Wikipedia: Help or hindrance?

I remember even when I was in high school, my teachers used to say that Wikipedia was NOT a reliable source to reference in any academic work.  Universities won’t accept it either.  So what exactly is Wikipedia good for?  Personally, I find it to be an invaluable source for grasping a basic understanding of just about anything.  Want to know who Joseph Smith, Jr is?  Look it up on Wikipedia.  I bet you couldn’t find out that sort of information in a hard copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in less than 20 seconds?

What is Wikipedia? According to academic, Dr Axel Bruns in his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From production to produsage, ‘Wikis enable their users to create a network of knowledge that is structured ad hoc through multiple interlinkages between individual pieces of information in the knowledge base’.  Bruns explains, that Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia that endeavours not to ‘present representations of knowledge, but to encapsulate the current state of accepted knowledge itself.’ 

In layman’s terms Wikipedia is an editable space for the compilation and aggregation of knowledge and encourages online enthusiast communities to facilitate discussion around topics of interest. 

Wikipedia is not simply an archive of information.  It is a live application that is constantly updated and subject to gatewatching.  By nature it is effective in its coverage of unfolding events.  Bruns points out that that this coverage is not intended to highlight and analyse events, but rather to chronically document history as it is made.

As with many other new media applications, Wikipedia has had, is having, and will have an impact on public relations.

Wikipedia has the potential to be a hindrance to public relations practitioners.  In an ideal world, the fact that people are able to contribute to and edit content on Wikipedia, would mean that content would be monitored and information would therefore be accurate.  This is not always the case.  As my teachers said, information on Wikipedia cannot always be relied on.  So what’s to say that people wouldn’t use Wikipedia to air grievances about an organisation?  If this happens, it doesn’t matter how quickly the edit is rectified, chances are, someone else has already seen it. Having said that, it is also quite possible that public relations practitioners would use Wikipedia to generate their own spin.  In his blog Tricky Wiki, Peter Dizikes gives the example of ExxonMobile employees changing their Wikipedia entry to glamorise the organisation’s environmental record.  

On a slightly more ethical note, Wikipedia functions allow organisations to monitor their entry and ensure that inaccurate information is mediated.  It also allows them to promote their organisation and provide detailed information to the public that could not be easily distributed elsewhere.  Additionally, Wikipedia gives organisations the opportunity to report the truth.  For example, people know that ExxonMobile has not got a shiny environmental record, so it would be far more beneficial for them to own up to this and instead report on the changes they are making now to rectify the wrongs.

Having said all that, is it ethical for public relations to interfere with Wikipedia at all?  Does it go against the very concept of WikipediaPeter Dzikes believes this is the case.  Perhaps it is.  However, I am of the view that organisations should be able to defend themselves.  The gatewatchers aren’t always able to pick everything up and it is only fair that organisations should be able to right the wrong.    



  1. mdujardin Said:

    You make a really insightful point, especially as you linked it to Public relations. As an advertising student I pondered the same question you raise, should advertisers/ PR people be able to interfere with Wikipedia?

    I say no. Why? Wiki is there to offer information and knowledge from amateurs and experts, happy and un happy consumers. The job of the advertising company and PR is to make sure that they prevent such negative media or, fix the problem (ie: un happy and unsatisfieed consumers). We as PR and advertising people should be greatful for the free comments and suggestions.

    Furthermore, I certainly Wikipedia is a fantastic platform of reference allowing consumers to quickly scan and review a topic, brand, subjects in under 20 seconds! As long as people know it wasn’t created to be a professional or academic point source, it was simply created to be a general point of reference.

  2. hstatham Said:

    After reading you article, I conducted some research myself into how many new pop culture references and biographies I was able to find on Wikipedia and compared it to an online library database. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia had the most comprehensive pop culture articles and was the most user-friendly.

    The point you have raise that Wikipedia is a useful tool for contemporary information is a valid one. However, it must also be noted that contemporary news and information relating to trends and pop culture can also be derived from other online tools, including personal and organization based websites. These often are more detailed, contain more links and are written mostly by professionals in the area.

    I think the point you make about the endemic relationship between Wikipedia and PR, dictates a need to change peoples Internet practices. People appear to be happy to take the easiest approach to research, rather than taking a more reliable one. In respect to your ethical dilemna, should PR companies use Wikipedia, I ask myself should consumers who have limited exposure to the company be writing about it on Wikipedia? Accordingly, I think that people should change their attitude to Internet use, so that media professionals, such as you, do not have to worry about editing Wikipedia to maintain its content and ensuring its credibility. If only people instead of looking at Wikipedia actually researched the company you represent, they would have access to the publicity statements that are endorsed by the company, rather than reading the hearsay of consumers, glorified and then published on Wikipedia.

  3. aditiach Said:

    Hi Erin,
    You touch on a very important point here that most people tend to bypass. Though articles on Wikipedia are predominantly put together by first time authors and from un-academic sources, it is important to remember that Wikipedia is still subject to regimented ‘Gatewatching’. Academics like to repeatedly bring up the fact that articles on Wikipedia are unreliable, non-credible and unchecked. However, it should be taken into consideration that Wikipedia administrators are aware of these negative notions associated with Wikipedia, and they are continually working towards improving its trustworthiness. They are achieving this by improving Wikipedia’s transparency, and allowing readers themselves to assess the quality control.

    A senior research scientist for augmented social cognition at the Palo Alto Research Center is the creator of a tool, called WikiDashboard, that aims to reveal the editing process behind Wikipedia’s pages in order to help readers judge for themselves the reliability of the information. Administrators have also implemented another software called Wikiscanner, which enables a person to discover which anonymous editions to Wikipedia entries have been made by who; namely governmental bodies, private companies, political organizations and researchers. This allows people to make their own decisions about the reliability of the editorial content. It is therefore not fair to say that Wikipedia is an unchecked source, but rather that the screening power is in the hands of the reader. As I reader myself, I feel empowered by this.

    ~ A

    • aditiach Said:

      I would like to make an amendment to my comment. Upon further readin, I discovered that Wikiscanner is also a third-party creation, and was not created by the administrators of Wikipedia. This makes it even more interesting in that avid and dedicated Wikipedia users have taken it upon themselves to self-check and evaluate the work of their peers.

  4. madelainehogan1 Said:

    As a law student, looking twice at Wikipedia is considered living on the edge. I, however, consider Wikipedia an invaluable source of quick information. Wikipedia provides great background information on a topic, and usually highlights a number of relevant sites to further my research.

    When I use Wikipedia as a starting point for initial research on an assignment, I would like to think the information I am gathering is correct and up-to-date. As you pointed out, this is not always the case. Though Wikipedia has strict guidelines for editing (Neutral Point Of View, for example), some people still post personal opinions on Wiki pages. Like you said, from a public relations perspective, this can be a disaster, as more often than not someone will have seen malicious entries before they are removed.

    This considered, it is understandable why academics refuse to recognise Wikipedia as a reliable source. The few minutes you spend on a particular wiki page may present you with incorrect information, which may be edited out shortly after you close the page. There is no guarantee what you are reading is true or malicious. From a PR perspective, that is one person who has walked away believing false sentiments regarding a client. In cases such as these, Wikipedia is definitely a hindrance.

  5. Emma Johnson Said:

    Hi Erin,
    Firstly, I think you have raised quite a topical and engaging concern in regards to the participation of Public Relations professionals within the Wiki environment.

    As a PR student myself, I agree with your view about the impeding hindrance caused by people sharing their negative or false experiences or opinions about an organisation. However, as there are practitioners out there who would definitely work some of their own spin-magic for certain organisations or relative content within Wikipedia, the fact that anyone can contribute on top of this (to what may actually be legitimate information) and even completely change the content raises so many concerns. And of course there will be readers who come across the same entry at different stages of the editing process. I think that this determines the fact that Wikipedia is an unstable platform for PR practitioners to rely upon or use for the tactical and professional distribution of information.

    The fact that organisations have the power to monitor their entries and intervene with additional content contributed from “outside sources” brings me to the Neutral Point of View (NPOV) policy. If an organisation has the right to this type of power, where does this leave non-organisational entries within Wikipedia? How can we justify the improvement of entries? Who should be able to decide this? Whose point of view is verging on borderline? What if this point of view is truthful? And how can we ascertain this?

    I’d also just like to respond here to hstatham’s view that “people should change their attitude to internet use, so that media professionals, such as you, do not have to worry about editing Wikipedia to maintain its content and ensuring its credibility.” If this were to happen, of course this would make life on Wikipedia a lot easier. However, unfortunately, I do not see this happening, unless organisations were to gain sole control of their entry, and then who’s to say they would follow the NPOV policy? Should this policy even apply to organisations? I think that yes, people do initially go to Wikipedia for “easy” information, but that wider research to verify and compare whether content is dependable is definitely recommended, and I think people are starting to and will continue to realise this more and more.

  6. curlyramsey Said:

    Your discussion provides great insight on Wikipedia and its effect on public relations.

    I completely agree that Wikipedia shouldn’t be used as a scholarly resource, at least not yet. There is potential for it becoming a reliable source, however, it would involve a substantial number improvements and re-workings. But, like you, I believe it’s a great source for gaining a basic understanding for academic work. Additionally, as I stated in my discussion, I like to use Wikipedia simply for personal interest research e.g. finding out information about different bands and artists.

    What really interested me and got me thinking, was your point on the effect Wikipedia has on public relations. In my discussion, I failed to thoroughly discuss that, while Wikipedia is a great resource for gaining knowledge on the world of music, a lot of this information could be untrue or placed there to “air grievances” towards artists and their fans. Unfortunately, this untrue and arguably unnecessary content isn’t always picked up on, which means that people are given false information.

    Sadly, this problem and the many more associated with Wikipedia suggest the unattainable goal of trying to create an online encyclopaedia that can be used and edited by anybody but which provides reliable, scholarly information.

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