I like Steve Rubel’s blog — heck I even promoted it in an upcoming FastCompany issue (depending on how they cut the interview) — but I had a visceral reaction to a recent posting on Wikipedia’s Impact on PR. He suggests therein that companies need to police Wikipedia to “counter facts that [he bets] they wish did not appear in Wikipedia at all.”

There’s been some talk about “fact checking” Wikipedia, but such efforts very quickly run into an epistemological brick wall. You can try to drive around that wall, but not without some serious damage to your vehicle. Determining the nature of truth is a thorny problem… imagine that.

Central to Wikipedia’s success is the idea that people contribute to the “discussion” without a hidden agenda. My colleague Tom Jacobson — or Michael Froomkin, I suspect — could tell you that such open and honest communication is necessary for useful public discussion, at least according to some old German guy. Here, let me just say that the idea of PR people (I’m avoiding both “flack” and “professional” here) tweaking the presentation in Wikipedia to better present their client, brings the “ick” factor to the 9s.

There is a reason that Wikipedia discourages vanity pages. Companies changing their entry on Wikipedia, even with the best of intentions, is simply bad form. It smacks too easily of “encyclospam.”

Of course, we are probably pretty naive in assuming that folks with a definite Point-of-View (either their own or one paid for) are not contributing to corporate pages on Wikipedia. In some ways, because the site makes plain the discussions relating to companies, any sort of attempt to control the dialog would likely backfire. Simply the fact that a topic is controversial (consider the Wal-Mart “talk” page on Wikipedia and its discussion of NPOV issues) may be something many corporations would rather was not the case. But there is little they can do at the surface level to affect this; and, in my opinion, little they should do.

If anything, errors of fact or of focus on Wikipedia should tell PR professionals that they need to better present their story to the public. After all, it is the public that maintains Wikipedia..

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  1. Posted 4/27/2005 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    While what you said makes sense, the situation faced on wikipedia was that negative things were being said about the companies, so it’s not any better with or without the PR people stepping in.

    Essentially, the facts get tossed into the backseat while hate-writers and corporate PR execs battle it out on wikipedia.

    Do people really have no agenda wiki-ing? I find it hard to believe that they do it only for the greater good of wikipedia. Where’s the “what’s in it for me?”

  2. Posted 4/28/2005 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    It’s clear that PRs have the right to use Wikipedia to correct what they see as errors just as critics have the right to criticise. I think this is why the provenance of changes should be made more clear and why rather than claiming to provide a “neutral” point of view Wikipedia should be explicit in providing all POVs clearly labelled letting the reader decide.

  3. Posted 4/28/2005 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    FWIW, here’s my comment.

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