The Wikipedia Marketing Blog

Three Principles for Following Social Media Disclosure Laws on Wikipedia

Posted by David King on Fri, May 31, 2013

This post was first published by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

Whether you’re reading WOMMA’s Social Media Disclosure Guide, the newly updated .com disclosures guide from the Federal Trade Commission or the FTC’s application of advertising and marketing guidelines to crowd-sourced websites, the message is clear: Readers must know when the source of their information is someone with a material connection to the subject.

But many reputable and honorable companies haven’t thought about how this applies to Wikipedia or constructed policies to ensure compliance like they have for Twitter, Facebook, and other sites. Wikipedia has become a dark-spot in otherwise ethical marketing programs, leading to frequent media humiliation, contentious relationships with Wikipedia, and even lawsuits.

A precedence-setting court ruling in Germany found that editing Wikipedia to promote your company may be an illegal and covert form of advertising, since readers presume the content comes from crowd-sourced, disinterested editors, and not those with a financial connection to the subject. They ruled that even though the company disclosed their financial connection on the Talk page of the Wikipedia article, the disclosure wasn’t prominent enough to expect Wikipedia’s readers to know the source of the communication.

Here are three principles every company should should adopt to ensure compliance with the site's guidelines, with astroturfing laws and to avoid controversy:

  1. All of Wikipedia’s content should represent the editorial judgment of volunteers that serve the reader’s best interest.
  2. Corporate communications on Wikipedia should provide value to the editorial community and its readers.
  3. Marketers should avoid being an advocate.

Represent the Judgment of Volunteers

The simplest way to ensure that Wikipedia’s content “represents the judgment” of crowdsourced volunteers is to follow the BrightLine concept introduced by Jimmy Wales, which suggests we avoid editing the article entirely. Instead, marketers should request corrections, offer content for consideration, and discuss controversies with the site’s editors like you would for any independent website.

Some common sense is needed. Correcting citation errors, grammar, and spacing is acceptable as a matter of common sense. In some cases, Wikipedia’s editors will insist the marketing person make an edit as a manner of taking credit for their work. While your authorship is not disclosed to the reader, Ethical Wiki believes this is compliant with the spirit of the FTC’s guidelines, so long as the site’s editors explicitly ask you to make the change.

Provide Value

Wikipedia being openly editable often creates a sense of entitlement to contribute and even control the page. Some in the public relations community have argued that PR professionals are just “another member of the crowd” and are thus entitled to contribute “just like any other volunteer.” This is vastly out-of-sync with the Federal Trade Commission’s point-of-view - that those with a financial connection must act differently than crowd-sourced participants.

Marketing participants don’t necessarily need to write content or even be neutral to be valuable to Wikipedia. Some of Wikipedia’s best articles on companies were written by me on a volunteer-basis with the help of public relations professionals that offered corrections, answered questions, donated images, and provided access to hard-to-get source materials. Just like we strive to deliver results for our client or employer by bringing value to influencers, the same is true on Wikipedia.

Avoid Advocacy

While there is nothing illegal or unethical about advocacy in the general sense, Wikipedia discourages it. Some marketing professionals may engage in advocacy unintentionally, because they have strong views about the subject. In other cases, it’s valuable to provide the company’s point-of-view under the knowledge that it will be balanced by other viewpoints. You may give the appearance of advocating, even if you do not intend to, so this principle requires good judgment.

It is often due to the appearance of advocacy, micro-managing, "hovering," and other tactics that create contentious relationships on Wikipedia and expose the organization to the risk of controversy.

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Tags: Company policy, Law, Wikipedia,, disclosure, risk, policy, Federal Trade Commission, guidelines

Wikipedia organizes to respond to public relations editing

Posted by David King on Sun, Feb 03, 2013

Some red tape can be a good thing.82,000
82,000 Euros have been awarded for a project led by the German Wikipedia community to figure out the best way to handle "paid editing." That's the term used by Wikipedians to describe editors paid by a client or employer, such as public relations participants. Historically, the German Wikipedia has been known to establish precedence for other language Wikis, so this may lead to global progress in the relationship between the PR and Wikipedia communities. The project aims to create more consistent and clear guidelines for ethical participation by companies and create a series of workshops and events, as well as informational pamphlets to educate marketing pros on the appropriate way to engage with Wikipedia.

The effort represents a significant change in tone. For years Wikipedia has praised its "chaos that works," boasted that it has no firm rules and urged editors with a "conflict of interest" to do their best to be neutral. For marketing professionals, it's a frustrating experience without process. Wikipedia had guidelines that encourage you to edit your own Wikipedia article, even though you will most likely get in trouble doing so.

I've adopted the habit of telling others that EthicalWiki's approach to Wikipedia ethics is based on legal guidance, not Wikipedia's rules. Not out of disrespect for Wikipedia, but because the Federal Trade Commission and precedence set by a German court ruling set much higher standards for ethics and offer clearer guidelines.  It just makes sense. Editing a crowd-sourced site as if you are another disinterested volunteer is not acceptable. But being a resource for the site's editors - offering content, requesting corrections and discussing controversies to help improve their coverage is a good thing.

Any journalist will say that good PR is useful and the same is true on Wikipedia. But Wikipedians rarely experience good PR. This is evidenced by the dozens of discussion strings concerning the damage PR editors are doing to the site's legitimacy and fears that PRs are corrupting the site. It's true. We do great PR for the media, have fantastic social media campaigns and blow-out advertisements, but one area few marketers excel is Wikipedia; the dark spot in our otherwise case-study worthy work. Out of the thousands of case-studies our industry produces each year, you'll rarely see someone boast of the quality of work they did on Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia does an awful job at establishing boundaries or collaborating with public relations professionals. In my view, the community needs to stop thinking of public relations as editors who just so happen to have a "potential conflict of interest" and start thinking of them as practitioners that are "trying to do their job" in a way that is respectful and ethical. While there is some room for content marketing like EthicalWiki does, offering complete articles that include the good and the bad, I think the path for most marketers that don't have five years and 11,000 edits of experience on Wikipedia is to fly support the same way we do with media. To offer first drafts, request corrections, donate images, provide sources, answer questions and incite editor participation.

Public relations aren't "replacement editors" or "paid editors"; they are representatives from the company, who support the site's editors. Any journalist will say that "good PR is useful" but they won't ask companies to write their own full-length profile stories and controversies. They will ask public relations to provide images, experts and factual corrections. The best thing for Wikipedia to do is to answer the question: "What would a journalist do?" This is a powerful North Star to guide progress in the relationship and advance Wikipedia as a project to a more sustainable, professional-quality encyclopedia, instead of a junk-yard of blatant promotionalism and rampant bias.
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Tags: Wikipedia,, public relations,, guidelines, rules, policies

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