Why do PR pros struggle with Wikipedia? Here’s why it belongs in your comms playbook

by | Aug 3, 2023 | Public Relations

Wikipedia isn’t the first platform that comes to mind when you think about public relations, but it’s arguably the most important one. No single source of information is referenced more frequently, and no other web result does more to shape perceptions of the people, organizations, and brands we hear about in the news and search for online.

Despite this, PR professionals have been slow to integrate the encyclopedia into their comms playbooks. As a result, many organizations are left flat-footed during a negative news cycle when consumers, investors, and journalists scroll past press releases and social posts, turning directly to Wikipedia to learn more.

Consider Coutts, the prestigious UK bank that has discretely served the country’s royalty and richest elite for three centuries. On July 4, the BBC reported that Nigel Farage, the former broadcaster and Brexit Party leader, no longer met the “financial requirements” for Coutts and that his accounts had been closed.

This revelation catalyzed a politically charged scandal, and Coutts, a staple of financial news, soon found itself on the front page of every paper in the country. On Wikipedia, meanwhile, visits to the Coutts article soared from several hundred a day to nearly 15,000. This number almost certainly included journalists brushing up on the bank’s history as they wrote their own recaps and analysis of the story.

Coutts responded to L’affaire Farage by dancing around claims of political bias, extruding a series of carefully worded statements across several social media and press platforms. But they evidently haven’t considered Wikipedia. Views for the Coutts article have surged with each new development in the story, and a “Controversy” section cataloging these freshly reported beats has been added to the page.

Why do PR pros struggle with Wikipedia? Here’s why it belongs in your comms playbook

Interest in the Coutts Wikipedia article has spiked in accordance with news coverage

Mentions of the scandal were also added to the articles for Simon Jack (the BBC journalist who wrote the initial scoop) and Dame Allison Rose (chief executive of Coutts’ parent company, the NatWest Group), and those articles have experienced similar spikes in views. The “Farage account” section of Rose’s page now constitutes nearly 20 percent of the entire article.

While interest in the Farage story will eventually dissipate, these lengthy Wikipedia treatments will likely remain embedded in the articles forever.

Why do readers seek out Wikipedia articles about topics mentioned in the news?

A 2018 study by the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organization, found that media coverage of particular topics was the second-largest driver of traffic to the site, behind only “intrinsic learning.”

We can see countless examples of this that mirror the Coutts example above:

  • When FTX, the notorious cryptocurrency exchange, collapsed in late 2022 following reports of leverage and solvency concerns, views of the company’s Wikipedia article surged from about a dozen per day (before the critical reporting broke) to more than 5,800 per day during the height of the hysteria.
  • The article for OceanGate (the Titanic submersible company) went from an average of ten views a day to more than half a million during that disaster.
  • Interest in the article for Hockey Canada—the governing body for the sport of ice hockey in Canada—spiked following reporting around sexual abuse allegations. An entirely new article titled “Hockey Canada sexual assault scandal” was eventually created to consolidate information about the allegations and investigations, and readers soon flocked there to learn more.

The popularity of these articles reflects the reach of not only Wikipedia by itself, but its relationship with Google. Wikipedia content appears as a top organic result in many searches—especially for queries about newsworthy individuals and organizations—because articles provide broad synopses of these topics and are thus relevant to user search intent, meaning the reason why someone conducts a specific search.

In many cases, users don’t even have to click over to the article to get the information they need, as Wikipedia content appears as a prominent component in Google Knowledge Panels, People Also Ask boxes, and Featured snippets.

Given its ubiquity in search, the significance of the digital encyclopedia simply can’t be overstated, which makes it all the more puzzling why PR practitioners can’t wrap their heads around the site. Imagine you saw something inaccurate about yourself, or a brand or organization you represent on Wikipedia. Would you know how to seek corrections to that claim? To ask the site’s editors to add clarifying information?

Don’t feel bad if the answer is “no, afraid not.” You’re not alone. Very few communications professionals understand how to properly engage with the site, which is why they resort to direct editing. This understandable impulse, in turn, almost always leads to editors either reverting those changes or slapping a flag on the top of these pages warning readers that “a major contributor to this article has a close connection with its subject.”

Why do PR pros struggle with Wikipedia? Here’s why it belongs in your comms playbook

Wikipedia’s badge of shame for undisclosed COI editing

Sometimes these self-edits are newsworthy enough to generate headlines.

Earlier this month The Daily Beast reported that Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) had been banned from Wikipedia after repeatedly editing his own entry. Other publications quickly descended upon the story, including the New York Daily News (“NY Rep. Mike Lawler banned from Wikipedia for repeatedly editing his own profile”) and New York magazine (“NY Congressman Blocked on Wikipedia for Self-Editing Page”).

Back in February, retired MLB umpire Joe West attempted to remove information from his own Wikipedia entry related to a physical altercation with a manager. When editors reverted his edits, he threatened them with legal action. West’s account was soon banned indefinitely, and his aborted Wikipedia engagement was covered by numerous sporting outlets.

So how should PR teams engage with the site?

Wikipedia defines itself as “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” which sounds so intuitive and inviting! Alas, the guidelines dictating engagement from brands and other entities with conflicts of interest are more complicated. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, has long advocated a “bright line rule” which in part states that:

I am opposed to allowing paid advocates to edit in article space at all, but am extremely supportive of them being given other helpful paths to assist us in our efforts to be comprehensive, accurate and authoritative

Wales’ opinion is just that: his own. He has no real power over how Wikipedia operates. The position he sketches out, though, has been both formally and informally adopted by the site’s editor community as the preferred rules of engagement for brands and other paid entities.

Given this context, your best route for seeking changes to article content turns out to be very simple: Just ask!

Every Wikipedia article has an associated “Talk page” where editors discuss the content of the article and debate particular additions or deletions. In that space, any brand representative with a Wikipedia account that clearly identifies their conflict of interest can make suggestions as to what areas of the article require trimming, bolstering, or updating. Volunteer editors will then assess these suggestions and potentially implement them, if they seem to be in line with content and sourcing guidelines.

Familiarizing yourself with said guidelines will improve your chances of making a compelling case for edits. For instance, just stating that a particular figure in the article is “inaccurate” and should be removed won’t get you very far. You want to specify if the number is wrong because (a) the cited reporting is wrong, (b) the cited reporting is correct, but the wrong figure ended up in the article due to a typo, or maybe (c) there are more recent figures available, such as with company revenue or employee counts.

Each of these scenarios will, in turn, require a different approach in terms of how you frame your request. In general, you want to be solution-oriented, not only pointing out things that are wrong but also providing suggestions that will objectively improve article content and make it more encyclopedic.

If your suggested edits to your company page are consistently solid, volunteer editors can come to genuinely appreciate your efforts and value your input. On the other hand, if your suggested edits have a clear promotional intent, then you may see editors start to reject your proposals out of hand, ceasing to take your contributions seriously.

Rhiannon Ruff
Rhiannon Ruff is a co-founder of the digital agency Lumino and the author of the new book, Wikipedia & Crisis Communications. For the past decade-plus, Rhi has helped large organizations and Fortune 100 companies navigate the online encyclopedia, and she regularly speaks on the topic in agency seminars, podcasts, and other media appearances.


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