Analysis: Wikipedia-friend or foe on the net?

Wikipedia has been described by some as ‘inaccurate’, ‘flawed’ and ‘irresponsible’. Adam Hill asks how PROs can use the online encyclopedia to their advantage

If your client was wrongly accused of making his living by eating pets in pubs around Stoke, you would be on the phone to your legal representative in an instant.

Yet an entry in Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, recently said just that of pop star Robbie Williams. In a similarly bizarre vein, the Duchess of Cornwall's Christian name was changed to 'Cow-miller', while David Beckham has been, apparently, a 19th-century Chinese goalkeeper.

The USP of Wikipedia is that entries can be added to and edited by any of its users, making it a powerful research tool and, for many, a benchmark for the positive role of free speech on the web. But as the aforementioned examples demonstrate, it can also be a reputation minefield. 'It is an example of the very best of the internet: fast, up to date and informative,' says Shimon Cohen, chairman of consultancy The PR Office. 'Of course, it can also be at risk of the very worst of the internet: hackers, misinformation and distortion.'

And Wikipedia is popular – the encyclopedia currently holds 2.5 million entries, and it claims 2.5 billion page views a year and 600,000 users. Web traffic monitor Alexa's most recent figures for daily reach record a doubling of traffic to Wikipedia pages since December. That means a lot of people may be viewing something inaccurate about a potentially vulnerable client.

The site is named after 'wikis' – the open-access software which allows the editing process ('wiki is the Hawaiian word for 'quick'). If you do not like an entry, you can change it: add a puff here, delete something unsavoury there. The encyclopedia is 'policed' by volunteer contributors and editors.

In the public affairs arena, Wikipedia recently made headlines after the discovery that some entries on US senators had been airbrushed by their supporters on Capitol Hill to banish the whiff of factually accurate controversy. And the site's editors are said to be investigating the possibility that staff in Westminster may be doing something similar.

Contributors need to register to post or edit entries, so they can be traced. It is far from a foolproof system – problems can escalate when inaccurate entries become indexed in search engines such as Google – but it is better than nothing.

'Empower the world'
Americans Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia in 2001 and rely on public donations to run its not-for-profit parent, the Florida-based Wikimedia Foundation (motto: 'Help empower the world with free knowledge'). Although Wales does speak to the UK media, press enquiries are generally handled by those volunteer editors whom Wikipedia considers trustworthy. They also give interviews and are known as the 'Wikipedia press team'.

'You could go and write an article on someone you didn't like,' explains one, Mark Pellegrini. 'But it's probable that someone else will come along and modify or revert the edits you made. [For example] the George W Bush entry is edited hundreds of times per day.'

The rise of citizen journalism and blogging means many of the
issues around access to Wikipedia are familiar.

Fredrik Wacka of Malmo-based PR agency W PR & Information runs blog site www.corporateblogging.info, and says: 'PR people shouldn't be any more worried about Wikipedia than we are about other information sources. The damage of misrepresentation by the BBC or in the New York Times is, logically, a greater risk. Once published there, the information is in the archives. It never disappears. But with Wikipedia, misrepresentation can be dealt with.'

US journalist John Seigenthaler, who in November last year denounced Wikipedia as a 'flawed and irresponsible research tool', would disagree. But the entry written about Seigenthaler did suggest that he might have been involved in the assassination of Robert Kennedy. This false claim, apparently by a prankster trying to trick a colleague, remained on Wikipedia for 132 days before being corrected.

Such harmful episodes on Wikipedia seem to have been the exception rather than the rule. Joel Cere, vice-president and head of netcoms EMEA at Hill & Knowlton, says: 'If an entry has been obviously modified to suit a particular agenda, it will only be a matter of time before it is swayed back to a more neutral ground or to the prevalent public opinion. My PR colleagues should have more faith in the "wisdom of crowds".'

Maximising opportunities
And Wikipedia presents opportunities as well as threats for PROs. Idil Cakim, director of knowledge development at Burson-Marsteller, sees wikis as a useful tool for communication with online constituencies.

'PR firms can advise their clients to update the information about their industries and companies on Wikipedia, without going into marketing-speak,' suggests Cakim. 'Clients can also refer Wikipedia readers to websites that provide more in-depth information about the given topic.'

Cere agrees that a heavy-handed approach is to be avoided. 'As custodian of their clients' reputations, PROs ought to regularly monitor Wikipedia for mentions of company execs, brands and known issues,' he advises. 'PROs wishing to align Wikipedia's and their client's mention of an event shouldn't modify the original entry, unless factually incorrect, but provide additional information to offer a more balanced viewpoint.'

Although Wikipedia is open to all, Wales says last year the most active two per cent of users did 73 per cent of all edits, which is not exactly a free-for-all. And it is worth pointing out that research has also found it to be fairly trustworthy. A survey in science journal Nature suggested Wikipedia was about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica – although both contained factual errors.

So as an exercise in web democracy, Wikipedia is hard to beat. And it does have rules, so it is not quite the online Wild West its detractors like to portray. But nonetheless, PROs wanting to manage reputations would be advised to keep an eye on who is using Wikipedia to say what.

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