wikipedia; otherwise, it will eventually be purged.

For example, heritage brands that lean on their history as part of their corporate identity have an amazing opportunity on Wikipedia, which has a vast audience. Many companies come to Wikipedia to improve their article, but then find they have a vested interest in informing the public about subjects they don’t have a conflict of interest with. Focusing on a single corporate Wikipedia article with an edit button is an overly simplistic way of looking at it, when Fortune 500 companies have dozens of articles that span a variety of topics relating to the organization, such as information about executives, business units, products, and sometimes major events (like a legal controversy). Each one of these may have a dedicated Wikipedia page. For instance, Wells Fargo has a page dedicated to the organization’s history, and Justin Bieber’s Wikipedia page has a section on just his Twitter account. Contributing images of your product for Wikipedia articles on the product category also presents an opportunity to promote that product to an audience of millions per year in a manner that is also valuable to Wikipedia.

Good content according to Wikipedia

According to Charles Matthews, a major contributor to Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guideline, Wikipedia wants “the type of article that a business school academic would write.” Wikipedia’s definition of good content can be counterintuitive to PR professionals. For example, PR professionals often want to add their organization’s latest news to Wikipedia. In contrast, Wikipedia wants their oldest archives. Product PR wants to focus on the product, but Wikipedia is more interested in the company’s heritage, business model and corporate culture. As PR professionals, our instinct is to write the article, but what Wikipedians need and want most is research.

More than 50 percent of requests for improvement to company articles on Wikipedia concern providing sources so the article can be improved. PR agencies and departments that want to effectively engage with Wikipedia should consider a do-it-yourself approach by becoming a trusted resource to volunteer editors. For organizations that already have an article on Wikipedia, another approach is to have an intern share feature stories on the Talk page in proper citation templates to make it easier for Wikipedia volunteers to improve the page.

Content marketing, meaning writing exceptional articles and offering them to the community, requires more resources and expertise, but also delivers more consistent results.

Collaborate with nothing to hide

The best way not to get “exposed” for editing Wikipedia covertly is to have nothing to hide. Wikipedia’s readers and editors can tell when a company wrote its own article. They can even see exactly what’s going on behind the scenes, equipped with nothing but editing records on Wikipedia and enough smarts for solid speculation.

Be transparent about who you are, what your objectives are and who you work for. Don’t overhaul an article without disclosing negative information or controversies. In truth, negative information is more likely to be excluded if you’re shoving it down an editor’s throat, begging them to write it for you, than if you’re skating by hoping they won’t notice.

Most of all—be patient. Just like journalists at The New York Times don’t pick up the phone each time you call, most of Wikipedia’s editors won’t be immediately responsive. Companies that make the investment in engaging with Wikipedia properly will typically find Wikipedians thanking them for their contributions and for their respectful approach.