Few people in the agency world know more about the effective use of Wikipedia than Bill Beutler. As the founder of Beutler Ink, he and his team don’t just advise people about this popular platform, they also help clients communicate more effectively with infographics and other formats.
In this episode, Chip talks with Bill about the evolution of Wikipedia in recent years and how agencies can help their clients navigate the sometimes confusing editing ecosystem without getting themselves into trouble.
The pair also discuss how artificial intelligence impacts Wikipedia and communicators.
- Bill Beutler: “The volunteer editors based at Wikipedia don’t think of themselves as providing a marketing service. So they do not roll out the red carpet for PR and marketing people.”
- Chip Griffin: “We all come to the table with biases, whether conscious or not. And they will show through if we look closely enough at anyone’s writing.”
- Bill Beutler: “AI could be useful in the near future, but it really has a long way to go before it’s ever going to replace writers or, frankly, even going to be a useful tool for doing research and compiling it.”
- Chip Griffin: “Agencies need to help educate their clients on what are the important changes that you would like to see to your Wikipedia article versus the ones where it’s just kind of annoying.”
About Bill Beutler
William Beutler is the founder and president of Beutler Ink, an award-winning strategic creative agency that helps emerging brands and industry trailblazers tell their stories through engaging content, dynamic social media strategies, and an honest approach to reputation. Founded in 2010 and counting two dozen employees, Beutler Ink is especially known for its pioneering work in public relations for Wikipedia. Outside of agency leadership, William Beutler has also been a blogger, podcaster, and film producer. He began his career as a political journalist in Washington, DC.
The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.
Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I’m your host Chip Griffin and I am delighted to have with me a regular guest on some of my shows a good friend a really smart guy And I think we’re gonna have a great conversation Bill Beutler of Beutler Ink. Welcome to the show Bill.
Bill Beutler: Chip Thank you so much for having me.
It’s been it’s been a moment. I’m glad you think of me as a regular.
Chip Griffin: But I do because I’ve had you on at least twice on different shows, so you know, it’s, it’s, it’s always great to have you and, and you do have a lot of insight and today we’ll be talking about Wikipedia. Which is, you know, for those of us who are seasoned, shall we say, in the business have, have seen it evolve a bit over the years, but it’s, it remains a mainstay, but I think a lot of people with all the developments that are taking place out there with, with AI and the, you know, the, the birth of different kinds of sites and all that kind of stuff, you know, how relevant is it?
Is it a threat? Is it an opportunity? How should they be thinking about it? So we’ll get into that in a minute, but before we start talking about Wikipedia why don’t you just share a little bit about yourself first?
Bill Beutler: Sure thing. So as you said, I have my own agency. It’s called Beutler Ink.
We’re a strategic creative firm where Wikipedia is our primary service, although not our only. We also do content development and social media, and we have a really strong emphasis on visual design. We’ve been in business for about 13 years at this point, and we have a team of about two dozen spread across the contiguous 48.
We’ve never had an office in all the years we’ve been in business. The first person I wanted to work with was in a different state, and then we just kept hiring people where they were and never bothered to have an office. And you know, we’ve going strong and it’s been a blast.
Chip Griffin: Well, it’s great that you talked about how you go beyond Wikipedia.
Cause obviously that’s, that’s how you and I first met many years ago. And, and I always think of you as my go to Wikipedia expert whenever anybody asks, but you guys also do put out a tremendous amount of stuff that, you know, particularly the visual stuff that you guys put out. I really enjoy and think you guys do a bang up job of being able to you know, I, I hate calling them infographics because infographics is one of, it’s one of those terms that I think has been totally distorted over the years and I see these infographics that are really like, you know, 10 page reports that have just been converted into a giant long image. And, and so, you know, you guys do a much better job, I think, of, of turning them into what they, they, Could have or should have been and so I would encourage folks to, to check out the work that you guys are doing in that area as well, because it really is something that even if they don’t work with you, they can learn a lot from.
As far as how to do it the right way.
Bill Beutler: Absolutely. And our, our blog on our website at beutlerink.com there are plenty of posts about data visualization, different approaches. You know, at one point in time, we did think of the creative side of the business as being an infographic shop. And this was roughly 2013, 2014, back when that was the infographics were all the rage.
And they kind of got overdone. I actually met the great data visualization speaker Edward Tufte, and I asked him what agencies should know about infographics and his answer was stop. He just was over it. And this is the guy who is the go to on data biz. And I’m sorry, my cat has just knocked over a table. I thought that everything would be chill, but these cats are not so.
Chip Griffin: Well You know, you it’s what makes these, you know live to tape shows interesting because you never know what pets or children… You know, my, my regular podcast I do with Gini Dietrich her daughter makes an appearance quite frequently in the background on those.
So, you know, it just, it, it adds to the, the, the reality that this is. And, and so I appreciate that. For sure. So, so let’s, let’s let’s weave into Wikipedia a little bit here, though, because, you know, Wikipedia is one of those things, I, you know, I, I think a lot of people aren’t quite sure what to make of it, and so they, you know, some, some people you know, think of Wikipedia as this place where, you know, their, their organization, their business gets trashed, right?
You know, and, and, and particularly, you know I’ve done a lot of work in crisis comms over the years, and, You know, needless to say, any, any business that is involved in a crisis is probably going to have stuff on Wikipedia that they don’t enjoy seeing. It may be factual, right? Because that is the goal of Wikipedia, but they still don’t like it.
And they maybe think it doesn’t have appropriate context or something like that. And so, you know, so you’ve got that camp that just. you know, sees it as, as a fear. You’ve got another camp that sees it as an opportunity. Hey, you know, we want to promote our business. We want to make sure we’ve got a good, robust Wikipedia listing so it can, you know, if someone’s Googling for us, they can find all this good information and it’s from a credible third party source.
So therefore you know, it must be good. And so, you know, those are sort of the two extremes, if you will. And in, in both there’s opportunity, but in both there’s also some risk.
Bill Beutler: I mean, it really does run the gamut just as you say. We will speak to I would say the broad majority of the perspective clients that we talked to and clients we work with, there is already an article. And it just has been kind of neglected. It’s not usually overly negative, although you better believe we talk to people who have been the focus of a campaign to make the page worse. And we also work with a lot of companies who would like to have an article, but do not have one yet.
And that can be a whole challenge of its own, because there are far more companies and individuals and organizations. Who would like to have a page than actually qualify for one. So we really see people with all kinds of different challenges relating to Wikipedia. But it all comes down to the same the same core value proposition/ risk situation that here we are, what, more than 20 years following the establishment of Wikipedia and more than, more than 15 years it’s been, you know, really globally famous that had, to this day, people run a search on something, they want to learn information, and Wikipedia is very often one of the first things that comes up. Even if another website does come up ahead of Wikipedia, on the rare occasions where that happens, well people know what Wikipedia is. They know that it has this authoritative voice.
These days they know that actually Wikipedia is pretty good. The, the, citations have been built out over time. Again, Wikipedia was founded in 2001. So here we are. What is it? It’s now 2023. So it’s about 22 years old at this point. It’s really quite a mature product, if you can speak of it in those terms.
As an encyclopedia, it’s really well developed. It’s a, it’s a place to be seen. And well, if you’re not there, you want to be, and if what people read there is wrong there’s definitely the perception that it matters and this really, really often is the case where we’ll speak to somebody from the communications department at a, at a company where they’re hearing from their CEO that the they happen to read the page or maybe their nephew, like, you know, pulled them aside at Thanksgiving and said, have you seen what the Wikipedia says about the company?
And that’ll start this conversation where they’re looking for somebody to help. And I’m grateful when they find us. We love doing this kind of work. One of the other challenges about Wikipedia, even here 20 years into its existence and long after it’s reached you know, ubiquity, there’s still still really a very small number of consultants or agencies who do this work well. Who do this work in a way that will keep themselves and keep clients out of trouble.
I think because Wikipedia, the editor, the volunteer editor based at Wikipedia, you know, they don’t think of themselves as providing a marketing service. And so they really, you know do not roll out the red carpet for PR and marketing people.
Chip Griffin: In some cases, exactly the opposite. They, they, they view professional communicators is the enemy almost. And so I think that that can be a challenge. I, you know, I, I, I like the fact that you mentioned the maturity of Wikipedia because I think that’s certainly true as far as the you know, the volume, the comprehensiveness of the information itself. The area where I think it’s a little bit less mature, at least in, in technological terms is it’s, it’s user friendliness for those who are interested in editing it.
And, and it, and it remains perhaps intentionally so, a place where you, you, you kind of have to, to really know the system in order to even mechanically go about the edits. It is, you know, if you go to the edit page on a normal page in Wikipedia, I think the average person would look at that and just be absolutely befuddled by it. You know, the, you know, the list of revisions and the way it does it in previous and next and you sit there and you’re like, What the heck does any of this even mean? And so I think that you know that does for agencies who are trying to help clients I think that is an obstacle as well because they, you know you can’t even for many of them get past the technological hurdle of how to do it before you can start stepping into the weeds and making making trouble by doing something you shouldn’t.
Bill Beutler: This is really true actually, this is we we believe it or not, we actually developed a software that we use and that we also offer to to agencies and to clients to, to, to take those confusing lists of edits and turn them into something that is a little more usable. So the software is called WikiWatch.
You can learn more about it at wikiwatch.net. It’s available by subscription. Because truly, Wikipedia is designed for the insiders who have taken the time to learn what it is. And if you are a professional communicator who has other things that you’re doing, it can just take too long to learn how it all works.
So obviously hiring an agency like myself or one of the few others out there who are similarly, you know, qualified and again, ethical in their approach, just because it’s so common for scams. We, we have talked to people a lot who, who have tried to hire a consultant off of Fiverr or someone who’s cold pitched them and they’ve lost thousands of dollars trying to get something that they can’t get. Anyway, if you do want to kind of develop some knowledge yourself. WikiWatch is a great way to start. I will give Wikipedia credit for having done a lot of work over the years to try to make editing easier. But as you say. It doesn’t make it actually easy.
Chip Griffin: Right and and and honestly I’m not sure that the site really has an incentive to make it too easy because then there’s a lot more policing that has to be done, right?
So there there there is a certain advantage to having a barrier to entry on the editing so that you know, the you know those core editors who are involved in trying to help don’t have as much to review. And I think to me, that’s another key point here. You know, part of part of the thing that I hear from agencies is the experience can be very different from one client’s page to another because it really depends on which editors have taken an interest in that particular entry and what their own outlook is, right?
Because there are certain general standards within Wikipedia, but a lot of it comes down to personal interpretation of the editors who are actually participating in that particular page.
Bill Beutler: This is a really excellent point. So Wikipedia has a complex set of policies and guidelines, a whole manual of style for how things should be written, what kinds of sources you should use, how you should write from, et cetera, and learning them is very important.
But, just as you say, ultimately, there is no real editor, you know, editorial structure. There’s no editor in chief, there are not, there are no managing editors, and it doesn’t work like that. It’s purely a volunteer community. And so, there is a bit of the luck of the draw with the editor who, if you are, you know, if you are a PR professional, and you want to interact on the page of a client, you know you may well have heard it’s best not to go in and make direct edits, very strongly discouraged.
However you are welcome to come to the discussion page for that topic and, you know, raise an issue. Even present an argument, present a new draft. And so the idea is that volunteers should help. Well, how helpful will they be? It certainly helps a lot if you can speak their language, you know, cite the right policies and guidelines, and, you know, and come with the right answer the first time.
This is the sort of thing that an agency such as mine can take the guesswork out of. But even so, even for us we still talk to editors we’ve never met before just because myself and and my strategy team have a lot of experience, you know, helping clients solve problems on Wikipedia where a lot of Wikipedia editors we know very well and have a good working relationship with.
And yet there are also folks that have never heard of us before. And so we have to, you know demonstrate good faith every time. And some, some editors are more skeptical of PR than others.
Chip Griffin: That’s a, that’s a very polite way of putting it, Bill.
Bill Beutler: Well, I have to do business there, you know, I’m very pro Wikipedia.
And I think that’s one reason why we are successful. Like, I think that Wikipedia is a great thing.
Chip Griffin: It is a tremendously valuable resource. You know, I, I use Wikipedia on a regular basis when I’m looking for information on things, as I’m sure most of our listeners here today do as well. And and so, you know, it is filling a useful place you know in the market. At the same time, you know It is incredibly frustrating at times when you read things in there and and either you know whether it’s a client or not Sometimes you’ll read things and be like they really shouldn’t say that that way or you know. Because, you know, we also have to remember that all editors are people, right?
And so, you know, yes, you stick to the facts, but, but at some point, someone has to be the arbiter of which facts to include, right? Because particularly on, on, you know, major companies, major topics. You know, you can’t include everything in them. And so ultimately part of an editor’s role is decide what’s in and what’s out.
And that does inevitably reflect the biases of the particular editor, one way or the other. Just, you know, I’ve always argued this with the media, right? You know, it’s, it’s silly for them, the news media to prevent, pretend that they’re impartial. They are not. We all come to the table with biases, whether conscious or not.
And, and they will show through if we look closely enough at anyone’s writing. So, you know, you have to be reasonable in your expectations, I think, of the editors and what you can actually achieve from that perspective.
Bill Beutler: Yes, and, and remember that these editors they really all are volunteers. And if they, if, if you pose a request and somebody comes and answers you, they’re taking time out of another project of theirs to, to help you out.
And so I’ll tell you, we oftentimes will see consultants who try on their own. And they do a good job getting started. They create a user account and you know, they choose the right name. They choose a usable name. They provide the proper disclosures of who their client is and then they go to post a request on the talk page And it’s 2000 words long and they’re asking for every single change in that first edit. Volunteer editors are just going to Ignore that probably for the most part.
You’ll be lucky if somebody says Whoa, can you break this up into something usable? They – I find it’s very common where a company who has tried before comes to us – this also happens with creating a new article. They may have written their own draft, found the articles for creation process, which is how you’re supposed to submit an article if you have a financial connection to the topic, and then they wait three months time, and they just get back a reply from editor that’s like, no. They don’t provide any useful information.
That’s frustrating. It would be great if Wikipedia editors provided more guidance on how to do it right the next time. But you know, they’re not going to do your work for you. There’s there’s a huge, you know, huge, a lot of concern about that, but you know, you’re paid. We’re not, we’re not going to do your work for you.
Chip Griffin: Right. And in my experience, you know targeted edits are much more effective than wholesale rewrites, right? I mean, most, most of the time, at least from what I’ve seen, wholesale rewrites are, are not readily accepted. Whereas if you focus in on particular you know, points that need to be added or, or context provided to, or something like that, and you can make a strong case, you’re much more likely to do that.
And then you can build momentum, right? So if you, if you focus on the things that are the easiest to get changed or update or fixed, focus on those, then you build momentum with the editors that you’re being there as an honest broker. And so therefore much more likely to to evolve in the direction that you’re looking as opposed to a total rewrite, you know Throw out all this garbage that you’ve worked on previously.
It’s no good.
Bill Beutler: I love this. We’re talking strategy actually, I have a slightly different view. I think that you are right a lot of the time but it also depends. I’ll give you an example of where we get sometimes we’ll get like the executive you know, the biography where they have, like, taken a pen and they have marked up all the changes they want to make. And they have so many different things they want to do. If they have, like, like, 20, 25 little changes, at that point, actually, it might be better to just present a clean, you know, fresh version of a section.
That way we can address, like, the five different points in that update in that in that, you know that proposed update rather than asking for five different things But it can take a while. Like we we certainly do completely rewrite articles that should say the volunteers approve rewrites. But it can take a while.
We oftentimes will say that a project, a substantial project should, should be probably about a six month starting we’ll start there and see maybe we finish early, but maybe we take a little bit longer. And there are some where we’ve worked with, you know, like Fortune 500 companies with very long entries, and it can take up to a year.
To do a complete overhaul as we work through section by section.
Chip Griffin: You know, I think the other thing that agencies need to think about here is, particularly PR agencies, how can they be helpful to the editing process beyond the direct edits? Right because one of Wikipedia’s standards is to cite you know third party sources as opposed to so if the company posts something on their website no matter how true it may be Wikipedia frowns upon that typically as a source and would prefer to see it in print somewhere or in digital print as it is today And so, you know agencies who are thinking about this can work to try to get you know, reporters to write about the things that they would like to see covered in Wikipedia, but maybe there’s not an existing story that they can point back to.
And I’ve seen this even with individuals with things that are in their biography, right? You know, because Wikipedia, if you, if you share a link to their official bio from the company, a lot of Wikipedia editors will say, nah, not good enough. And, but if you get a reporter to write a profile piece that mentions it, well, now you’ve got it in a place, even though effectively it’s coming from the same place, right?
Because we all know most reporters don’t verify, you know, the CEO went to, you know, Cornell or whatever. I mean, the, the CEO told just like they told the writer who did their bio, they went to Cornell, but all of a sudden it’s more impactful because it was in a, we can debate the logic of that some other day, but, but it’s the reality.
And so if you think about that as an agency and how you can leverage some of your tools outside of Wikipedia to influence what’s in Wikipedia that can also be valuable.
Bill Beutler: Yes, the, the ontology of Wikipedia and how it knows what is true or that something is true you pull back that, you know, there’s like, you know, creepy crawlers underneath there.
But you are really onto something with when you say profiles because Wikipedia is very careful about which kinds of sources it wants to use, even from a reputable publication. You could have a, let’s say like the Hollywood Reporter is a, you know, reputable publication covering the entertainment industry.
If there is an article about your client and it is a you know, fully, you know, editorial product of the, of the writer and of the editors where, you know, it’s, it’s prose and, you know, quotes are interpolated throughout, you know, that kind of a properly written profile can be quite useful. Now, it’s also, it’s also very common for a major publication like that to also simply write it as a Q&A.
Now, here’s the thing. Wikipedia will not accept Q and A’s, even if it comes from a major publication because the thinking is that it’s just, it’s almost the same thing as a, in terms of the information integrity, it’s the same thing as a press release. It’s just coming right out of the mouth of the executive, and it has not been filtered through fact checking or the editor, editorial process.
And as you say, you and I know that fact checking is not what it used to be, and it may not be any more accurate than just a Q& A. However you know, Wikipedia is trying to plant a flag and say we want there to be some evidence that the publication has considered it and, you know, put their own, you know, their own you know, judgment behind it or, you know, the claim, the publication claims it’s true, not just the interviewee.
And so, like for a lot of you know, a lot of clients of, of. PR you know, professionals and publicists having a Q and A could be a great hit. It could be great sometimes just to be mentioned in a column on the subject of your expertise. However, that is not really useful for Wikipedia’s purpose.
Wikipedia wants to see that article say something about your career. If you’re just quoted about something that you are an expert on, like maybe that could be something that could be added to that other article about that subject, but it doesn’t provide you with anything to add to Wikipedia about it. So the work of PR and Wikipedia, they really are intertwined in some interesting ways but it’s a challenge too.
Chip Griffin: Yeah, I think part of it is, you know agencies need to help educate their clients on you know, what are the important changes that you would like to see to your Wikipedia article versus the ones where it’s just It’s kind of annoying, but it doesn’t really have a difference. Because I’ve talked to a lot of people who you know are concerned about something in a wikipedia article, but it’s more for vanity or Just because they don’t like a certain way something’s described but but at the end of the day It doesn’t really impact reputation.
It doesn’t impact you know the reader’s behavior or something like that. And so I think you also need to to be careful that you don’t let some of those little things get too deep under your skin and you focus on those meaty things that really go to facts, that really go to the heart of the article. Because those are the areas where it’s worth fighting the fight over not the little things that are just like god, you know I wish it didn’t say it that way.
Bill Beutler: Yeah, you have to learn to kind of know where to pick your battles and what to let go. We find that on Wikipedia it’s really rather easy to get a change made if it is a matter of fact. If there’s a fact that is wrong or a fact that is missing that is the sort of thing and of course if we have a reliable source to verify that information that’s relatively easy. If however, it is a matter of perspective and it kind of involves the the judgment of the editor who wrote it If you chose to, you know, like include this detail or that detail if there’s something in there that you just don’t want to be there, but it’s true, then your chances of getting it out are pretty minimal. You’d be better off focused on trying to add other things that you do want that you can verify and not, you know, yeah, obsessing over, well, I don’t want that, you know, particular job to be mentioned because I didn’t have a good time at that job, you know, or, or there’s some scandal that, you know, someone could in the future add to it.
You know what? If it’s factual and it’s relevant to your career, it’s probably going to stay.
Chip Griffin: So we only have a couple of minutes left here, but I would be remiss if I didn’t raise the topic of AI and what that means for Wikipedia, both as a source and, and how AI ends up being potentially a source for Wikipedia stuff.
I mean, so I mean, how are you thinking about how AI and Wikipedia intersect in 2023?
Bill Beutler: You know, it’s interesting. As far back as early last year, we had been asked by prospective clients actually in, in the crypto space was somebody who asked us. Like, they were surprised to learn that we were not using AI to write Wikipedia articles at that time.
Frankly, we were surprised that they thought that that was even feasible. Now, this was pre ChatGPT4, and post ChatGPT, opening up to the public, all of a sudden, you can play around with it and start to see, it’s very good at adopting the style of Wikipedia. But here’s the thing. It’s still nowhere near being able to examine sources, pull out useful information.
Frankly, you’re probably familiar with AI’s tendency to quote unquote hallucinate, or it’ll make up information regardless of it. It just abhors a vacuum. It thinks you want a source, so it’ll give you a source and it’ll make up a source. So we actually did an experiment. And if you go to the Beutler Ink blog we have a post from a couple months ago.
Where we pitted one of our Wikipedia strategists against ChatGPT in writing about a topic that did not yet have a Wikipedia article. And so, you know, if you’re following AI, you probably have a guess what happened that Wikipedia or ChatGPT finished in seconds, and it wrote something that was read quite plausibly.
But it also missed a lot of information and it was and then didn’t have any sources or the sources that made it made up a couple sources are strategists. It took him, you know, three hours or longer, but came back with something that is really, you know, high quality and accurate. And we then uploaded that to Wikipedia and we wrote a blog post about the experience.
I think that there are possible applications of AI within, you know, developing drafts. That could be useful in the near future, but it really has a long way to go before it’s ever going to replace or frankly, before it’s even going to really be a useful tool for doing research and compiling it. I would think that’s something that…
I don’t know. I should not make predictions about AI. It’s surprised me before. But it’s just it’s just not there. It’s intriguing. I’m not worried about AI taking away jobs from most writers. I think AI is very good at mimicking style. It’s not good at actually being interesting or You know, or at all strategic.
Chip Griffin: Well, it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.
And I know that it’s something that you’ll be doing on your blog. And so I would encourage people to become regular followers of your blog for the insights that it provides. If someone is interested in learning more about you and Beutler Ink, Bill, where should they go?
Bill Beutler: Yeah, so certainly beutlerink.com, our website is the place to go.
You know, we have launched a couple of initiatives here in late summer that I think would be really interesting. If you look up you know, our website and ask a wiki expert, we have a series of videos that we are answering questions that we hear frequently, such as, is it true that there are some facts that can’t be added to Wikipedia?
One of my colleagues kind of talks through that and just a short, short form about, you know, no longer than a minute and a half. So we’ll keep doing that through the fall and maybe come back for a season two later. And we’re also we’ve launched a monthly newsletter It’s called WikiWise, so also search Beutler Ink and WikiWise and you will find a place to sign up and receive once a month, we will send out a short, you know, snappy newsletter that we’ll talk about Wikipedia in the context of business and public relations and what’s important about Wikipedia.
So it’s really if you are somebody who’s casually interested in just keeping up on what, you know, what is happening in business and Wikipedia. WikiWise would be the place to go.
Chip Griffin: And if you’ve stuck with us this long, you definitely are interested in Wikipedia, so you should be subscribing right now.
So before you go listen to that next podcast in your playlist, go ahead and subscribe. So Bill, I really appreciate your time today. You’ve provided lots of thought and insight for our listeners. Again, my guest today has been Bill Beutler of Beutler Ink.