The Quick and Dirty Public Relations Guide to Wikipedia

If you’re in public relations, a client has probably asked you to create or make changes to its Wikipedia page. This can be a scary thought, as strict rules and guidelines govern contributors. The Wikipedia guidelines on conflicts of interest explicitly state that updates made by a PR agency or on behalf of a paid client are strongly discouraged. So how do you satisfy the client’s needs while still respecting Wikipedia’s rules?

We recently sat down with Paul Wilkinson, a U.K.-based PR practitioner who literally helped write the book on this topic for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) — Wikipedia Best Practice Guidance for Public Relations Professionals — which is available as a free PDF download via the CIPR website. This guide should be mandatory reading for all PR professionals, and at just 18 pages it’s a quick and easy read. We spoke with Paul about how PR people can get involved with Wikipedia while still preserving the sanctity of the platform.

“Some technical skills are needed — for starters, having your own free Wikipedia user account and being comfortable with editing using wiki markup,” he said. “More than anything, it’s learning about the conventions of the Wikipedia community — understanding that articles emerge from a process of developing consensus. You can’t take ownership of an article, especially a company article. You simply make contributions; ultimately, articles are a reflection of the wisdom of the crowd.”

Just because you are a company doesn’t mean that in editors’ eyes you deserve your own Wikipedia article. Think of your company as a band: just because you’re together, make music and sell albums doesn’t mean you are encyclopedia-worthy. Many bands exist, but not all are notable. Notability is a key factor editors consider when determining if a page deserves to exist, according to Wilkinson. PR and marketing professionals are encouraged to review Wikipedia’s entry on notability as it relates to organizations and companies.

Below are two factors regarding notability to keep in mind:

  1. No company or organization is considered inherently notable, and no organization is exempt from this rule. If there are no independent verifiable sources on a topic, it is not notable.
  2. An organization is not notable merely because a notable person or event was associated with it. For example, a corporation is not notable because it owns notable subsidiaries or does business with notable customers.

As Wikipedia’s popularity has increased, more individuals seek to create or modify pages about organizations with which they are affiliated. The WikiProject Companies community addresses this groundswell; volunteers worldwide work to “improve the depth and breadth of coverage in Wikipedia of notable companies and to bring as many of these articles to good/featured status as possible.” Adding {{WikiProject Companies}} to a company’s Wikipedia article Talk Page flags the article for review by the community editors. Someone with a conflict of interest, such as a PR rep, can use the Talk Page (link depicted below) to suggest changes or updates to that entry.

While it may be possible for a PR person to edit a page, it is certainly unethical to do so without disclosing the client relationship, and it is out-of-bounds when it comes to Wikipedia’s official guidelines on Conflicts of Interest (which is also worth a read).

In particular, Wikipedia’s paid-contributor disclosure clause states:

“If you are being paid for your contributions to Wikipedia, you should declare the COI on your user page, on the article talk page using the [template], and during any discussion about the topic elsewhere. You can also make a statement in the edit summary of any paid contribution. […] The Wikimedia Foundation’s terms of use require that you disclose the employer (the person or organization who is paying for your edits); the client (the organization or person on whose behalf the edits are made, such as the subject of the article); and any other relevant affiliation. […] Public-relations professionals may be further required to abide by a professional code of ethics, such as the GA code of ethics or PRSA code of ethics.”

The consequences of breaking the rules are never worth it to the client, the practitioner, or the agency.

What makes an article good?

According to Wilkinson, “A good article reflects the subject covered across all sources brought together by multiple Wikipedians. Their different perspectives balance out their different viewpoints, potential biases, and so on — so the article faithfully reflects a neutral perspective.”

If the tone of the edits/content is too promotional or akin to advertising, the article clearly is not as neutral as Wikipedians aim to be. “’Global leading provider of XYZ’ is not the kind of tone that meets Wikipedia’s approval. We’re looking for all articles to have a neutral voice and neutral point-of-view,” he added. Company press releases, blog posts or whitepapers are examples of sources that should not be used in a company’s Wikipedia article. If something is truly notable, it will be mentioned or covered elsewhere by a credible third party.

Wilkinson’s advice for companies trying to get a Wikipedia article created about them? Be patient.

“If your business is truly notable, someone may write an article about it if the subject hasn’t already been covered. If nobody has, and you feel it is an oversight, there are routes you can take to suggest someone start an article, or discuss if it is a suitable subject for an article,” he instructs. “You can go the route of Noticeboards, or talk to someone who has edited an article related to the same topic, such as a competitor company’s article. Talk to that Wikipedian on their Talk Page, and ask: Is this a subject worthy of inclusion, and if so, could you help me develop content on this if time allows?”

Patience is key, urges Wilkinson. “Wikipedians are volunteers — they don’t commit full-time to improving the content of the encyclopedia. You may need to wait days or even weeks before someone replies to your inquiry.”

Source: CIPR Wikipedia Best Practice Guidance from PR Professionals

Ultimately, the best way to become an effective Wikipedian is to get involved with articles in which you have no conflict of interest and help make them better. You can also become directly involved with other Wikipedians by attending Wikipedia events like Wikimania.

“There’s a huge opportunity for more people to contribute to Wikipedia,” said Wilkinson. “I would encourage more people to contribute to Wikipedia about subjects that they’re interested in personally — that they have a passion for. But anyone making contributions is well advised to learn what constitutes minimum standards for an article and to work with and learn from other Wikipedians when they start out so they can be guided on some of the conventions of Wikipedia editing.”

This article only touches on the basics of how PR people can get involved with Wikipedia. For more information, read the FAQ on editing entries for organizations, as well as the pamphlet linked toward the beginning of this article, Wikipedia Best Practice Guidance for Public Relations Professionals. This pamphlet addresses questions such as how to engage with the Wikipedia community and how to deal with disputes, and includes several valuable case studies.


(Author’s Note: I originally wrote this blog post for my previous employer, Engage PR, on October 28, 2015. In January 2017 Engage PR merged with Connect2Communications to form Witz Communications. The blog has been slightly updated, and reposted to Medium with permission.)