Corporate comms execs pick their battles on Wikipedia

Top client-side communicators tell PRWeek that they often leave Wikipedia pages about their companies unaltered - even if they contain errors - despite the popularity of the online, democratically edited encyclopedia.

Top client-side communicators tell PRWeek that they often leave Wikipedia pages about their companies unaltered – even if they contain errors – despite the popularity of the online, democratically edited encyclopedia.

“Simply popping on the page and editing at will is the biggest pitfall within this important digital resource,” says Jon Harris, CCO of Hillshire Brands. He adds that his company and others don't view Wikipedia as a consumer-engagement platform like Facebook or Twitter where it can have a back-and-forth dialogue.

The topic of whether agency or in-house PR professionals should edit Wikipedia pages is in the spotlight after a corporate communications executive from BP reportedly wrote nearly half of his company's Wikipedia page, including its environmental sections.

Instead of editing Wikipedia pages themselves, which would be against the site's guidelines, companies rely on an army of volunteer editors to maintain its content. Therefore, communicators should take time to understand Wikipedia's philosophy, the “language” its editors use, and the guidelines they follow, Harris adds.

“Respecting the [Wikipedia] editor's role is just as important as the way a good PR person needs to understand the nuances of working with traditional journalists and editors,” he says.

ExxonMobil, one of BP's rivals, says it strictly follows Wikipedia procedures to not alter its page. Instead, its staff clearly identifies itself when reaching out to editors and focuses on specific errors that can be easily proven wrong, such as an incorrect number. Bigger requests can be viewed as more subjective in nature.

“There's a lot of information on there that's not true or factual,” explains Alan Jeffers, media relations manager at ExxonMobil. “However, it's impossible to prove a negative.”

Earlier this month, some Wikipedia editors accused Arturo Silva, a member of BP's corporate communications department in Houston, of rewriting an estimated 44% of the company's main Wikipedia page, including sections on its environmental performance. However, Silva appeared to stay within Wikipedia's guidelines by identifying himself as a BP employee and not directly editing the article, and some editors have defended his actions.

“BP operates within Wikipedia's guidelines for how company representatives should interact with the site's editors,” BP spokesman Scott Dean told PRWeek via email last week. “For nearly a year now, we have been fully transparent, never directly editing any copy and always disclosing that any suggestion we offer to Wikipedia's editors have come from a BP representative.”

Wikipedia is important to companies because its search ranking is so high that it will sometimes be the first result a consumer sees when he is searching for a company on the web.

“If you're a small brand that needs to get your story out there, Wikipedia may speak for you if you're not on top of it,” explains Michael Tresca, an external audience manager in General Electric's corporate offices.

GE has numerous Web properties that help the company get its story out, he adds. Its website is the number one page found when consumers search for GE on Google, but its Wikipedia page also ranks near the top.

Jay Walsh, head of communications at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia, says there is some truth to smaller brands having a tougher time using the site, noting that “it can be a challenge” for them to get errors removed. There are customer service resources to help in these instances, he adds.

Engaging the Wikipedia community
A company's popularity can also help it maintain an accurate Wikipedia page. In the case of Southwest Airlines, aviation enthusiasts help to ensure the company's page is pristine and up to date.

“In our experience, the aviation community is very connected with the Southwest brand. So far, that method has worked really well for us,” says Christi McNeill, senior communications specialist at Southwest Airlines. “They do a pretty good job of making sure information is accurate, timely, and neutral.”

The team of editors that manages Southwest's pages is so important that the airline is looking into creating a more formal relationship with them to ensure they have the most up-to-date information, McNeill adds.

General Motors has noticed that car aficionados take similar care of its Wikipedia page, which has been especially helpful when it has announced vehicle news.

“We've seen it where five minutes or less after an announcement, something gets posted,” says Mary Henige, director of social media and digital communications at GM.

A murkier picture for agencies
What agency-side PR pros can and cannot do on Wikipedia is even more vague, says Phil Gomes, SVP at Edelman Digital. For instance, one Wikipedia guideline says a PR firm can fix minor errors in spelling, grammar, usage, or facts.

“A company may take the word ‘fact' to mean ‘It's a fact that Acme Analyst Firm rated us the number one strategic software solutions provider, so this merits placement in the entry,'” Gomes explains.

That is why “rules governing PR participation on Wikipedia are very clear in terms of their spirit, [but] somewhat vague in terms of their letter, and quite unpredictable in practice,” he adds.

However, other agency professionals note there are dire consequences for stepping over the line on the site.

“If you put ‘salesy' material on there, it can result in the entire page being taken down,” says Rob Adler, an SVP at Vantage Communications.

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