Staying straight down the middle with Wikipedia (a public relations perspective)

By Erik Arvidson

I’m a fan of Wikipedia. There, I said it.

Despite all the controversy in recent years, when I want to get an unbiased, jargon-free description of what a company or individual does, I can often find it at Wikipedia which, while certainly not perfect, has really tightened up its standards of quality and objectivity.

Some of us in the PR business have even helped guide companies or individuals through the process of creating or editing Wikipedia pages.

Last week, many of us took notice when a U.K. PR agency was criticized for alleged “unethical” behavior when it made suspicious edits or additions to multiple Wikipedia pages for its clients. The firm denied it had done anything wrong, but the public backlash in the BBC and other outlets was unfortunate.

The fact that Wikipedia can be edited by just about anyone with an Internet connection, and the fact that it’s the sixth most popular site on the Web, makes it a tempting target to add lofty-sounding mission statements and superlatives.

In my opinion, a well-written Wikipedia article has three things:

1. An objective, concisely written 30,000 foot view of the company, where I learn what the company is about, major brands it’s associated with, where it’s headquartered, generally how big it is, etc. If it’s an individual, a fair description of why they’re notable and so on.

2. An accurate representation of “the good” as well as “the bad.” For example, if you read a Wikipedia article on “The Godfather” Michael Corleone, and it ran on and on about his charitable contributions and leadership qualities, but only made a passing reference to his being the head of a criminal organization, it would obviously set off a few alarms. The good and bad have to all be represented accurately, and I’ll draw my own conclusions from the whole picture.

3. A clearly written description of what the company or individual does. This is probably the hardest part and what generates a lot of the editing. The best articles make minimal use of words like “solutions” and “leading” and get straight to the point. A mish-mash of industry jargon and catch-phrases is going to be flagged.

I think it’s also helpful to keep in mind a June 2011 survey of Wikipedia editors by the Wikimedia Foundation, in which 53 percent of respondents said they edit Wikipedia because they find incomplete or biased articles.

The Wikipedia editing process is certainly tricky and controversial, but those who build a reputation for making fair and accurate edits will have more success as Wikipedia contributors in the long run.

Do you trust Wikipedia, or is it the Wild West of the information world?