Nonprofits and the Wikipedia debate

As a college student I have been told numerous times to never cite Wikipedia for an important paper or project. After all, it is a free encyclopedia whose entries are frequently reconstructed. However, it is a great starting point for research. Wikipedia pages appear in 96.6 percent of top ten searches on Google. So, why am I talking about Wikipedia? If you don’t already know, Wikipedia and PR professionals around the world have struck up a discussion. The discussion has burst onto the scene, underlining the difficulties of public relations practitioners’ rights to submit changes on Wikipedia entries. What does this mean for those representing a nonprofit?

Phil Gomes, senior vice president of Edelman Digital, fueled this great debate after posting an open letter to Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. He later interviewed on FIR, issuing many valid points on the issues we public relations practitioners face when correcting Wikipedia entries. Gomes mentioned the “neutrality issue” of Wikipedia, explaining that neutrality is like an atheist bringing up a discussion about religion. Is the atheist really neutral on the subject of religion? You are only neutral until you gain knowledge of both points of an argument; then, you choose a side.

A frequently asked question on Wikipedia is: As a PR practitioner, can I edit an entry? Wikipedia’s answer is: possibly. Let’s not ignore that Wikipedia does have guidelines. These guidelines are meant to keep Wikipedia pages truthful and honest. The issue here is that some of the volunteer editors will not accept any submitted edits by PR practitioners, while other volunteer editors do. The goal here is to create standard guidelines for PR practitioners to follow. The volunteer editor can then go through to see if the guidelines were adhered to, thus eliminating any bias felt towards PR practitioners.

For a nonprofit editing a Wikipedia page could mean correcting the numbers of fundraisers that have been held over the years or who the current major sponsors are. Take the whole Komen fiasco into consideration. Obviously, dropping Planned Parenthood sparked some backlash from the community, which is now on the Susan G. Komen page. As a PR practitioner you would want any information on this issue to be correct, whether it is negative or positive information.

As a public relations student I have learned that if I discover inaccurate information is made known, then it is my duty to correct this information. I took the time to check out one of my past employers, March of Dimes, Wikipedia page. There, I found a box with the statement, “the neutrality of this article is disputed.” After clicking on the Talk tab, I saw a page of corrections suggested. Certainly an employee of March of Dimes would most likely be much more knowledgeable on the history and current state of the company than a volunteer editor.

According to the PRSA Code of Ethics, a member must reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented. Thus, as a PR practitioner going in to Wikipedia to change an error, in accordance with the Code of Ethics, we must reveal who we are and with whom we are affiliated.

CREWE, a Facebook fan page, has opened discussion to Wikipedians and corporate representatives on how to better distinguish guidelines for appropriate use of Wikipedia. Ultimately, it is the public relations practitioners job to adhere to our Code of Ethics, and Wikipedia should not be controlling or limiting our responsibilities.

As a result of my discussion, I have provided a list of best practices for PR professionals to use:

  • Make it clear to the Wikipedia community that you are editing information that are either outdated, numerically wrong, or factually wrong and provide third-party sources.
  • In congruence with Wikipedia, do not attempt to use the entry as a way to promote your company (i.e. placing an ad).
  • When in doubt, leave it out. If the information you are about to change originally had no solid foundation to it, and you are unsure of how to replace it then request for it to be deleted, instead of changed.

This debate has opened up a great opportunity for Wikipedia and PR professionals to come to a better understanding of the process of editing a page.