(This is an English translation of a paper written for « le Journal du Net » originally published here)
(Ceci est une traduction d’une tribune initialement parue dans le Journal du Net).
It was bound to happen: a few months ago, Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales threatened to block all PR agencies from contributing to the interactive encyclopedia.
Why the big fuss? It is pretty obvious. Wikipedia, the web-based, free content encyclopedia, follows the rules of voluntary collaboration. Anyone can add or edit an entry, without any prior check or validation. As its popularity surges, Wikipedia is fast becoming a synonym for quick information retrieval, its articles appearing at the top of many search results.
An online reference, free to use and free to modify: all the ingredients are reunited for a time bomb in the world of communications.
A new PR tool
But why ban PR agencies from contributing when, by definition, this encyclopaedia is open to all? Jimmy Wales’ position first appears to be paradoxical. In fact, it casts a new light on the Web 2.0 and is very useful to those hoping to leverage its potential in their PR work.
In a nutshell, Jimmy Wales is arguing that Wikipedia is incompatible with any commercial endeavour. While PR aims to promote, Wikipedia aims for neutrality. Standing firm against all private interests, the website offers general points of view. No room for announcements here, this is an encyclopedia.
Wikipedia’s collaborative universe cannot be compared to conventional media. Jimmy Wales is asking us to acknowledge this difference. PR agencies cannot and should not apply their usual methods to Wikipedia. Quite to the contrary: they should develop a new and different capability: advising and writing properly for Wikipedia.
A few rules for Wikipedia writing
Can Wikipedia’s positioning and business objectives converge? Of course they can, as long as a few rules of conduct, ethics and common sense are respected.
1. Neutrality: marketing messages, whether placed directly in an entry or in a link, are not welcome in Wikipedia. The community of active contributors that “regulates” the website sees to it that they are removed.
2. Transparency: modifications to a page must be substantiated, so discussions can be held in the comments section. A company wishing to contribute should open a Wikipedia account, which will demonstrate its willingness to communicate openly. Though it may be tempting to remain anonymous, it should be remembered that IP addresses are easy to trace.
3. Involvement: the best way to gain respect from Internet users is to play entirely by the rules of the encyclopedia, rather than post a plain text. Internal and external links to additional relevant and neutral content are highly regarded.
These rules are by no means naïve or angelic. They derive from the reasonable and effective use of Wikipedia and – more generally – from the nature of the Web 2.0. The whole system raises further issues, such as the thin line between neutral information and commercial messaging. Businesses have a lot to gain from careful consideration of Wikipedia’s rules and recommendations. When they embrace these principles and verify the legitimacy of their own communication activities, they speak the language of the Web 2.0 and greatly increase their chances of spreading their point of view.
In the end, though “Wikipedia speak” may seem miles away from the usual practices of PR consultancies, there is no reason to presume them guilty. PR consultants can write in a spirit of neutrality and embrace the culture of Wikipedia. And by doing so, they strengthen their role as advisors.