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Shining a Light on Wikipedia’s 'Bright Line' Rule
By: Kimberly Shrack
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Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, anytime, anywhere. Unless, of course, they work in PR.
While the site purports to have “no firm rules,” they do seem to have one. According to founder Jimmy Wales, “This is not complicated. There is a very simple ‘bright line’ rule that constitutes best practice: do not edit Wikipedia directly if you are a paid advocate.” And while this “bright line” rule seems obvious to Mr. Wales, the PR community thinks it could use some tweaking.
A recent survey of 1,284 PR pros shed some light on the effectiveness of this “bright line” rule — and it isn’t pretty.
  • Less than 21% of PR pros know and understand the rule
  • 60% of the Wikipedia articles for respondents who were familiar with their company or recent client’s article contained factual errors
    • The most common error types were historical information (68.5%) dates (37.7% and leadership or board information (37.4%)
  • 50% called the process of making changes to posts time consuming; 23% deemed it nearly impossible
  • Of those pros that used the Talk pages to request an update to their company’s article (the standard method for a PR pro to make an edit), 24% never got a response
    • 74% of those that used the Talk pages believe the rule needs to be changed
Certainly, I understand the conflict-of-interest logic behind this rule — if you allow paid advocates to post, you run the risk of flooding the site with astroturfing. But that is buying into the spin master, flack stereotype, and we shouldn’t let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. Plus, if we look at the information being updated, it isn’t removing negative opinions or creating a positive “spin” — it’s correcting factual errors. Like history and dates and leadership — you know, things that are just wrong whether you’re a paid advocate or not.
If the goal of Wikipedia is to be a source of accurate, reliable information, PR pros need to be able to make edits to factual errors on their companies’ articles, and Wikipedia needs to communicate the best way to do that. And don’t say Talk pages — this process is just not fast enough, and in our line of work, speed is of utmost importance.
So here is my plea to Wikipedia:
We understand your position on paid advocates making direct edits to their organization’s posts, and we respect it. We also respect your desire to be a trusted source of accurate information, and we want to help by flagging factual errors as we find them. If we can’t make direct edits, give us some other way to correct misinformation as quickly and efficiently as possible. We have the opportunity to create a great relationship here — but in order for that to work, there needs to be some give and take from both sides.
So, Mr. Wales, what do you say? Can’t we work something out?

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About the Author
Kimberly Shrack is a PR pro based in Philadelphia, specializing in writing and content development. She has worked in communication for a variety of industries including technology, travel, art, and healthcare. Follow her on Twitter at @kjshrack.
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