WIKIPEDIA, the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, is one of the Web’s most popular websites. As such, it is also extremely influential, which means that a lot people have a vested interest in what it says about a wide range of topics.
If you do a search for most big companies on Google, one of the top search results is likely to be a link to Wikipedia. I just did that for ExxonMobil and the Wikipedia page came up as the third result, after two links to the company’s own websites — http://www.exxonmobil.com/ and http://www.exxon.com/.
Now the Wikipedia page on ExxonMobil includes some stuff that the company might not like. There’s a big section on Controversies, for instance, such as funding of global warming skeptics, unethical business practices, the Valdez oil spill disaster and its human rights record.
There’s probably a lot there that ExxonMobil’s PR department thinks is inaccurate or unfair. If they wanted to, someone from the PR department could go onto Wikipedia and edit the information. If they did that from ExxonMobil’s offices or any IP address associated with the company, founder Jimmy Wales and his legion of volunteer editors would probably block them.
Avoiding egg on your face
Companies, their agents, or anyone else for that matter, are not supposed to edit Wikipedia entries they have a vested interest in. Doing so undermines the editorial integrity of the product. Of course, that doesn’t stop people trying.
This week, Microsoft Corp. provoked widespread scorn when it emerged that someone at the company offered to pay a noted expert to review and edit Wikipedia’s information about a competing technology that the company believed was inaccurate.
The Associated Press, which gets syndicated to news organizations and websites around the world, wrote a story about Microsoft’s attempt to get the information fixed. While you could argue that Microsoft was quite open about what it was doing, with a headline like Microsoft ‘tried to doctor Wikipedia’ the optics weren’t good.
Bloggers, many of whom are not pro-Microsoft at the best of times, went into a tizzy, as you can see from the screenshot I took of technology blog aggregation website Techmeme around the height of the uproar yesterday. Consequently, Microsoft ended up with a lot of egg on its face.
Using Wikipedia’s discussion pages
So what are you supposed to do if you want something about your company on Wikipedia changed?
Let’s use ExxonMobil again. If someone in the PR department, or any other department for that matter, thinks there’s something factually inaccurate about an entry, they should go to the discussion page attached to the entry. There, they should identify themselves and their affiliation and state their case, along with links to any supporting materials.
It is then up to the volunteer editors to consider the company’s information and make the requested changes if they deem them valid. If nothing else, the company might get a notation added to the effect that the company has disputed particular facts.
In Microsoft’s case, Wikipedia founder Wales told the AP that Microsoft should have written or commissioned a “white paper”, posted it to an outside website and then linked to it in the entries’ discussion forums.
“It seems like a much better, transparent, straightforward way,” Wales said.
Seems to me like there’s a new position here for companies to fill — Wikipedia Liaison Officer. They could also review other sites where errors have had a tendency to appear in the past.
Key skill requirements? Patience, lots and lots of patience.