“A string of senior business figures have had their Wikipedia entries burnished by an anonymous ‘reputation cleanser,’ believed to be a senior figure in the PR industry.”
David Singleton describes how 42 changes to various Wikipedia pages were made from the same London IP address between April 2009 and June 2011, with negative or controversial details erased and/or positive information added, it is believed, by a well-known industry PR professional (The Independent suggests it is either Mark Bolland or someone in his Clerkenwell office).
This is controversial territory (I wrote about it on ExtranetEvolution.com nearly four years ago – post), and it was discussed at one of last year’s CIPR Social Summer seminars when two representatives of the Wikimedia Foundation talked to practitioners about Wikipedia’s core requirements. They reiterated that Wikipedia has clear policies about remaining neutral, citing verifiable and reliable sources, and not publishing original research, and PR people should be aware of these principles, about what constitutes notability, and about potential conflicts of interest (I also blogged on this in September 2009).
Appropriate use of Wikipedia by public relations professionals is also covered in the CIPR’s recently updated social media guidelines (May 2011):
“For example, if a practitioner is looking to update a Wikipedia entry on behalf of a company or a client, it is best visit the discussion /talk pages and work with an editor to update the relevant page – all updates and entries to Wikipedia must be neutral in tone, factual and verifiable. Please read the Wikipedia guidelines carefully before submitting or editing an article.”
In some of the social media workshops that I have run, Wikipedia is often raised as a topic. Sometimes, the questions are quite basic (‘how reliable is the information?’); other times, there is a hint that people might want to use Wikipedia to market themselves or their business, products, projects or services. I always urge caution:
- It is vital to avoid hype and marketing ‘spin’ (PR professionals should, of course, be adept at minimising hyperbole and focusing on the key facts in their copy).
- If the organisation, individual, product or project is already mentioned in Wikipedia, start a basic ‘stub’ article, hyperlinked from existing content, containing basic facts and highlighting relevant ‘enduring notability’ criteria (evidenced by significant coverage in reliable secondary sources that are independent of the topic). This can then be used by other Wikipedia editors as a foundation.
- By all means, correct factual inaccuracies, but if the overall tone of an article is likely to be significantly altered, then it should be discussed with an experienced Wikipedia editor who can provide a more neutral point of view.
- Consider both your own professional reputation and that of your organisation or client. Professional PR and marketing practitioners should be aware of the core neutrality requirements on Wikipedia – ignorance is no defence – and being exposed as delivering ‘propaganda’ can also have a knock-on negative impact on the agency ‘massaging the message’ and on the reputation of the organisation, people, products or services described in the Wikipedia article.