Last Thursday, Politico reported that controversy-prone freshman Rep. David Rivera (R-FL) had encountered another public relations problem in the form of Wikipedia.
 
While Rivera’s Wikipedia entry includes several brief paragraphs about his service in the state legislature, his 2010 election to Congress, and his family life, the bulk of it is concerned with controversies surrounding the congressman. Among these are a 1994 domestic violence accusation, a 2002 traffic accident, and two increasingly serious allegations that Rivera received unreported income from USAID as well as a Florida dog track. Rivera’s problems have led to speculation that the Republican Party may support a primary challenge in 2012 if he appears sufficiently vulnerable.
 
The controversies swirling around Rivera have been compounded by the recent discovery that his press secretary, Leslie Veiga, has repeatedly edited his Wikipedia entry to remove these controversies and replace them with a boilerplate rundown of his voting record and history in the Florida legislature.
 
In response to Veiga’s edits, Wikipedia’s universe of citizen content editors quickly amended the entry and replaced the controversies section in Rivera’s entry. In the process, the Wikipedia editors added one more item to the list of controversies on Rivera’s page: the fact that his press secretary had attempted to cover up his past by deleting unflattering details from his Wikipedia page.
 
As the Internet encyclopedia becomes more popular and the information contained in it more reliable, Wikipedia has become an indispensible tool for individuals seeking a quick overview of a subject or individual. In fact, a voter’s first source of information on a candidate is increasingly likely to be through Wikipedia. All of which means that unflattering entries have the potential to become a public relations nightmare for candidates.
 
The episode with Rep. Rivera has revealed a blind spot among consultants, many of whom do not have a strategy to deal with Wikipedia.
 
“My strategy doesn’t even include Wikipedia at this point,” says Lois Marbach, president of the New York City–based Democratic consulting firm Promotional Strategies. “It is not even on my radar.” Marbach adds that, while she doesn’t agree with the method that Rivera’s press secretary employed to polish his image, she understands the desperation one can experience in trying to control what the public says about a public figure. “It is just insane the methods we have to use to monitor and maintain the message.”
 
Maurice Bonamigo, Chicago-based Republican consultant and president of Maurice Bonamigo & Associates, says that there is not much a candidate or consultant can do about Wikipedia, beyond ignoring it or leading an unimpeachable life. “The best thing to do is just ignore it or issue a press statement saying that what you read on Wikipedia is not true,” he says.
 
While some consultants see uncertainty in a future in which new communications platforms like Wikipedia proliferate, others take heart in the continuity of the unchanging fundamentals of campaigning. Ryan Hawkins, president of the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.–based Winding Creek Group, says that while the game has evolved, the rules remain the same.
 
“Campaigns and good campaign managers who ‘get it’ know you cannot manipulate sites like Wikipedia without paying a price,” says Hawkins. “It falls under the ‘don't do something stupid’ rule, which more times than not will kill a campaign.”
 
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. E-mail him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com