William Beutler is the founder of Beutler Ink, a social media content agency that specializes in visual storytelling and content marketing. He’s done work for companies like Google, Verizon, and the NBA, to name just a few. For much of the past decade, he has been active as an editor of Wikipedia. And he recently co-authored an e-book helping to guide people through the often murky and seemingly treacherous waters of that site.
In this podcast, he discusses how he came to be involved with Wikipedia and ultimately launch an agency that, in part, focuses on helping clients engage with the site (and its editors) more effectively.
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About the Show
Chats with Chip features conversations with public relations and communications leaders, innovators, authors and visionaries. It is hosted by Chip Griffin, a longtime PR professional and veteran podcaster.
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CHIP GRIFFIN: William Beutler is the founder of Beutler Ink, a social media content agency that specializes in visual storytelling and content marketing. He’s done work for a few small companies, like Google, Verizon, and the NBA, to name just a few. For much of the past decade, he has been active as an editor of Wikipedia. And he recently co-authored an e-book helping to guide people through the – I guess I would say – often murky and seemingly treacherous waters of that site, or at least that’s the way it could seem to some people. I’m very pleased to have William here at the table with me today.
WILLIAM BEUTLER: Thanks, Chip. It’s very good to be here.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Alright. So let me sort of take you back in time to when you first got on Wikipedia. Do you remember the first article that you contributed to?
WILLIAM BEUTLER: The very first one, I don’t recall exactly. I can tell you what my very first types of edits were.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Okay.
WILLIAM BEUTLER: And these were, these were small. They were, you know, moving commas around. They were changing. I like to say that at this time I was really getting into the TV show, “The Sopranos”, and so I noticed that a lot of the articles about the TV episodes were written by, or they were written in British English, and one of the first rules that I learned about Wikipedia was that subjects that are British or, you know, continental should be written in UK English, and subjects which are American, you know, U.S. should be written in American English. And so, although I respect the work that they did, and I’m glad they did it, the fans in the UK, I still took it upon myself to change the spelling back to the way that it should be. And so, there was the first of me getting into Wikipedia’s rules and being the kind of stickler that you need to be in order to do it well.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And so what drew you into that? I mean, was it this ?Çô was it just that you happened to be browsing there to get some information, saw it, and said, ?Ç£Jeez, you know, I don’t like the way that’s written. I can do better. I can contribute.?Ç¥?
WILLIAM BEUTLER: I mean, yes, and that is the dream that Wikipedia holds out to its contributors, that here’s this body of dollars, that it is not perfect, and if it’s going to get better, it’s going to rely on people like you. And, you know, in my case, I do recall that a lot of my early work was based on, I’d be watching a movie on TV, I’d look it up, and I go, ?Ç£Oh, this is missing. Or that’s missing.?Ç¥ And I’d add that in. Now, we’re talking about the real free-wheeling early middle period of Wikipedia, 2006-2007, just about the point where the website was starting to get to critical mass, where there were a lot of editors coming in. Many articles did exist. There were already a few million, but they were becoming much better developed at that time compared to articles that were on Wikipedia in the early 2000s. Like recently a colleague and I had a look at comparing the article ?Ç£dog?Ç¥. From 2004 to 2014, it could not be more different. The article back in 2004, fairly short, fairly, you know, concise actually. It wasn’t bad. The new article looks like it ?Çô the current article is much more scientific. Frankly, I think it’s actually less readable in some ways now that it’s become so very well-developed. But, you know, Wikipedia is very uneven across its articles. Some things, like scientific subjects, or, you know, biology subjects, where there’s settled science, those tend to do very well. You know, the kinds of topics that I work on professionally – business, for one thing, economics is a smaller focus. You know, social sciences, Wikipedia does not do as well with, and so those can be a real challenge.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Interesting. It strikes me that Wikipedia has in some ways been a victim of its own success. Right. It benefited from developing a larger audience, more people reading it, more people contributing. But now because it ranks so highly in Google search results, for example, it basically has become a target for spammers, miscreants, and other never-do-wells.
WILLIAM BEUTLER: Well, and that’s been the case since about the middle of the 2000s. Anyone who’s listening to this who knows Wikipedia well is going to know very well the story I’m about to tell, but it’s about, well, the now late editor of the, which the Memphis Commercial Appeal, I want to say, or the Nashville Tennessean, a fellow named John Seigenthaler, who was a friend of the Kennedy’s and a well respected journalist. And someone tampered with his page back in about 2005-2006 to implicate him in the assassination of the Kennedy brothers. He was horrified. He took to the pages of USA today to castigate Wikipedia for slandering him. And out of this, Wikipedia editors realized they needed to be very careful with how they treated articles about living persons for the reputational damage that Wikipedia could have on the people who were covered by it. And this is the point at which I like to say, Wikipedia became self-aware, that what Wikipedia said had a real world impact on the subjects that it covered. The problem is that these years later, Wikipedia has still not figured this out. It’s still struggling with the question of what does it owe these subjects of its articles versus its audience. Do they owe them the same thing? Where do the rights and the benefits of one overlap with or conflict with the other? You know, these are the kinds of arguments that Wikipedia will be having for as long as Wikipedia’s around.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, and, you know, I mean, I think that because it does, it is a site that deals with people and companies that are active today, it’s not simply a look at historical facts, figures, and such. It is an area where public relations professionals, the primary audience for this show are actively participating because they’re concerned about what’s being said about their organizations, their clients, etc. But at the same time, you know, Wikipedia doesn’t necessarily always respond well when spokespeople somehow get involved, and I think part of that it’s fair to say is because some have visited it with more of an eye towards turning it into yet another marketing document rather than understanding what Wikipedia’s role in the world really is, and how you can participate there. But over the last couple of years, you’ve really tried to take a very public role in, I guess, almost being a marriage counselor between PR people and Wikipedia editors. How did that come to be? I mean, that’s how I got to know you originally actually, was because I had worked with you on some projects where I had clients who were looking to make some Wikipedia changes. You know, I wanted to tap into someone who understood it better than I did. But what drew you into this more public role rather than just a consulting role?
WILLIAM BEUTLER: It’s really good question because even though I’ve been doing this consulting since about 2008 – first for my former employer, where I created this service for them – and then, I wanted to do more with it than they wanted to. So, in 2010, I set off in my own direction, and have been, yes, doing it ever since. And you’re right. For a long time, I was really content to just do good work, keep my head down. It’s the sort of thing, as with a lot of public relations, where to do your job well you don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself. And, of course, there’s some tension there because to do Wikipedia, to do Wikipedia consulting and engagement in a way that follows Wikipedia’s rules, you need to have a degree of transparency and disclosure of who your client is. And that’s what I did. I kept my head down. I was honest on the page, and got good work done. But – I tell you what – I thought over the years, that there would be more people coming along to do the same thing that I did, and I’ve been both surprised – and I guess I have to say a little bit dismayed – that I am not the only person that does this, but I’m one of very, very few, and even the folks who do this, who follow the rules, I don’t think that all of them do a very good job. It’s not easy to do, it turns out. I was ?Çô if we were to have this conversation three years ago, I’d be very guarded. I’d be afraid that you would like, you know, figure out what it is that I do, and you would hire somebody to just, you know, take this away from me. And, you know, overtime, that really has not been a consideration at all. It turns out that this is really difficult thing to put together, and if there are going to be more Bill Beutler’s out there, then I’m going to have to create them. I would like there to be more PR consultants who understand Wikipedia and who can work with it well, in large part because I want Wikipedia editors to see that public relations representatives can work with them successfully, and that will make them, over time, as a community, more willing to work with public relations professionals.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, it is so important, I think, for both sides to work here because it’s Wikipedia’s interest to have accurate articles. It is in the interest of PR professionals to have some say in making sure that they’re accurate because, I mean, let’s face it, for most people on Google search results, Wikipedia’s going to be one of the top 10 entries, probably one of the top 3 or 4 in most cases. And Google will even pull excerpts for some really prominent individuals and companies and insert them as if it’s, you know, gospel in there. Not even ?Çô yeah, unless you look at the fine print, you don’t even necessarily see that it’s from Wikipedia. So it is important. It is something that we need to be paying attention to. At the same time, my impression is that transparency hasn’t always been enough. There are still ?Çô there’s work to be done on the Wikipedia side to help the editors understand that there is a role to be played by professional communicators who want to contribute facts, not necessarily, you know, who are engaged in spin.
WILLIAM BEUTLER: MmmHmmm. This is one of the real challenges, trying to get this – trying to work through this issue on the Wikipedia side. You know, as you said, I’m sort of a marriage counselor. So I’ve undertaken a few projects within this last calendar year. Let me innumerate them very briefly. In February, I brought together a round table discussion group of Wikipedia editors and digital PR thought leaders for a one-day conversation about issues affecting them both, and it went very well. And out of that, we agreed, on the agency side, to put together a joint statement among some of the biggest public relations firms in the world as an open letter to the Wikipedia community saying, “We have not always gotten along well, but we do want to get things right. We pledge to learn more. We pledge to give good advice to our colleagues and clients.” And that came out in June. We got a lot of coverage for it. The response from the Wikipedia community was largely positive. Even from Jimmy Wales, the famous co-founder, who’s very skeptical of PR himself, had relatively positive things to say about it. However, I thought it really, actually, relatively easy to organize the PR firms, because they all kind of recognize their shared interest, and they’re all professionals, and they wear a suit and a tie to the office. The Wikipedia community is a really, really kind of strange organism – not even organization, it’s an organism. And there are about 30,000 people who are really active on Wikipedia on the English edition each month. And they have wide range of views. Some people would actually say, ?Ç£You know what, companies, come in. Make your edits. Just do a good job, and you’ll be fine.?Ç¥ That’s a pretty small number. There are people who say, ?Ç£Go away. We don’t want you here at all. You have no business. I’m not even going to talk to you.?Ç¥ Also really small number. In between, there’s this large muddled mass of people who are like, ?Ç£Well, there needs to be some way for them to give feedback, but I’m not really comfortable with the company editing its own page.?Ç¥ And this conversation’s been happening really since about 2006 – off and on, over the last couple of years – and then what really kicked it off was last year a couple of scandals where both this large PR firm and a smaller fly-by-night PR firm got in trouble for anonymous editing. And here I have stood by on the sidelines, doing my work, doing it well, doing it ethically, for years now, but never getting involved in the conversation. And it always frustrated me that the only time this ever got any ink was when someone did the wrong thing. So, while I’m not the first person to try to heal this community, I have to give a shout out to Phil Gomes at Edelman, who created a Facebook group called ?Ç£Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement.?Ç¥ That’s CREWE, C-R-E-W-E, which is a great, long-running Facebook page for discussion of these issues among PR and Wikipedia people. And then the Chartered Institute for Public Relations in the UK – a couple of years ago – put out a set of guidelines for their members that was very good. It was also very simple. And so I wrote a manual this year, a manual for PR professionals, you mentioned, at the top of this show, that aims to give a little bit more practical advice. And, I tell you, it’s all just one long work in progress because eventually what I want is for the Wikipedia community to see that they do have – they can work with these people. They can work with people like us, like professional communicators who don’t want to come in and wreck their Wikipedia, but want to help them actually make it better.
CHIP GRIFFIN: So I want to talk in a minute a little bit more about the book itself, but before we do, one of the things that strikes me and that I often have discussions with my clients about when they are concerned about the Wikipedia entries that mention them. And, in the interest of explaining, my clients typically have been in the public affairs space. That’s my background. And I think it’s safe to say, that anyone involved in public policy and politics knows that Wikipedia entries can get very heated, or at least the discussions around them can get very heated because people have very strong views about controversial topics. One of the things that concerns my clients and frankly concerns me is that within the Wikipedia environment, people view anyone associated with an organization, a candidate, a cause, to have a conflict of interest. But there’s very little transparency or disclosure around conflicts that long time Wikipedia editors may have on their personal views. In other words, just because they have a personal view that’s biased in one director or another, that is apparently – as far as I can tell – viewed as less significant than someone who’s being paid. I’m not comfortable with paid being the delineator. I know that that’s what often gets used. But I think that, you know, if there’s a real activist out there who’s in favor of banning baseball, let’s say. We’ll pick something absurd so we don’t get anybody really upset about an actual issue. Let’s say someone just wants to ban baseball, and so they, edit Wikipedia entries about baseball with that slant. As long as they’re not being paid, there doesn’t seem to be outrage within the Wikipedia community as there would be if someone from MLB went in and edited the article.
WILLIAM BEUTLER: Oh, I mean, you’re absolutely correct about that. It’s a true observation. And indeed, there is something of a consensus around Wikipedia that money changes things, whereas someone may have a biased point of view for non-monetary reasons. While we don’t want that bias to get into the encyclopedia, but they’re not going to get penalized for having a particular point of view. Now, it is the case that people who have a strong point of view, it usually does affect their particular edits. And so, I think Wikipedia editors are still kind of struggling with this question. And I don’t think they’re going to get to a resolution of it too soon at all. There is a realization that, okay, what Wikipedia would call POV warriors. This is their term for a biased editor – POV meaning point of view. When Wikipedia should have a neutral point of view, these people are pushing an agenda. And there are some Wikipedia editors out there who fear that the worst thing is when money gets involved because then a company can pay someone to just do this, someone can pay an editor to just keep going at it over and over again, when I think that’s the wrong view of it. And I hope that Wikipedia editors are coming to realize that because, let’s face it, companies have budgets. They have other fish to fry. If Wikipedia looks like it is not returning a good investment on, you know, an engagement that the company has set aside budget for, then they’re not going to continue. The number of companies who would actually keep throwing money after that, I’ve never met one and I’ve been in this business for a while. Wikipedia is a little scary to them. They’d be more likely to cut bait if it’s not going well. Whereas, if you have somebody who’s an individual who’s ideologically motivated, they don’t need a budget in order to keep working. They will just keep at it. And those kinds of debates ?Çô so think about the Israel/Palestine issue. Not to raise a conversational subject, but there one is. You know, the pages around those subjects are going to be controversial for as long as that’s an issue in the Middle East.
CHIP GRIFFIN: So, speaking of controversy, one of the things I like to do on this show is sort of explore how people got to where they are today. And in doing my research for this – and I don’t know whether I’d forgotten this from previous conversations with you, or if it hadn’t come up – but I saw that you had worked for the “hotline”. And, for those who are not familiar with DC, the hotline, at least used to be, sort of the go-to daily gospel that we would all read. I mean, I remember back in the 90s where we’d wait for the fax to come across, and we’d all go through the 30-page fax, and we we’re so excited because back then it was very difficult to find out what was being said about politics in the local papers around the country. Obviously, with the Internet now, it’s a lot easier. But, you know, it is that place where controversy gets covered day in and day out. And “the hotline” is not about original reporting as much as it is about abstracting what others have said. I’m curious how that experience has influenced what you’re doing today, not just with Wikipedia, but obviously your practice goes well beyond that.
WILLIAM BEUTLER: You know, something that just occurred to me, that I’ve never actually put into words before, is that the process of writing the hotline is not terribly dissimilar from the process of writing for Wikipedia. Because the hotline, you’re covering the coverage, you read what the daily papers are saying. You highlight the important stuff, and then you filter all those stories together into a synthesis of the day’s story. Essentially, writing a Wikipedia article is the same concept. You look and see where the sources are and then you continue, and then you compile them, and then, there you go.
CHIP GRIFFIN: That’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought of it that way myself either. But, you know, now that you’ve made that analogy, it really does make a lot of sense. Now, what brought you to DC? I mean, you had gone to school out in Oregon. Were you originally from the West coast?
WILLIAM BEUTLER: Yes, born and raised, Portland, Oregon. Went to Eugene, the University of Oregon for school. Go Ducks! And while I was there, I ran a libertarian political humor magazine, called the Oregon Commentator. A lot of my friends moved out to DC. I wanted to do journalism. If you want to do political journalism, DC’s the only place to be. I happened to catch an internship, which put me at “the hotline” in the fall of 2002. They hired me on, so I stayed on. And, you know, at the hotline. I mean, there is, I think, a pretty clear path to how I got from there to here, in that, one of the things that I did at the hotline was I wrote a column called the “Blogometer”. This was like, I believe, it was the first daily political column on what was happening in the political blogosphere. And, you know, this got me exposure on the web. I got to know a bunch of bloggers and writers. And this got me an invitation to go work for, what we would now call a social media marketing company. Back then it was called “New Media” because Twitter didn’t exist yet, and Facebook was still a college-only experience. And so I was hired to be a blog-wrangler of some sort. And, you know, around this time, obviously Twitter and Facebook happened, and everybody poured into those because those are places where marketing and PR is very welcome. And because I’ve always enjoyed writing for the web – being a blogger myself – and fascinated about the organization of information. Wikipedia, as soon as I came across it, I was like, ?Ç£Oh, this is fascinating. I like this thing.?Ç¥ I lost hours reading it. But honestly, it was a couple of years before I ever edited it myself. I even planned to create my own. I registered blogopedia.nu in order to create my own Wikipedia of political blogs. Never really got it off the ground at all. And eventually, I was like, ?Ç£Alright, Wikipedia. I’ll go ahead and give it a try.?Ç¥
CHIP GRIFFIN: So, now, one of the things that also fascinates me is people who become entrepreneurs. And that’s what you did. You’ve obviously explained that one of the motivating factors was you wanted to do more with Wikipedia than your then employer wanted to do. But talk a little bit about that experience starting your own communications firm. You set out, more or less, I think, as a freelancer, if I recall correctly. And now you’ve got a real agency that’s had some really big name clients. You’ve got a growing team. So, what has that experience been like?
WILLIAM BEUTLER: Oh, it’s been the most fun I’ve had, period. You know, I feel very lucky to have started off indeed as a, yeah, freelancer, I suppose. I did intend to build a small shop, or I called them my consultancy, but I didn’t realize it was going to grow into something that’s more ?Çô we do, you know, we do data visualization and visual storytelling, create infographics, and Instagram graphics for the NBA’s channel. It is, but, boy, there’s no way I can tell you this in the time remaining. It’s a long story. But I tell you what, it take a lot of hard work. It takes luck to find the right people, because I could not have done this without the — I have two Vice Presidents at my firm who are, you know, they are as invested in this as I am. And without extremely talented and really personable on point people around you, like good people, without those people helping you build a team, it’s not possible. And so, I feel very fortunate to have, you know, found a couple of the right people, and then found some more of the right people. And it’s quite exhilarating now to think that this is not really about me. It’s about what the team is doing. And so it’s now my job to help the team do what it can do, rather than being about what I can do.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Wow. I think that working together is so critical in any agency, but particularly a small and growing one, that’s relatively new. And I think there are parallels between that and the work that you’re doing with Wikipedia. And so, I guess I was hoping as we sort of begin to wind down this episode, if you could share some of your key tips for people who are trying to figure out how to get involved with Wikipedia as a communicator without getting into trouble. I mean, I think that’s the key bit, right. How do you do it without making things worse for yourself or your client?
WILLIAM BEUTLER: You’re right. That is the first requisite. Before you can be effective, you have to know how to get started in a way that it’s not going to blow up in your face. And so, you know, these are covered in the manual, which I’m sure we’ll link. But quickly, you want to create a user account. You want to make sure that that user account does not represent you as speaking for the entire company. So, Custom Scoop would be a terrible name for an account, but Chip at Custom Scoop would be fine. And then you should know that you would be best off sticking to the discussion areas of Wikipedia. Try to find editors who will hear you out on your concerns. I would say start small. Start with one obvious fact that you think is wrong. You should bring a source, like a newspaper article to bear, to show that this thing is wrong. And ask someone to fix it for you. Start to build some trust that way. And, from there, try to make smart suggestions that will make Wikipedia more useful to the readers. I guess that’s my nutshell version.
CHIP GRIFFIN: That’s a great nutshell, and we will absolutely link to the full e-book from the show notes because it is a great read. It does have lots of information that I think will be helpful to people, whether they’ve been involved at all with Wikipedia before or are really just getting their feet wet. So, let me close with a question I like to ask my guests on this show, and that is if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
WILLIAM BEUTLER: Interesting one. Man, I don’t know. The funny thing is I didn’t really plan to do this at all, so how can I choose what to do differently in terms of? Man, wish I had known this was the question ahead of time.
CHIP GRIFFIN: I like to stump my guests. It’s the fun part of throwing this curveball from left field towards the end of the show.
WILLIAM BEUTLER: I’ll tell you what I guess it would be. I wish I had my act together a little better in my mid-20s so I could have gone into business myself then. I’m in my mid 30s now – which I know many people would consider to be young. But I do kind of wish that I had been a little bit more on point and a little serious in my 20s and had the wherewithal to start my own operation then. It took me some time and some maturing that I guess I needed, and so, you know, I wish I had had it together a little bit better. But, I tell you what, the moves we’ve made over the last few years, there’s nothing that I would take back. I’ve had an extraordinary time. And I’m really excited about the future of Beutler Ink, too.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, and you certainly have your act together today. I think the future of Beutler Ink is tremendous. The number of different skills that you bring to the table, and obviously the Wikipedia being part of it. But, going well beyond that, I think those are things that will position your firm for the future, and I look forward to watching and seeing how it continues to evolve. And I appreciate you being here at the table today. My guest has been William Beutler of Beutler Ink