“Greedy conglomerates” and “slave labor”: You better check your Wiki!
By Marcia W. DiStaso, Pennsylvania State University, and Marcus Messner, Virginia Commonwealth University
Summary: The authors tracked the Wikipedia entries of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies between 2006 and 2010. Results show that both negativity and length of articles is increasing, and that the main focus of articles is changing. Advice is given on how to handle Wikipedia.
Are you really checking what’s written on social media about you? We hope you do. How would you feel reading this about your company?
Hating Wal-Mart permits a person "to feel better about themselves" for three main reasons: They "don't run a greedy international conglomerate", they aren't Wal-Mart workers, widely considered "low-skilled, minimum wage drones", and they aren't Wal-Mart customers, thought of as "toothless, welfare-getting hillbillies."
ExxonMobil used disinformation tactics similar to those used by the tobacco industry in its denials of the link between lung cancer and smoking, saying that the company used "many of the same organizations and personnel to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue.” These charges are consistent with a purported 1998 internal ExxonMobil strategy memo.
Or how about this?
Other accusations were that the company collaborated with the German Nazi regime and relied on Germany. The German Ford company used slave labor in Cologne between 1941 and 1945 and it had produced military vehicles such as jeeps, planes, and ships used by a fascist regime.
Okay, you get the point. There is a lot of criticism of corporate America out there. But what’s remarkable about these three excerpts is that they are not from anti-corporate hate sites, somewhere on the Web. They are part of encyclopedia entries on these companies.
They are part of Wikipedia (as of April 2, 2010).
Wikipedia? That’s not what comes to mind when we talk about social media. Facebook, Twitter, okay. But Wikipedia? You probably think about that unreliable website with all these hoaxes. Well, that was a couple of years ago. Today, Wikipedia has greatly improved its editing process and, thereby, its credibility. Most importantly: It is moving up on all popular search engines. If you google “Wal-Mart,” “Exxon Mobil,” or “Ford,” the Wikipedia entries on these companies will rank somewhere between 4th and 6th, right behind the official corporate websites. This means the “greedy international conglomerate,” the “disinformation tactics,” and the “slave labor in Cologne” are only a click away.
You might ask: Who uses Wikipedia? Well, many people do. You have probably caught yourself using it. Between March 2009 and February of this year, 1.4 million people visited the Wikipedia entry on Wal-Mart alone. And anybody can contribute to it. Your neighbor can be as much of an expert on your company and your organization as you can. All it takes is good referencing material that can be found anywhere on the Web.
The Wikipedia Presence of the Top Ten Fortune 500 Companies
Our research tracked the Wikipedia entries of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies between 2006 and 2010. We analyzed each sentence to determine its tonality (negative, positive, neutral) and predominant topics.
We found that:
- Negativity is increasing greatly over time. While only 17.5% of the sentences for the 10 companies were framed negatively in 2006, the number rose to 24.6% this year. Still, almost two-thirds of the sentences are framed neutral, as is characteristic for an encyclopedia. But, as any public relations practitioner knows, the negativity is what sticks in people’s minds.
- Length of entries has increased greatly as well, from an average of 91 sentences in 2006 to 166 this year. This means that not only the percentage of negative content has increased, but also the total number of negative sentences.
- Some of the negative content is “outsourced” from the main entries. For example, there are links to additional Wikipedia sites like “Criticism of Wal-Mart,” where much more negativity can be found. The main entry just displays a summary of the criticism.
- The focus of articles has shifted. A remarkable finding of our study was that the main focus in 2006 was on company information and history, but this year shifted to company information, legal concerns, scandals,and performance. Not surprisingly, sentences on legal concerns and scandals were the greatest contributors to negativity in the overall entries. With a stronger focus on these issues, overall negativity increased.
So, what can you do about it?
The worst thing you can do is to erase all negativity in your company’s entry. This is not how Wikipedia works. The community of editors and administrators will reverse the erasing within minutes. And you will have a major controversy on your hands, because they will be outraged at your actions.
The smartest move is to add your viewpoint to the content that already exists on Wikipedia. The more you can reference your viewpoint, the better. Link to a company statement, a speech that someone in your company has given, or a newspaper article that was published on the topic. Today, referencing in the form of good old footnotes determines what is considered reliable on Wikipedia. This makes it difficult for you, as the critics of your company will try to reference all criticism. On the other hand, it also makes it difficult for your critics to erase your point of view, if it is referenced well.
Wikipedia is a community. Decisions are made by the collective. There is nothing wrong with you taking an active stand in shaping your company's image on Wikipedia. But you should play by the rules. Act openly from your office computer and try to persuade the community of your views. Do not hire someone unrelated to the company to “fix” the Wikipedia entry. Microsoft tried that a few years ago and received a lot of bad press when it became public. Most of the Wikipedia editors and administrators are not on a crusade against your company. They just want to see some backup for the information that you are contributing.
We will present the complete results of our study in October at the PRSA 2010 International Conference in Washington, D.C. Hope to see you there.
Marcia W. DiStaso is an assistant professor of public relations at Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on investor relations and the impact of social media on the public relations profession.
Marcus Messner is an assistant professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. His research focus is on the adoption and use of social media.