What communicators can learn from Wikipedia


When I reported for a major newspaper we’ll call The Daily Planet, I once dropped by the newsroom library just as a researcher was irritably emailing an editor to complain that a staff writer had cited Wikipedia.

Look! she said. Again! Wikipedia’s not a source.

Editors would agree. Like any good newsroom, The Daily Planet had a policy against sourcing information to Wikipedia, which can be about as reliable as writing, “According to some guy I overhead on the train.”

Yet a database search reveals that the phrase “according to Wikipedia” has sneaked into that newspaper paper 12 times since 2005. Other major news organizations have slipped up as recently as this week. Plus, even when reporters aren’t citing Wikipedia, they often draw their first impressions of your organization there.

What is it about Wikipedia that appeals to information-seekers—and what can you learn from it? Think from the perspective of a frantically Googling reporter who has never heard of your organization, doesn’t know what you produce and has 20 minutes to crank out a brief about a fire at your plant.

Here are some lessons from the site:

1. Wikipedia summarizes essential information.

Yes, you put a lot of thought that “about us” section and its multiple sub-pages, making sure we know about your organization’s commitment to sustainability and niceness. But did you write it with the assumption that everybody knows who you are and what you produce?

I won’t name and shame, but consider a real corporation that goes by an abbreviation. I’ll dub it XYZ Co.

Click on the website’s “about” tab, and you will find this message: “[XYZ] is a critical link that connects consumers with the global marketplace. For more than 160 years, [XYZ] has played a vital role in building and sustaining this nation’s economy.”

Great. So, is it a bank? A shipping company? A telecom with a history dating to the days of the telegraph? True, there are photos of trains and a drop-down subsection on “our railroad,” but reporters need the information in words.

Under “our railroad,” by the way, there are no figures beyond a brief history. The “financial information” drop-down refers to “Forms 10-K, 10-Q and 8-K” but doesn’t mention annual revenue.

By contrast, Wikipedia’s first 116 words reveal that XYZ is one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America and that it has 48,000 employees, more than 8,000 locomotives and 32,500 miles of track in 28 states.

2. Wikipedia doesn’t make reporters click around to different pages.

In fairness, XYZ links to a helpful fact sheet from the right-hand margin of the “about” page, but that is easily overlooked in a list of links.

Likewise, consider the website of Backless Gown Hospital Corp. (not its real name). A reporter on deadline goes to the home page. There it is—the “about” link! The drop-down offers further options. Let’s click through to “About [Backless Gown].” This page offers information on the year in review and how the hospital gives back to the community, but no summary of the organization.

Wait! There’s a newsroom link. Although that leads to some interesting-looking headlines on topics such as the connection between maternal weight and infant death, I’m not finding general information on the hospital.

Back to the drop-down. “Facts and stats”? Scrolling down the page, I find the information I was looking for, but compare the opening of this page with Wikipedia:

  • Company website: “[Backless Gown], a world-renowned health care provider and insurer based in [hometown], is inventing new models of accountable, cost-effective, patient-centered care.”
  • Wikipedia. “[Backless Gown] is a $ 10 billion integrated global nonprofit health enterprise that has more than 62,000 employees, 21 hospitals with more than 5,100 licensed beds, 400 clinical locations including outpatient sites and doctors’ offices, a 2.3 million-member health insurance division, as well as commercial and international ventures.”

3. Wikipedia gets updated.

Unreliable though it may be, the Wikipedia page for any major organization gets a lot of scrutiny—not only from fans and critics, but from communicators themselves. I know of one chief executive who would phone communicators at home and ask them to change the Wikipedia entry when an error cropped up (a practice Wikipedia frowns on). Clearly, some executives and PR pros watch what the website says about them.

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By contrast, how often does the CEO check your own “about us” page? As a reporter I once had to correct outdated information I got from an organization’s own “about us” page. Yes, you’re right—I should have called to double-check. Still, this raises the question of why the company thinks journalists should consider its website more reliable than Wikipedia.

4. Wikipedia makes it easy to find further experts.

Even knowing that Wikipedia is unreliable, reporters often use it to dig deeper into a topic.

If a Wikipedia contributor offers an interesting fact, you can click on the footnote and check out the source, whether it’s a newspaper article or academic study. This often leads reporters to industry experts or people with advanced degrees in a given subject area.

How easy is it for a reporter seeking expert sources to find them on your website?

Now, don’t even get me started about that “contact us” form.



7 great data visualization tools for communicators and marketers


Some of the most exciting content published today includes data visualization.

More than just charts or graphs, today’s tools allow journalists and communication professionals to provide interactive content in customizable and visually pleasing ways.

Great data visualization often requires coding, which not everyone can do. Fortunately, there are many newer data visualization tools that take care of the coding for you.

Without code your sample size could be limited (especially if you’re cutting and pasting from Excel), but as a communication professional you’ll be able to provide more engaging resources to journalists and to the public. Imagine the strength of your media pitch or the engagement of your content with a unique interactive chart or two to illustrate your points.

Let’s look at data visualization tools that anyone can use. As an example in each instance, I used 2010 fire incident data from Cincinnati for the data in my charts (about 12,000 rows of data). I didn’t demonstrate any bells and whistles, just a basic chart (when I could) to give you an idea of what each platform can do.

Here are some outstanding data visualization tools:

1. Raw

Raw is one of the most versatile out-of-the-box data visualization tools that you can use—and it’s free. It enables you to upload data from an Excel spreadsheet or paste from the source.

Raw offers you 13 unique visualization options that look very professional. (Its “Bump” chart for example is modeled after The New York Times’ visualizations.) All the variables are drag-and-drop from your dataset, and the visualization populates in real time to demonstrate what your visualization will look like as you’re building it.

One caveat: Raw uses a lot of computer resource to operate, so it’s helpful to close out programs and superfluous windows before building a chart with it.

Here’s a “Clustered Force Layout” chart:

2. Plotly

Plotly produces terrific interactive charts: line chart, scatter plot, bar chart, histogram and area plot.

You can upload data from a spreadsheet or cut and paste it (similar to Raw). The user experience of Plotly isn’t as intuitive as that of Raw. There are aspects of populating the graph that require tinkering, but it’s a powerful, effective tool for making these interactive forms of familiar graphs.

Plotly also boasts a collaborative network, so you can share your data and visualizations with co-workers. If you’re collaborating on data visualizations, this might be helpful.

Plotly is a freemium product, ranging from free to moderately expensive (depending upon your customization needs). Here’s a bar graph:

3. Timeline

Developed at the Northwestern University Knight Lab, Timeline is a smartly conceived data visualization tool. It doesn’t have a lot of customization features, but it’s superb for creating timelines, and it’s free.

Data has to be loaded in their specific format, which makes this a (relatively) labor intensive process. It’s hard to argue with the end result, however.

I chose not to parse data to create a unique timeline example, but here are three examples of timelines created with the product:

As you can see, this tool is widely used and looks pretty consistent from graph to graph.

4. Datawrapper

This is a straightforward visualization tool with a few neat bells and whistles. Uploading data can be done with a .csv file or by pasting from the source. I had trouble uploading the Cincinnati fire data, which may mean that you have to parse your data thoroughly before uploading to Datawrapper. Its sample datasets have a limited number of columns.

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Datawrapper is not free of charge. Users must pay a monthly (12 euros) or annual fee (100 euros) to generate embedded graphs and download images of Datawrapper charts.

Despite its limitations, Datawrapper has the most intuitive interface of the tools I sampled.

5. Chartblocks

With this intuitive and easy-to-use data visualization tool, uploading data can be done with a spreadsheet or by pasting from the source. Chartblocks enables you to create interactive bar graphs, line graphs, area graphs, scatterplots and pie charts. Its usability is strong and customizable.

Like Raw, Chartblocks takes up a lot of computer resources when creating charts, which can slow an otherwise fast process.

Chartblocks is a freemium product. Below is a bar graph of fire incidents by day:

6. Google Fusion Tables

What post about tools would be complete without mentioning something from Google? Google Fusion Tables are the search giant’s solution for data visualization. It’s free, and it’s good.

Uploading of spreadsheets and pasted data is straightforward and fast. There is a slight learning curve to create charts and embed them, but once you figure out where things are, it’s a fantastic tool. Though not as flashy as other options, it is stable and fast, and the price is right.

Here’s a basic line-graph comparing number of fire incidents day to day:

7. My Heat Map

You might want to create a “heatmap” type of visualization to tell a specific story. My Heat Map offers a great step-by-step guide and customer service, and it’s the best looking of any of the heat map tools I looked at.

You can do one heat map with up to 20 data points for free, but then you have to spring for the subscription, which costs $ 20 a month.

At first I couldn’t see how to embed a map into my site. It’s not evident, but it’s easy. (A hat tip to My Heat Map for responding to my email.) To do so, put the enlarged map link into an iframe with size specifications. Here’s an example:

Here’s the finished product, an embedded heat map of birds of prey and their locations created by the Audubon society:


The sites listed above are probably the best tools for data visualization without coding (at least in plain sight). Here are other tools that can help you create neat visuals for media pitches or to enhance your organic content:

  • IBM Watson Analytics. This powerful toolset allows for thorough visualization but feels like an internal tool rather than for public consumption. It is a free up to 0.5 GB and 50 columns.
  • Tableau. Tableau probably would warrant consideration in the list (it is an enterprise data visualization tool), but it is probably cost prohibitive to use for basic data visualization purposes. If you have it already, it’s a powerful tool (and the creators offer a free trial subscription).
  • Canva. Canva has become the hot site for cloud graphic design. Not only can you do some cool, creative things with Canva, but you can also embed and embellish a graph there, too.
  • Infogram. An intuitive infographic creation tool.
  • Microsoft Excel (Office 365). You don’t have to look outside your spreadsheet program to visualize data. There are plenty of visualization options available for you there as well (“charts” is located under the “insert” tab). These Excel add-ins may enable you to conduct data analysis and create a visualization in one program.

Data visualization is often a component of stellar content. Whether it’s for The New York Times or FiveThirtyEight or Mashable, data visualization enhances content and is increasingly prevalent in digital media circles.

Regardless of your technical aptitude you can create professional, interactive data visualizations using the tools listed above. Of course, the charts will be only as good as the data sets that inform them.

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision blog, where a version of this article first appeared. He also blogs at leaderswest. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.