Add Wikipedia editing as a communication competency or go home

Posted on June 17, 2014 11:10 am by | PR

Image: Giulia Forsythe
It is time to add Wikipedia to your list of communication competencies.

Yes, you should know how to create and edit an article. Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia that touts its crowdsourced nature. If you represent a company or client that pays you, though, writing and editing are, for the most part, out of bounds. Your Wikipedia competency has to include an understanding of the often labyrnthine processes for having an article changed.

The issue of marketing and PR workers editing articles on behalf of clients has been around nearly as long as Wikipedia has. The mounting revelations of misbheavior did little to curtail the practices, mainly because there was no particular mandate for communicators to abide by Wikipedia’s often confusing and sometimes contradictory policies and guidelines.

Most in the Wikipedia community don’t seem to have a problem with a paid representative making a simple factual correction. Say your client employs 15,000 people but the Wikipedia article says it’s 150,000, so you delete the extra zero; they’re mostly fine with that in Wikipedialand. At a recent meeting of Wikipedians and PR representatives, one Wikipedian said that the belief that “PR people’s shadow are never to darken the door of Wikipedia” are over. “That ship has sailed,” he said.

Substantive edits, though are another thing altogether. Like it or not, the rules are clear: If you have a conflict of interest, you shouldn’t be editing an article. I have plenty of issues with the policy in general. For example, a lot of people who aren’t paid by a client have a conflict of interest. Anybody on either side of a controversial issue (e.g., gun control, abortion) has a conflict of interest; they’re trying to promote a point of view. Yet there’s no focus on these edits that compares with the belief in the Wikipedia community that PR people are only there to help their clients sell products. A lot of PR peple want to ensure accuracy—like adding missing years worth of financial data.

Be that as it may, though, the rules are the rules and it’s up to the PR profession to figure out how to achieve the same outcomes by playing by those rules. That’s what Michael Bassik did when he ran Burson Marstellar’s digital shop. Seeing Burson staff going across the street to get online under a non-Burson account so they could make edits to client articles, Bassik introduced a global hands-off policy, option instead to contract with William Beutler’s consultancy, Beutler Ink,, which guides clients on the proper use of Wikipedia’s protocols for getting changes made.

In recent weeks, a number of events have cast new light on the need for the PR profession to embrace adherence to those protocols:

  • The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK has updated its Wikipedia guidance. According to a post by CIPR chair Stephen Waddington, the guidance “is intended to provide clear and detailed advice on how public relations professionals should engage with the Wikipedia community…It highlights best practices and equips public relations professionals with the advice needed to navigate Wikipedia engagement and with an understanding of how to protect an organization’s or client’s reputation openly and transparently.” (The guidance is available as free download from CIPR.)

  • Ten global PR agencies—including some of the world’s biggest—announced they had signed on to a commitment to abide by Wikipedia principles; they’re also promising to make sure their employees and clients do, as well. Among those signalling their agreement to play by the rules agency-wide are Edelman, Ogilvy & Mather, Burson-Marsteller, FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, and Peppercomn. Other agencies are welcome to join the commitment. Several already have; the lsit of agencies has expanded to include Hill+Knowlton, Porter Novelli, Voce Communications, Weber Shandwick, Waggener Edstrom, and MSLGROUP, among others. Edelman Digital Sr. VP Phil Gomes—arguably the most important voice in the PR-Wikipedia discussion—wrote in a post that the firms signing the commitment “certainly don’t believe this is the finish line. We also recognize the statement, by itself, isn’t enough—actions count. This is the start of an industry-wide commitment.”

  • Wikipedia has strengthened its rules prohibiting undisclosed paid edits. According to The Wall Street Journal, “changes in Wikipedia’s terms of use will require anyone paid to edit articles to disclose that arrangement.” The article cites Wikimedia’s chief communications officer, Katherine Maher, pointing out that Wikipedia is “not an advertising service.” The Journal article also notes that some secret paid editing could be prosecuted, since the U.S. Federal Trade Commission requires that people posting content “should clearly and conspiculously disclose” any relationship to the company they’re writing about.

While it has always been lamentable that some in the PR world felt it acceptable to break the rules in order to satisfy clients, it’s clear from these recent moves that those days are over. Ignorance of the rules is not a defense. Resources are available to help guide you through the process.

There’s no doubt that Wikipedia wields huge influence. People Googling a company typically find its Wikipedia article among the first few results. It is incumbent on communicators to ensure those articles are accurate. If you haven’t had to deal with an inaccuracy in a Wikipedia article, you will. Ignoring it is like shrugging off development of a crisis plan because your company has never had a crisis. Behaving ethically and following Wikipedia’s rules is no longer just one of your options when that time comes. It’s the only option.

Knowing how has become a core communication competency.



  • 1.Once you're familiar with the rules, contribute to the bigger Wikipedia community, too. Use your industry knowledge to update more than just your company's page. Help others out. Stay neutral, though, and clearly identify yourself so that you can defend against charges of unduly tampering with content.

    Brett Tremblay | June 2014 | Canada

  • 2.Would love to see PRSA offer an online seminar on how to create/edit in Wikipedia.

    Nancy Brewer | June 2014 | Oxford, OH

  • 3.Echoing Nancy above, I would love to see the IABC offering the same.

    Laura McHale | June 2014 | Hong Kong

  • 4.Thanks for this, Shel. It's been an honor to work with people like William, Phil, and Michael on this--and the hope is that it generates more education, more awareness, and a higher prioritization of ethics in our industry. And, for Wikipedia editors, my hope is there can be some distinguishing over time between ethical communications professionals and specific bad actors/bad practices in our field. As you say, we often have at our disposal a great deal of information that could help make Wikipedia articles more accurate and thorough...if we could engage with objective editors to get that information added or be even more clear on what constitutes "non-controversial edits" (per your hypothetical above...)

    Sam Ford | June 2014 | Bowling Green, KY

  • 5.Wikipedia is one of best sources of link and traffic however getting link from wikipedia is more risky. There is big team of wikipedia editors who monitors wikipedia 24/7. So before adding article to wikipedia read its terms carefully. A nice article I have found here

    Eli | July 2014

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