Determining how to best handle Wikipedia entries when you are in public relations remains challenging. Wikipedia articles continue to load at the top in search results as Wikipedia remains the sixth most popular website in the world. This makes it a site not to be ignored, and the impact of Wikipedia can be especially profound when there are errors. My research from earlier this year found that 28% or respondents indicated that the Wikipedia article for their company or client had at least one potentially reputation damaging error.
Unfortunately, errors are not easily fixed. Wikipedia has a ‘Bright Line Rule’ that requires public relations professionals to use the Talk pages of their Wikipedia article instead of making edits directly on the page. Not following Wikipedia’s rules can result in wasted time by seeing your edits reverted, wasted money by seeing edits from firms deleted, and/or negative media coverage. Essentially, the ‘Bright Line Rule’ pertains to editing when there is a conflict of interest (COI). As they identify, COI is when editing Wikipedia involves promoting your employer’s interest. This means that the ‘Bright Line Rule’ applies to:
- Public relations, marketing, investor relations, corporate communications staff
- All employees
- An outside agency (both public relations and Wikipedia agencies)
This year has shed light on a variety of issues with Wikipedia. First, errors in Wikipedia have caused reputation damage for companies. This research finding should encourage organizations to be at least familiar with the content of their Wikipedia articles. Second, following the ‘Bright Line Rule’ does not matter to the media and can still be considered as “rewriting” Wikipedia. What happened with BP was edits were requested using the Talk pages, but some of the requests were simply copied and pasted into the article by Wikipedia editors. This led to the media concern about the company’s influence on the Wikipedia article. Because of this, it is probably a good practice to make sure your edits are not directly applied. Third, hiring an agency that does not follow the ‘Bright Line Rule’ is also against the rules. On November 19, Wikimedia Foundation issued a cease and desist letter to Wiki-PR, an agency that has reportedly been engaging in paid advocacy editing on Wikipedia. The letter claims the agency engaged in “sockpuppetry or meatpuppetry,” actions that are “expressly prohibited” on Wikipedia. A total of 250-300 editing accounts were identified and banned or blocked with COI editing notices placed on many Wikipedia articles such as Priceline’s, the discount travel website.
In June 2012, the Chartered Institute for Public Relations issued guidelines for Wikipedia clearly indicating the public relations professionals are to follow the ‘Bright Line Rule’ and not directly edit Wikipedia for their company or client. This still constitutes best practice for companies and agencies, but I advise companies to take it a step further update your employee policies to prohibit all company employees from directly editing the company Wikipedia article.
Marcia W. DiStaso, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, a Research Editor for the IPR Social Science of Social Media Research Center, and a Senior Research Fellow for the Arthur W. Page Center.