Wiki Whatnow? A PR Perspective of the Wikipedia Trap

11 Jan Wiki Whatnow? A PR Perspective of the Wikipedia Trap

Often the first stop for information-seekers on the Internet, Wikipedia seems to be a perfect target for PR firms seeking to raise awareness of their clients.  That’s because:

  • Its views/readership numbers are incredibly high
  • It supports a fair-and-balanced approach to content, accepting no advertising and, therefore, contains no bias
  • Best of all, anyone can write and edit new articles

Seems like a slam-dunk for your clients, right?  You need to check that optimism immediately – Wikipedia is a cruel mistress for PR professionals, a beautiful, perfect wildflower, surrounded on all sides by vicious, spring-loaded bear traps.

First consider your client’s company – it’s highly likely that they don’t even quality for a page.  As Heather Markovichpoints out in her fantastic post on SocialNicole, Wikipedia is not a directory.  Hammer that through your (and your client’s) head: The site is not a Web-based Yellow Pages.  Companies included by Wikipedia must have very high media exposure, so unless you are representing an F500/1000 company or an incredibly buzz-worthy start-up, your campaign is dead before it begins.

But what happens if you try to buck these rules and post your company article anyway, like the rebel you are?  Pretty soon, a community moderator will roll through and lay waste to your precious page, destroying all of your hard work with a single click.  The page might be up for a few hours, maybe even a day – but ultimately, it will come crashing down.

On the topic of community, lets talk about how friendly they are to PR people.  Oh wait; they hate PR people (much like many other neutral communities on the web).  If your company does qualify for Wikipedia, any perceived bias in the article or attempts to hide negative information could lead to an unofficial “blackballing,” where your information is heavily modified by editors, rolled back to a less corporate-friendly version or even ignored.

Even if you get through all of these hurdles and are able to have a viable corporate article posted to Wikipedia, you immediately lose all say in the editing process once it goes live.  You can still edit the content, obviously, but so can anyone else –competitors, disgruntled employees/customers, Anonymous, etc.  Forget about controlling the conversation, as once something negative happens to your business, you’ll end up burning weeks of man-hours just waging an edit war on the Wikipedia page.

Don’t take this post as a knock on Wikipedia; I use it constantly as a jumping-off point for technical research and it’s value to a free and open Web cannot be overstated.  And there are strategies, albeit incredibly time-consuming and complex, to overcome the strictures imposed on marketing and PR folks by Wikipedia – Richard Stiennon, in his fantastic book “Up and to the Right,” covers a well thought-out strategy to this effect (also see my colleague Pete Larmey’s review of the book).  But for the vast majority of PR professionals, Wikipedia can be summed up with one phrase:  Look, but don’t touch.

–John Terrill

John Terrill
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