Do you know where your company’s Wikipedia entry is tonight?


Or what is being said about your trade association, your university, your non-profit, your political leader, your . . . fill in the blank . . . on the fifth most viewed website on the planet?

During the past few years, I have asked public relations and marketing vice presidents, directors, managers and specialists if they had actually read the Wikipedia postings about their employer or client. In many cases, they grew silent or they would say that checking Wikipedia is something that needs to be added to an overflowing “to do” list. How about putting it right at the top of the “to do” list?

The reason is that Wikipedia or “Wiki” has become the Encyclopaedia Britannica of the 21st Century. Wikipedia counts 325 million monthly visitors. It is a pivotal Web 2.0 site on par, if not ahead of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or other popular uploadable social media websites. Just this past August, there were 1,300 new articles being added to Wikipedia everyday, and that was down from the 2,200 per day in 2007, but still growing at an impressive rate. One of the reasons for the decline may be the absence of low-hanging fruit, the obvious encyclopedia entries (e.g. USA, baseball, hot dogs, apple pie) have already been written.

The term “Wikipedia” comes from the Hawaiian word “Wiki” for quick and of course the last syllables of the word “encyclopedia.” It is a user-contributed online encyclopedia also known as the “people’s encyclopedia” and there comes the rub. What if a representative of the “people” is not exactly a fan or is a competitor, a rival, a disgruntled former or present employee of your company, your member of Congress, your college, your NGO, your non-profit etc? How much damage to your firm’s reputation and good name can these vandals quickly inflict and for how long before you finally realize it? And in this viral digital age  (probably redundant, but the point is still the same), a deliberately inaccurate post can become conventional wisdom in short order. The false can become the true, and you may be powerless to undo the wrong.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Wikipedia — “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” — had suffered a net loss of 49,000 volunteer editors or 98,000 eyeballs. “Eight years after Wikipedia began with a goal to provide everyone in the world free access to “the sum of all human knowledge,” the declines in participation have raised questions about the encyclopedia’s ability to continue expanding its breadth and improving its accuracy,” reported Julia Angwin and Geoffrey A. Fowler. “Errors and deliberate insertions of false information by vandals have undermined its reliability.”

In his runaway best seller, “The World is Flat,” ueberpundit Thomas L. Friedman wrote that Wikipedia is “not all sweetness and light” and does not always control itself. “When the people can upload their own encyclopedia, lots of things can happen, and not all of them good. Your enemies can use it as a global poster board to smear your name if they want, and it can take time to sort out.”

Meet The Press

Friedman then outlined a real-world example of character assassination via Wikipedia (you will have to buy the book), concluding: “. . . This is a highly personal story about Internet character assassination. It could be your story.”

One of the most obvious targets for a deliberate smear would be the ultimate private sector deep pocket Wal-Mart and its more than 1 million non-unionized employees. Reading the Wiki on Wal-Mart it is apparent that both the company and its detractors have weighed in on Wiki. The result appears to be a complete and mostly accurate encyclopedic description of Wal-Mart’s history, business strategies and controversies

Everybody knows someone with their own agenda or worse someone with an axe to grind. They may have your client or company in their gun sights. And now they have a free and simple tool to inflict considerable damage and it may be weeks before you even know it. Sounds like a little preventable medicine is in order, one that requires just a few key strokes.