INTERVIEW: Wikipedia Expert Discusses What PR Pros Should Know (Part One)

What PR pros don't know about Wikipedia would shock you--but not this guy.

Last week, Sunshine Sachs was involved in a rather unfortunate imbroglio involving the murky editing guidelines of Wikipedia. Since that happened, the PRNewserverse has been swirling with questions about what those guidelines actually are and what has changed in the world of Wikipedia as it pertains to public relations professionals.

Fortunately, we know a guy who can help with all of those mysteries.

Meet William Beutler, founder and president of Beutler Ink (and follow him on Twitter). He has been a volunteer editor for Wikipedia since 2008, and his firm has been advising brands on related issues since 2010. In 2014, Beutler convened the first in-person meeting of digital PR execs and Wikipedia volunteers in the U.S., and led the creation of a multi-agency statement on seeking better collaboration with Wikipedia. He is also the author of “The Wikipedian,” which aims to “explain Wikipedia or die trying.”

In short, dude knows his stuff about Wikipedia…so we contacted this sage for some clarity regarding the labyrinth of terms and conditions known as “Wikipedia editing guidelines.”

William BeutlerSunshine Sachs is not alone in not understanding the new standards for Wikipedia. How have things changed with Wikipedia to bolster its credibility?

Wikipedia has never been the most transparent website, and partly that’s just because it’s so unique. Consider Google: It wants to organize information—but Wikipedia asks users to contribute.

Like Amazon: It has listings for everything under the sun, but it’s non-commercial. Perhaps Facebook: Anyone can create an account, but Wikipedia has all kinds of specific rules that social media simply doesn’t have.

I think Wikipedia has an equally difficult time explaining itself as outsiders have in understanding it, but they are trying all the time.

Although Wikipedia has established new standards for editing, they still seem to be a mystery among the PR community. What can PR agencies do?

Funny thing is, I’d argue this has been a mystery to Wikipedia for years. Keep in mind that Wikipedia has about 30,000 volunteer editors who interpret its many rules differently. There is also a rule called “Wikipedia has no firm rules.” The fact is Wikipedia editors have disagreed with each other about how to deal with PR and “paid editing” for a decade now.

Meanwhile, there are new Terms of Use for PR practitioners established by Wikipedia’s non-profit parent; those terms are really the bare minimum for not getting kicked off the site. There are best practices you can follow that will satisfy the vast majority of those 30,000 editors, but realistically, not everyone has time for that.

So either you take your chances and hope it doesn’t blow up, or you find someone with expertise.

Share with the PR professionals about the joint statement Wikipedia created.

The idea behind this joint statement of PR industries comes from watching the same thing happen every year or so: a big company or a PR agency gets caught trying to zap something they don’t like from an article, and it makes some headlines, Wikipedians debate the issue for awhile, and then it goes away again. And comes back. It’s like Groundhog Day.

In February 2014, I invited a number of digital PR execs and Wikipedia veterans to meet and talk about these issues in DC, and it went really well! The agency participants all thought they had a good chance of getting their higher-ups to pledge respect for Wikipedia’s self-determination, and a desire to improve the situation, and a few months later we had it all hammered out.

We started with 11 agencies, and by last count we had more than 40. The joint statement wasn’t meant to be a panacea, but I think it has at least created the possibility for a wider conversation.

Explain the signatory process and why is that so important to the PR industry.

First thing, I recommend reading the page Statement on Wikipedia from participating communications firms. Yes, it’s a mouthful. Yes, we did this on purpose. Think of Wikipedia article titles: precision trumps catchiness, and we wanted to be understood clearly.

The steps to join are included on the page, but the basics are this: membership is open to any firm, or professional organization, involved in PR, marketing, SEO or a similar discipline that intersects with Wikipedia because of its value as a platform with a big readership.

One person from your team should be the representative, who will commit to learning as much about Wikipedia as he/she can, and they should have some influence with your organization’s leadership. And of course, you should let the rest of your firm know what the rules are.

What steps has Wikipedia taken to show PR professionals and users worldwide about the information shared on its pages?

Wikipedia is always trying to communicate about itself more clearly, although I do think PR and marketing professionals are one audience they haven’t really done a very good job of reaching out to.

One reason is because they have a lot else they’re trying to accomplish first. They want to grow the number of volunteers editing Wikipedia, they want to develop new software for the community to use, and they want to develop relationships with organizations that have similar goals of sharing knowledge, such as libraries and museums.

The second reason, however, is I think they’re a bit cautious about PR on Wikipedia because historically the two cultures have seen themselves as being at odds. The industry statement was meant to be a first step toward rapprochement, but I think it is clear that there remains much work to do.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of this conversation about Wikipedia with William Beutler. If you have any other questions about Wikipedia or Beutler Ink, check them out at www.BeutlerInk.com.