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Posted by Shel Holtz (@shelholtz) · Tue, Jul 15 at 12:06pm CDT

Thinking of editing your hospital's Wikipedia article? Think again!

If you have ever edited your hospital's Wikipedia article, consider the following:

  • There is a Twitter account that automatically tweets a message whenever anybody using a U.S. Congressional IP address edits an article. The idea is to catch staffers updating their own congressman's bio. (Newt Gingrich came in for some heavy criticism when someone on his staff sanitized his bio during his run for the presidency.)
  • Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales accused UK PR firm Bell Pottinger of "ethical blindness" for altering details of a client's article. The agency's lapse generated worldwide media coverage.
  • The Church of Scientology was banned from making edits to Wikipedia articles based on its efforts to manipulate material and remove critical information about itself.
  • The New York Times reported on Anheuser-Busch attempts to change entries about Sea World, which it owned.

Viewed superficially, Wikipedia seems pretty simple. The world's largest encyclopedia is collaborative, allowing anybody to create or edit articles. This crowd sourced approach has been so successful that Wikipedia has become the world's largest encyclopedia and one of the Web's most used resources.

wikipedia-editingThe superficial view, however, belies a harsh truth: Most communicators who try to do their clients a solid by improving an article are violating one of Wikipedia's most cherished policies, dealing with conflicts of interest. Put simply, if you're paid by the institution whose articles you're editing, you're probably violating Wikipedia’s policy.

Wikipedia tightened its rules against undisclosed paid editing only last month.

As of mid-June, Wikipedia's terms of use required disclosure if you're paid to edit an article. In a post announcing revised terms of service, Wikipedia called undisclosed paid advocacy editing "a black hat practice that can threaten the trust of Wikimedia's volunteers and readers. We have serious concerns about the way that such editing affects the neutrality and reliability of Wikipedia."

It's not hard to take issue with Wikipedia's rules. After all, why is a paid advocate forbidden from making edits while there is no such rule for extremist activists? Ultimately, though, to use a phrase that drives my wife crazy, “it is what it is.” It's Wikipedia's house, so you can choose to play by the rules or suffer the consequences.

Besides, in some cases secretly editing articles about your company or client could violate U.S. Federal Trade Commission guidelines requiring posters to "clearly and conspicuously disclose" a relationship to the institution referenced in the article.

Trying to Change Perceptions

The Wikimedia Foundation (which owns Wikipedia) and PR practitioners have been in active discussions for some months, both in person and on a discussion page dedicated to the topic. On Facebook, Edelman Digital Senior Vice President Phil Gomes has moderated a closed group for several years. CREWE -- Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Editing -- is home to hundreds of PR practitioners and Wikipedians engaged in conversation about improving relationships between the two camps.

Associations representing communicators have gotten into the game, too, none more strongly than the UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations, which has issued and udpated a guidance "to provide clear and detailed advice on how public relations professionals should engage with the Wikipedia community – it highlights best practices and equips public relations professionals with the advice needed to navigate Wikipedia engagement and with an understanding of how to protect an organization's or client's reputation openly and transparently."

Sadly, most people working in PR and marketing just don't know any better. Given Wikipedia's prominence and how its articles rank in Web searches, ignorance is no longer an option. If you work in this field, you should know how to get a change made.

The Right Way to Have Changes Made

There are two kinds of edits to consider. If all you're doing is correcting a fact, by all means, make the edit. If the article says you have 300 employees when you have 3,000 and someone just missed a zero, correcting is not a problem. Correcting an address, a birth date or birth place, or details of a recent event is also okay. You can also revert obvious vandalism, fix minor spelling/grammar/usage errors, and provide accurate references for information already contained in the article.

Anything more than that, though, and you’ll need to make the case to make the edit. At the top of the list is anything promoting your employer or client: deleting negative verbiage, adding content that isn't independently verifiable or doesn't fit with an encyclopedic entry, and manipulating material that’s particularly controversial.

If you feel strongly that a substantive change needs to be made, the primary way to go about it is via the "Talk" tab that appears with any article.

If something in your hospital's article rubs you (or, maybe, your CEO) the wrong way, log in with your Wikipedia account and make your case. (Before you do, make sure you're acquainted with Wikipedia's guidelines. For example, there are rules covering deletions from articles, as well as rules that require links to independent sources that validate the facts you want to share.) As Wikipedia puts it, "Just explain what you feel is incorrect, and how you think it should be fixed. It also helps if you can refer us to sources (such as media stories) that will help us validate the facts."

Help Is Available

That's easy enough, but there are still PR practitioners who complain that legitimate efforts to get changes get ignored. In that case, you'll embark on what may be a long and convoluted process to seek resolution, which is articulated in decision tree crafted by members of the CREWE Facebook group.

Wikipedia itself contains a variety of pages dedicated to conflict of interest, neutrality, and editing that often seem to be at odds with each other -- like a best practices guide for editors with close associations that doesn't always synch up with its Suggestions for COI compliance.

If all this sounds like just too much, you can always get outside help. William Beutler, for example, is a Wikipedia editor who runs Beutler Ink, a D.C.-based consultancy that helps companies "navigate Wikipedia to get results on the world's most importance reference site."

Whatever you do, put yourself in the position of being called out for a transgression or having your access revoked. Know the rules and play by them and your Wikipedia articles should wind up reading just like you want them to read.

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