Wikipedia:Public relations (essay)

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This is intended as guidance for Public Relations people in terms of contributing to Wikipedia. Currently, this is not policy or even a guideline: it is a suggestion from one Wikipedian, User:Jmabel (Joe Mabel).

In the March 2006 issue of PR Tactics (the member newspaper of the Public Relations Society of America) is a piece by Brian Wasson, The wide world of Wikipedia, and why PR practitioners should take note . I felt that he was right on quite a few points, wrong on a few others, and after he published I had some back and forth with him. He was agreeable to my reworking some of his ideas and posting them on Wikipedia as useful guidance for PR people. (In particular, he agreed with me that he had probably over-encouraged people to use external links in Wikipedia to "drive traffic" to their sites: Wikipedia generally considers this linkspamming.) The following should, however, be understood as my position, not Brian's.

A five-minute introduction to Wikipedia[edit]

If you are reading this, you probably already know that Wikipedia is an enormous, and enormously popular web site. The English-language Wikipedia alone has over 1.35 million articles as of September 2006 (and nearly that many registered users), and the English-language Wikipedia is less than half of Wikipedia as a whole. For some time, Wikipedia has been in the Alexa Top 20; along with Craigslist, it is one of two dot-orgs in the Alexa Top 50. Nielsen/NetRatings places it in the top 10 news and information sites, and as one of the top 10 fastest growing Web brands.

Pretty much anyone can edit Wikipedia; the major limitations on what you can write about are:

  • Verifiability—it must be possible to verify the information in the article from reliable sources; original research is not welcome.
  • Neutral point of view—Neither hype nor attacks are welcome, and opinions should not be given in the narrative voice of the article, although quoting sourced and cited opinions of respected figures in the relevant field is more than welcome.
  • Wikipedia:Notability—It's an encyclopedia. The threshold of notability isn't as high as for Britannica—Wikipedia considers neighborhoods of major cities to be notable, as well as pretty much any musical group with national or international exposure, major (but not minor) figures in industry, etc. Still, you can be pretty sure that your particular brand of stapler, or your amateur community theater group, or your unsigned rock band is probably not notable enough to merit an article.

If there is one thing I want you to carry away from reading this piece, it is this:

Even though you can directly edit Wikipedia yourself, interacting with Wikipedia is more like interacting with a newspaper or a professional magazine than with your own web site or publicity materials. You are contributing material that may be accepted or rejected, and may be edited and used in ways not always to your liking.

Wikipedia is a wiki, which allows users to collaborate, create and edit Web pages in real time. Articles, once submitted, may be "edited mercilessly" by anyone. The original contributor has no more claim on the evolution of the article than anyone else, and while sane people normally defer to obvious experts, they probably won't defer if they feel that expert is pushing a point of view (in Wikipedia jargon, a "POV"). Trying to take ownership of articles is strongly frowned upon.

Wikipedia has no formal editing process, just the open-ended free-for-all ability for people to modify and correct each other's work. As Brian Wasson writes, "An article can change in a second, and once-correct information can be replaced with fallacies. The site acknowledges this limitation, but maintains that, over time, Wikipedia will mature into a comprehensive, well-vetted informational resource."

Does this make for inaccuracy? Occasionally, and Wikipedia certainly has its critics, but several independent studies, notably one in Nature magazine, suggest that the accuracy is comparable to more conventional reference books: the mass of people able to correct errors appears to cope successfully with the ease of introducing them, and there are various bot-based means of detecting and correcting probable vandalism.

How PR people can help Wikipedia (and other "copyleft" projects)[edit]

Let's start with something uncontroversial: there is one large, uncontroversial way that public relations people can help both Wikipedia (and other "copyleft" projects) and help their clients: explicitly give all of your promotional photos and other graphics some copyleft license, such as the an appropriate Creative Commons license (nothing more restrictive than CC-BY-SA: the license must allow derivative versions and commercial use). It's also nice if you do the same with press releases: after all, this is how you really mean your press release to be used, anyway.

A free license lets us use your materials at will, without worrying that we might be violating your copyright. In particular, this also lets us host copies of your images on Wikimedia Commons, which is great for you and great for us.

Wikipedia and public relations professionals[edit]

Wasson asks half-rhetorically, "So, if Wikipedia is such a popular site, and anyone can add an article, shouldn't savvy PR folks proactively submit an article about their organization or client?" He then answers himself "Well… maybe", pointing out the importance of notability, verifiability, neutrality, and that violations of these generally won't last long. He also points out that Wikipedia discourages "what it calls 'autobiographical' articles about yourself or subjects in which you are personally involved (e.g. your organization or client)." Wikipedia's assumption is that if you are important, someone else will write about you.

The rule on "autobiography" is not an outright prohibition, but it is a caution. If your only involvement in Wikipedia is to write about yourself, you will probably be less welcome than a more general contributor. And if you do so surreptitiously, and are caught, you may rapidly become very unwelcome. In particular, there is an enormous suspicion in the Wikipedia community of people who are being paid to write nice (or nasty) things about someone or something, and that suspicion becomes outright antagonism if those people attempt to conceal what they are doing and are later found out.

Still, corrections of inaccuracies are very welcome, and, also, if you believe some individual or group you are working with or for is genuinely notable and has been overlooked, it is legitimate to get the ball rolling; just remember that the resulting article, once other hands have reworked it, is not likely to be a puff piece.

The following suggestions for professional PR people and their equivalents who are thinking of writing for Wikipedia are modeled loosely on Brian Wasson's suggestions in the cited article, supplemented by some later exchanges with him. Again, the list is Joe Mabel's influenced by Brian Wasson, rather than vice versa.

  1. Before jumping in, spend some time browsing around Wikipedia. Hit "Random article" a few dozen times. Depending on the skin through which you are viewing Wikipedia, that may be any of several places on the screen; if you can't find it, then you can click here for a random page, then use your browser's "back" button to return. Also, look up a few articles in the specific area(s) in which you intend to contribute: get a sense of what is already there.
  2. Wikipedia is a complex community, with its own rules and customs. Most contributors learn them by a combination of a little reading and a lot of advice (solicited or unsolicited). Check out the Community Portal, especially the section on Guidelines, help, and resources. You don't have to read it all, but spend an hour or so browsing around, try to get a sense of it, and expect that, once you do start editing some people who know the rules better will probably gently (or not-so-gently) nudge you if you head in directions that the Wikipedia community finds inappropriate.
  3. Don't edit anonymously. Create an account, and say clearly on your User page who you are. You don't have to give your own name, but if you are editing on behalf of an organization or organizations, identify it or them. Working secretly on someone's behalf will be viewed by much of the Wikipedia community as subterfuge. Wikipedia has been placed in the difficult position of having to block violators' editing access, including, at times, even the offices of prominent political figures or major television networks.
  4. Sock puppetry—creating multiple accounts controlled by the same person—is generally discouraged, and, if used in an attempt to create a false sense of consensus, or to evade a warning you have been given on another account, can easily lead to being banned from the site. Still, it is perfectly legitimate to have one account for your professional use and another for your personal use, just so long as your personal edits stay far away from the topics on which you work professionally.
  5. Stick to verifiable facts and a strict neutral point of view. As Wasson writes, "This can be challenging, as by the very nature of our profession we want to make our companies look as good as possible in public. But creating a skewed article about a topic that you have a vested interest in can draw the ire of other users, and can quickly get picked up by blogs and other media outlets, creating significant bad press for your organization. Resist the urge!"
  6. If you come across what you believe is an inaccuracy about your organization, usually the best policy is not to directly edit the article itself. Come to the article's Talk page, provide a reference showing that the article is inaccurate, and indicate that if no one objects, you will edit to correct it after 48 hours, but would welcome if someone else will correct it sooner. Watchlist the page. Often, someone will make the correction for you. Sometimes someone will want to discuss the matter, in which case please do so civilly. Often as not, 48 hours will go by, no one will object, and you can proceed. (If the matter is absolutely clear-cut, it is OK to just make the edit yourself, but still come to the talk page, disclose yourself as an interested party, and indicate what you've done.)
  7. Remember that Wikipedia is open source (more precisely, dual licensed under CC-BY-SA and GFDL). If you post material to Wikipedia, it may be copied to a lot of places. Do not post text, photos, or other material on which someone else holds copyright (unless they have already released it under CC-BY-SA or a less restrictive license, or granted you a license that authorizes you to make such a release; see Commons:Commons:OTRS for what we need by way of a release of rights for third party materials), and submit your own copyrighted or licensed material only if you are willing to allow anyone, anywhere, to reuse it in whole or in part, including commercially, and to rework it however they may choose without your permission.
    • Confused by that thing about CC-BY-SA, GFDL, licenses, etc.? The gist is, for both words and pictures, if you don't have the right to give it away, you probably don't have the right to put it in Wikipedia. And if you put it in Wikipedia, you are more or less giving it away, at least for use by other people who are also willing to give things away. See Wikipedia:Copyrights, CC-BY-SA, and GFDL for the gory details.
  8. As mentioned above, another approach, which raises no ethical issues at all, is that you can place pictures or text on your own site, license that material under CC-BY-SA and GFDL, and leave a note on a relevant article's Wikipedia talk page (but please don't spam a bunch of talk pages). This invites other editors, unrelated to your organization, to draw on this material as they will, if they find it useful. For example:
    • If you manage a musical group about which Wikipedia already has an article, and you have legal rights to photos and member bios that you normally put out as publicity materials, you can release those under CC-BY-SA and GFDL, and leave a note on the talk page of the relevant article, allowing someone unconnected to the band to follow up.
    • Similarly, if your company or NGO licenses its press releases under CC-BY-SA and GFDL, then others may quote them in Wikipedia where useful, without having to worry about possibly accidentally breaching your copyright.
  9. In general, beware the temptation to use external links to drive traffic to your Web site. "Linkspamming" is a quick road to getting your account blocked. If you have genuinely appropriate links to add, fine, but remember that the threshold is high, comparable to the threshold for article topics (see Wikipedia:External links for details). In general, if you are proposing a link to your own site, the right thing to do is to suggest it on the talk page of the relevant article, and let another editor decide whether it is valuable enough to be included. The one exception to this is that the official site related to the subject of an article is always welcome. If there is an article about your company, political party, band, etc., and the article omits a link to your official site, you can always add that in the external links section (and if the article lacks an external links section, you can add one for that purpose).
  10. Quoting Wasson again, "Bear in mind that others may edit articles seconds after they are posted (or edited). You can waste a lot of time tracking article changes and trying to stay on top of them. If you are a registered user, use Wikipedia's "watchlist" function to track changes on articles of interest to you. Check back regularly, but don't be obsessive about it. And, don't take the edits of others personally."

Other wikis[edit]

Wiki is a technology, and Wikipedia is only one of the many wikis out there. Some actively welcome PR contributions. You may want to look into [1], currently in beta, a domain directory wiki that actively welcomes having organizations write about themselves. (However, the licensing status of its material seems very unclear as of 10 September 2006.)