The Law of Wikipedia: How Corporate Counsel Should Advise the Marketing Department

by david44357@gmail.com on January 4, 2012 · 0 comments

in social media for lawyers

Articles on Wikipedia are in the top ten of 95 percent of search results. Wikipedia itself has been ranked as one of the most influential websites on the planet and company articles literally define who you are as a company.  The way most marketers behave on Wikipedia is riddled with risk and unethical behavior.

I have an inventory of stories where a lack of governance and careful considerations resulted in marketing’s missteps becoming all too apparent later on. Companies hire a college kid that edits Wikipedia as a hobby, their CMOs are publicly lambasted by the Wikipedia community, IP addresses are banned and humiliation is routine. All too often, I’m the one cleaning up their mess. In one case, I was brought on after three prior parties were each unsuccessful at writing the company article on Wikipedia, including a self-proclaimed Wikipedia expert.

In this post I will share some of my insights from working with companies to develop their Wikipedia pages. I hope that what I share will be helpful to corporate counsel in responding to the marketing department that wants to engage on Wikipedia, but is concerned about the risks.

Not Editing Can Be Risky

For many the answer is a hands-off policy. With companies like Sony, Apple, Microsoft, Dell, EA, Wal-Mart and Exxon getting busted for inappropriate anonymous edits on Wikipedia, it seems like a sensible policy. If we do nothing, nothing bad can happen right? Unfortunately not. The community-driven process routinely creates fictional accusations of chapter 11 risks, criminal activity or extreme bias that is sometimes read by millions. A hands-off policy makes companies caught by surprise when a crisis occurs and they don’t know how to handle it.

Editing is Risky

This page on Wikipedia cites “real world consequences” for inappropriate edits by contributors with a conflict of interest and is intended to ward off the vast majority of marketers that haven’t taken the time to understand Wikipedia. Dozens of Wikipedia pages provide specific instructions to editors with a conflict of interest. The editorial content of the site is guided by over 200 guidelines and policies. Often marketers engage in unethical behavior on Wikipedia unknowingly. Adding a link to your website in the body of the article could be link-spamming and editing without dislosing your identity could violate FTC disclosure laws.

Ethics on Wikipedia

Regarding the conflict of interest policy someone recently told me on Wikipedia that, “we all know that good edits are welcome and bad edits are not.” It’s a majestic summary. You’re welcome here as long as you make “good” edits. Good is defined through rules on neutrality, verification, encyclopedic tone and dozens of others. Inside the Wiki-verse, this is the common sense the conflict of interest policy refers to, but in the real world it’s a complex rule book hundreds of pages long.

Wikipedia’s rules instruct the community to assume good faith, even when dealing with editors with a conflict of interest. In practice, however, corporate edits are treated with higher expectations and levels of suspicion. It requires a light touch, an informed participant, community collaboration and a unique skillset.

Conclusion

It’s usually safe for marketing to engage in civil discussion on Wikipedia as a cautious guest on Talk pages and noticeboards to provide resources, answers and join conversations. The caveat being that they need to identify themselves on their user page and on every page they edit and – in some cases – should stay away from controversial subjects.

This can typically resolve any major issues like blatant factual errors, but to empower marketing to tell the company’s success story and make articles more complete, you have to ask yourself some tough questions. Does marketing really have the expertise, knowledge and understanding to contribute to Wikipedia ethically? Can they write in encyclopedic tone? Do they know the rules about external links, how introductions must be written and understand what’s considered an authoritative source?

Most don’t and that results in a lot of angry exchanges on Wikipedia, as well as risky behavior by corporations.

If you have questions or a specific situation I’m happy to answer them in the comments below or at David44357@gmail.com.

 

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