Just admit it: You are using Wikipedia. We all are. Today, it’s the sixth most popular website in the world and its reliability has tremendously increased over the last few years. I have long ago stopped to tell my students that they cannot use it. But I try to drive the point home that they should not cite it in their news stories or reference it in their research papers, because they would just be giving me a summary of a summary that someone else wrote. The reliability of Wikipedia is not a major issue anymore for me … and almost everyone else. We have accepted Wikipedia as a standard of our knowledge, as we once did with Encyclopedia Britannica (anyone still using it?). That’s the main reason why my research parter Marcia W. DiStaso from Penn State and I started to evaluate the Wikipedia images of major corporations.
The results of our four-year panel study “Forced Transparency: Corporate Image on Wikipedia and What it Means for Public Relations” was recently published in the Public Relations Journal. We found that Wikipedia gives corporate critics the opportunity to shape the public image of major corporations. Our study analyzed the framing of 10 Fortune 500 companies on Wikipedia between 2006 and 2010. We presented each step of this study at the International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami in 2006, 2008 and 2010 and now analyzed the complete data for our journal article.
Our research found through content analyses of more than 3,800 sentences in the Wikipedia articles for Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, General Motors, Ford, General Electric, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Citigroup, AIG, and IBM that the negativity increased over time and that the focus shifted from historical information to legal concerns and scandals. We believe that the findings should alarm public relations practitioners to pay close attention to the forced transparency about their companies on Wikipedia.
Interested in more details from our research results? The published journal article can be downloaded here.