Opinion

Meet the man who will write your brand’s Wikipedia page

Tony AhnLast year, Tony Ahn was called a “disgrace” by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. Why? Because he’s a PR man who writes Wikipedia articles for brands and celebrities.

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks, the US-born, Manila-based founder and chief digital architect of digital and traditional PR and marketing firm Tony Ahn & Co, talks about the ethics of his craft, how to get an article approved by the editors, and why Jimmy Wales needs to loosen up.

First, explain your business model and how you started out.

Ok, so I’ve been writing for Wikipedia for about 10 years. I got started when it was a few years old [Wikipedia launched in 2001], and originally did it for fun. About three or four years ago, I had the idea of writing an article for a friend of mine, Carlos Celdran. He got arrested for protesting Carlos the tour guideagainst the church’s opposition to the reproductive health bill in the Philippines.

He went into Manila Cathedral and held up a sign that called on the church to stop getting involved in politics. They charged him with offending religious sensibilities, an old law that hasn’t been used in decades. He’s a popular tour guide, and does a lot of political and cultural activism around HIV issues in the Philippines. I wrote a Wikipedia article about him for free.

I also wrote a few press releases, which referenced the Wikipedia article, and he subsequently featured on international news wires. At which point, I thought there must more people like him who need this service. So I started writing Wikipedia articles for local celebrities. When I launched by own business in May 2012, that was part of the offer.

Who are your clients?

Prudential Wiki entryMy first corporate client was the Philippine Prudential Life Insurance Company. When you type in the company name on Google, the second ranked search is the company’s article on Wikipedia, which I wrote.

How do ensure that your articles will get published on Wikipedia? I hear that that it’s not easy to get an article passed the editors.

Well, you have to follow the rules. Or rather, as Wikipedia calls them, “community standards”. This involves a few things. One is what is known as notability criteria. It has to be a subject that has garnered significant media coverage. Not only that, but it has to be sourced – and they have to be credible sources. They always say that the criteria for Wikipedia is not truth, it’s verifiability. You have to be able to prove that what you say is true.

What if a client hasn’t had anything written about them?

This is an issue that isn’t impossible to get around. You have to have press coverage to get on Wikipedia. So I have placed articles in the press on behalf of clients. If you don’t have press, I can get you press – because I work in PR. I can set up an interview with a newspaper, and then write the Wikipedia article. If I have to get you two insertions, then the Wiki article it’s 75,000 Philippine pesos for the whole lot.

Explain the process behind publishing an article for a brand on Wikipedia.

There is a place on Wikipedia where you can put up a link to an article that’s not been published yet. This sits in what is known as “user space”. Then you go to a forum and ask if any of the editors will read and approve it. The downside of this, is that it can take a long time to get approval. But some of the editors know me and like my work. So I ask them to review it, and say that if you do, I’ll review something for you.

Once, I had an article denied. The editor said my sources weren’t credible. I responded: you don’t know the Philippine media. He nominated the article for deletion. Then the editors got together to vote on it. The consensus was that the article should be kept. I was at their mercy.

I always tell clients that I cannot guarantee that an article will be published on Wikipedia, and if they’re not included I will give them their money back. I have never had to issue a refund.

How much what do you charge per article?

25,000 Philippine pesos (US$573). Sometimes I do it for free, if my client will give me three free tweets [Ahn’s agency also writes celebrity tweets for brands and celebrities]. Once, a celebrity said no, “my tweets are worth 80,000 pesos each”. She still doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

What do you say to people who say this practice is ethically unsound?

I think the cynicism is well founded. I’d say 98 per cent of PRs who write Wikipedia articles give us a bad name. But those who think the practice is shady are usually ignorant of the rules. There is a small percentage of editors that sneak around with “sockpuppets”, willfully violating community standards in order to get their articles up.

Tell us about Calvin Ayre, your billionaire client who made his fortune in online gambling with Bodog.

I wrote his Wikipedia article for him. There was a skeletal article up for him already, but I completely revamped it. I also managed to get Daphne Oseña-Paez [a Filipina TV show host] on to the Wikipedia home page, which prompted Jimmy Wales to complain about me.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a Wikipedia page for clients?

Because of the nature of Wikipedia, some of the hardest work I do is explaining to clients what they can’t have and why. They say, we want you to write that we are the top company or have the biggest market share. I can write that they have, say, 58 per cent market share. But I can’t say that they’re the biggest. It’s not appropriate to write that, nor is it allowed according to Wikipedia’s community standards.

Why would clients even want a Wikipedia page?

Because Wikipedia gives credibility. If there’s a Wikipedia article about you, it means that you’re notable, especially in situations where company is, say, bidding for a contract. The first thing a bidder does is jump on Google to find out about a company. And they can find unbiased information on that company on Wikipedia.

It’s also the first place journalists go to get information on a brand or person. It’s always good to have some control over what journalists see online. To be the first source for them is advantageous for my clients.

Not only that, but a Wikipedia page sends traffic to your website. Some say it’s good for SEO [search engine optimisation] too. But Wikipedia actively prevents extra link juice now, so it doesn’t really help with SEO these days.

Do you declare to Wikipedia that your articles are written by a PR person?

I have two accounts. One is my own personal account, the second one I just use for PR. On my PR user page there’s a big statement that declares who I am and what I do.

Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Wales

When Jimmy Wales said what he did about you, what effect did it have on your business?

I got six orders for Wikipedia pages within a week. And they were all from the American companies. I don’t have much brand presence in the US, but Jimmy helped me with that. [Ahn wrote an open letter to Wales about his call to ban PR people from writing Wikipedia pages, which can be read here]

I was a candidate for board of trustees for Wikipedia in the Philippines. Jimmy Wales asked that my candidacy be withdrawn. It wasn’t. I didn’t get elected, but he didn’t stop my nomination. I’m running for candidacy again this term.

What have been your most successful articles on Wikipedia and how do you measure success?

Good question. A client once asked for a KPI for a Wikipedia page. I said, the KPI is that it gets written and it stays up. There’s no way to really measure its success. You could look at page impressions, but unless I’m handling the full PR campaign, there’s no way I can control how many people look at the page. So KPIs don’t make sense.

I also told the client that the things you get are often unmeasurable, such as credibility. It’s like asking for a KPI on an expensively produced business card. Or having a nice car to create a certain image. It’s hard to gauge what the effect of a Wikipedia page is.

Do you think WIkipedia is too stiff in its approach to PR practioners editing and writing articles?

There are two issues at play here – standards and philosophy. I agree with Wikipedia’s standards. They have to be strict for Wikipedia to maintain its credibility. I have a friend who started editing Wikipedia articles in 2002. He said that back then you could write bullshit and it would stay up. Now, a bad article can get taken down in seconds.

There are now article patrollers who review all articles. If I go into, say, an article about Neil Young. If I delete lots of text, it gets flagged. A robot will automatically put it back up and flag it as vandalism.

Then there’s the philosophy piece, which I don’t agree with. There’s not one cohesive philosophy for Wikipedia. There are lots of different editors who have different viewpoints. Jimmy Wales’ philosophy is not the philosophy of the entire organisation. Some subscribe to it, some don’t. Jimmy Wales has said all PRs should be banned, but we haven’t been.

Do you really think what you’re doing is sustainable?

I don’t think Wikipedia will ever lose credibility for that reason. There are protections against bad articles. Is Wikipedia sustainable for business? Well, Wikipedia articles are kind of like a side dish at a restaurant. When people order them, you make money. But Wikipedia articles comprise less than five per cent of our monthly billings. If there was no longer a way to do ethically, I’d stop it. It wouldn’t hurt my business that much.

If it give a brand so much credibility, why don’t you charge more?

Capitalism. There’s too much competition in the market. I’m one of the only people who does it ethically. But I’m not the only person who does it. I’m at the high end. There are people who charge US$250 per article. They’re usually one-man shops [Tony Ahn & Co has five staff] that are hit and miss and aren’t always reliable. Our point of difference is that we can generate press since we’re in PR. We also watch the article and notify the client if it needs changing.

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