Why Ghost Blogging Is Wrong

A few months ago, following a presentation I gave on ethics at Centennial College, I wrote a post on the ethics of ghost-writing in social media.

This past Sunday I decided, on a whim, to present a very similar session at PodCamp Toronto. At that session, Leesa Barnes, a fairly well-known person in the Canadian social media scene, started a heated conversation when she revealed that her blog is ghost-written. She gave a couple of reasons (I’m paraphrasing here; hopefully I’m doing them justice):

  1. She “hates” writing, so outsources that which she hates;
  2. As her business grows, she needs to free-up time for other tasks;
  3. Writing blog posts isn’t a part of the relationship-building process – that comes from replying to the comments (note: Leesa says she does this)
  4. She uses other tactics, such as video and audio, herself.

First-up, I want to thank Leesa for saying what she did. It sparked a dynamic conversation that continued throughout Sunday and into Monday, and I want to acknowledge that. It would have been a much less interesting session without her contribution.

I had a very interesting conversation with Leesa, Danny Brown and Lindsey Patten (and others along the way) about this on Sunday night (viewable here – taken from this search - the posts I saw; read from bottom to top).

Writing is part of blog relationship building

With that said, I think that having someone ghost-blog for you is misleading and wrong. I do think that writing the posts is a part of the relationship building process and, to quote a recent post from Leesa (entitled Why You Should Never Outsource Your Social Media Tasks & What You Should Delegate Instead):

Huh? When did outsourcing your relationships become okay?

Now, there’s a nuance here. I have no problem with multi-authored blogs where different authors are listed. I’m fine with guest posts (though I suggest not over-doing it). I have no ethical problems with delegating the writing when that is clearly and plainly disclosed (though I would argue the blog’s effectiveness would drop so it’s not a good approach). My problem is with undisclosed ghost-blogging.

Why undisclosed ghost blogging is wrong

Here are the reasons I think ghost blogging is a very, very bad idea. From my perspective:

  • People reading a blog expect the person listed as the author to be the one writing the post. This expectation is critical, and is a key difference between new and old media (where, for many people, this kind of practice long ago eroded the credibility of many tactics);
  • The danger of damage to your credibility and reputation if you get found out easily outweighs the benefits you get from hiding the true author;
  • The CEO doesn’t need to be the face of a company online. If your company has grown and the CEO needs to focus elsewhere, someone else could write, or you could set up a group blog;
  • There are plenty of other social media (and other online) tools out there. If authentic, transparent blogging doesn’t work for you, use a different tool;
  • Social media is built on trust. By misleading people as to the author, you lose the trust when that deception is revealed, especially if you’re an “expert” in this area. In another quote from the aforementioned post:

“Well, you know the old adage which is people do business with those they like and trust, right?”

Alternatives

So, what options do you have if you really don’t want to write but realize that you shouldn’t have a blog ghost-written?

  • Multi-author: Have multiple people in your organization (or a group of friends, if it’s a personal site) write – under their own names. This way you can reduce the workload
  • Different blogger: Do you have to be the face of your company online, or is this an ego issue? If you don’t have to be that face, perhaps someone else could write it under their own name.
  • Disclosure: Include a note on each blog page that someone else writes the post, e.g. “I don’t write these posts, but I do read them and I stand behind them.” I think it’s sub-optimal as some authenticity is lost, but it’s feasible.
  • Use different media: Do you really have to have a blog? How about using video, or micro-blogging, or any other social or “traditional” digital tactics? Blogs are just one tool.

If you’re thinking of having your blog ghost-written, reconsider. The risks outweigh the benefits.

Your take

I’m well aware that there’s plenty of debate on this issue, so I posted a quick poll online for people to take. At time of writing, with 78 responses only 19 per cent (15 people) thought undisclosed ghost blogging was ok.

What do you think? Take the poll, leave a comment and let’s debate this.

101 comments
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Dachia_PhD
Dachia_PhD

As a professional writer, I love to research and write. I love to blog, write press releases, reports... whatever. I don't think there is anything wrong or unethical on my part for selling my trade. Whether they put their name to it or attribute it tome is their business, they paid for it and own it. While I do agree that blogging is a big/important part of touching your audience, I do think that ghost writing can still be a part of that. If I write a blog post for someone, they still need to read it over and agree before they post it to their blog. 

Ellen Thompson
Ellen Thompson

The answer like so many other questions is it depends. As the owner of a small business, my personal blog is more likely to get read than my personal one. That is the reality in the social media world. The problem is my ideas are great, but writing skills are average at best.

 

The perfect solution for me was to write or dictate a rough draft, have someone else clear it up and then read, make revisions and approve the final version. This allowed me to retain my voice and the integrity of my ideas but to save about 1/2 a post getting from 80 to 100% done. We now offer this service to our own customers and it's been really well received.

 

 

Jessica Robnett
Jessica Robnett

I agree with this post. Blogging is a way for people to engage with their readers, not a way to deceive readers. Yes, there are arguments for ghost blogging that are logical. However, if one is unable to take the time to write a blog, then they should not have a blog in the first place.

Nessnix
Nessnix

I am a professional freelance writer. I write for newspapers and magazines, as well provide online content. This includes website content (Home, About pages etc.) and ghost blogging. It also includes e-books, white papers and traditional marketing materials. Because of the changing economics of print media and traditional publishing (making room for new technologies and new reader habits) many freelancers have had to be increasingly flexible, expanding our repertoire to include writing for social media, blogs, integrated marketing campaigns etc. As my brethren bemoaned the death of their institutions (traditional publishing and print media) I quickly realized that writing (and reading for that matter) were not dying arts but rather being re-imagined in a new realm, one to fit the needs of this generation. I got my certification in SEO and hit the ground running in the new world of social media (quickly becoming a go-to-gal for advice.) I didn't do this to change my career track from writer to Web 2.0 Guru, but rather to better serve the emerging needs of the new medium. I want to write. People want to read and learn and share -- online, in real-time. As a writer there is nothing more exciting than researching and learning something new, digesting it and reformulating it for an audience in a way that is entertaining and informative. By ghostwriting, I get to explore different voices, tones and topics. I get to learn something fresh everyday and I get to share my words (and what I learned) with the world, hopefully in a way that helps someone else pursue their goals. For me, the question of ethics here is a funny one. Every layman nowadays knows the term social media marketing and most understand that this realm includes blogging. Now, there are firms all over the country that are providing, not only copywriting services (such as ghost blogging) but integrated marketing campaigns that include status updates, discussions and tweets. This is a world that has merged creatives, marketers, computer nerds and even journalists No one expects that the CEO of Old Spice was penning the words tumbling out of Isaiah Mustafa's mouth, nor did they believe that Isaiah himself was responding to those tweets (via Youtube) unscripted. That's because we all understand the world of marketing. Not everyone is creative enough to come up with these types of entertaining concepts, that is why many companies hire marketing firms to come up with compelling or entertaining content to advertise their brand. Blogging has become a hybrid. No longer are blogs just a place to share your opinions or insights, they have become a strong marketing tool – increasing your Google juice, establishing expertise and a pulpit from which to preach your brand’s message. But what if you’re not a great writer? What if you’re the kind of person who is better at doing your business than talking (or writing) about it? What if you just plain hate writing? You outsource to someone like me. And it would serve you well to do so. Because the clients I work for, fully control their message. They send me topics and links and I get to know their voice and opinions and what sites they find to be credible. Their message goes out – and it IS theirs but it is the best version of their message – a polished, well-researched, engaging, keyword-peppered, linked, optimized, typo-free and grammatically correct message. My clients hire me because they may be experts in their chosen field but they are not experts in writing, blogging, SEO or social media. Just because you're not a plumber doesn't mean you have skip fixing that overflowing toilet. You can outsource it to someone who is qualified to fix it on your behalf and you're not required to post a sign in your yard saying that someone else fixed your toilet. Because no one will call your ethics in to question for not being an expert on everything. (BTW- Thanks for giving me a new blog topic for www.play-onwords.com)

Kamil Ali
Kamil Ali

Interesting post,

A new term for me GhostBlogging

Still can't decide it's wrong or right and why

Kamil Ali
Kamil Ali

Interesting post, A new term for me GhostBlogging Still can't decide it's wrong or right and why

Elizabeth Rice
Elizabeth Rice

First let me start off by saying what an excellent debate topic this is. I have to say I can see the reasoning behind both arguments. I agree with Dave in that this idea of social media has been built upon this notion of interactivity and communicating on more of a personal level (in a way making things more informal) I do think that ghost blogging compromises this a bit. The appeal of blogging versus an article in say the New York Times is that it is more personal and opinionated rather than the classic, unbiased, AP Style of writing we seem accustomed to reading.
However, OMGWTFWYT touches on an interesting point when he/she asks why having someone else write the blog makes a difference if the thoughts are your's? I believe there is some validity to the point, especially when Dave commented on B's post that it does in fact take skill and talent to write a blog and get results (which I agree with) so then taking that into account how can you be competitive writing a blog yourself if you are not skilled enough to get results? Yes, you can do a video blog, or audio, or even link to a flicker account, but let's be honest and say to a newbie to social media the least intimidating is a blog.

Elizabeth Rice
Elizabeth Rice

First let me start off by saying what an excellent debate topic this is. I have to say I can see the reasoning behind both arguments. I agree with Dave in that this idea of social media has been built upon this notion of interactivity and communicating on more of a personal level (in a way making things more informal) I do think that ghost blogging compromises this a bit. The appeal of blogging versus an article in say the New York Times is that it is more personal and opinionated rather than the classic, unbiased, AP Style of writing we seem accustomed to reading. However, OMGWTFWYT touches on an interesting point when he/she asks why having someone else write the blog makes a difference if the thoughts are your's? I believe there is some validity to the point, especially when Dave commented on B's post that it does in fact take skill and talent to write a blog and get results (which I agree with) so then taking that into account how can you be competitive writing a blog yourself if you are not skilled enough to get results? Yes, you can do a video blog, or audio, or even link to a flicker account, but let's be honest and say to a newbie to social media the least intimidating is a blog.

b
b

The "new media" in and of itself is a completely unregulated medium which requires no training or expertise whatsoever. It's almost laughable that such a Bastian of new media would ponder the "ethics" involved in ghost blogging.

b
b

The "new media" in and of itself is a completely unregulated medium which requires no training or expertise whatsoever. It's almost laughable that such a Bastian of new media would ponder the "ethics" involved in ghost blogging.

Dave Fleet
Dave Fleet

Terrance - you're right - disclosure is the key thing.

The generic corporate blog is another option; one that many choose to use. I have no problem with that - it's deceptive practices that I have a problem with. It might not be ideal but I have no ethical issue with that approach.

Dave Fleet
Dave Fleet

Terrance - you're right - disclosure is the key thing. The generic corporate blog is another option; one that many choose to use. I have no problem with that - it's deceptive practices that I have a problem with. It might not be ideal but I have no ethical issue with that approach.

Terence P Ward
Terence P Ward

I can understand your concerns about ethics, but you're really placing an unnecessary burden on people by telling them that it's never okay to hire a professional writer. Do you hold the same standard of personal participation when it comes to all business writing, including newsletters, proposals, ad copy, press releases, and articles?

I am a paid blogger, and I think the alternatives you propose can be useful, to a point. I have not, and would not, actually claim to be another person, and I think that's the crux of your concern.

As an employee of a business, I did blog under my own name, because as a member of the staff my knowledge was part of the practice's overall expertise. However, if I'm not an employee this option doesn't make sense.

An option you didn't suggest is that of the generic business blog - posts that don't include an authorship line. I write for blogs like this all day long, and rather than harming my clients' credibility, it enhances it! There are plenty of people who are experts in their own fields, but can't blog terribly well because that field isn't WRITING. Thankfully, many of them are aware of how much harm poorly-written blog posts can do to a company, which is why they look to me or another ghost blogger to put their ideas into words.

Please tell the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers that they may go back to what they do best, and that it's really okay to let writers do what THEY do best in turn. I'm not too busy writing to learn how to make tallow anytime soon.

Terence P Ward
Terence P Ward

I can understand your concerns about ethics, but you're really placing an unnecessary burden on people by telling them that it's never okay to hire a professional writer. Do you hold the same standard of personal participation when it comes to all business writing, including newsletters, proposals, ad copy, press releases, and articles? I am a paid blogger, and I think the alternatives you propose can be useful, to a point. I have not, and would not, actually claim to be another person, and I think that's the crux of your concern. As an employee of a business, I did blog under my own name, because as a member of the staff my knowledge was part of the practice's overall expertise. However, if I'm not an employee this option doesn't make sense. An option you didn't suggest is that of the generic business blog - posts that don't include an authorship line. I write for blogs like this all day long, and rather than harming my clients' credibility, it enhances it! There are plenty of people who are experts in their own fields, but can't blog terribly well because that field isn't WRITING. Thankfully, many of them are aware of how much harm poorly-written blog posts can do to a company, which is why they look to me or another ghost blogger to put their ideas into words. Please tell the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers that they may go back to what they do best, and that it's really okay to let writers do what THEY do best in turn. I'm not too busy writing to learn how to make tallow anytime soon.

Roger Hjulstrom
Roger Hjulstrom

Great blog, will link to it on our site, we are dedicated to exposing ghost written twitter accounts, we are about to put up a page on social media celebrities.

Roger Hjulstrom
Roger Hjulstrom

Great blog, will link to it on our site, we are dedicated to exposing ghost written twitter accounts, we are about to put up a page on social media celebrities.

Yolanda Morris
Yolanda Morris

I'm a bit torn since I do offer ghostwriting services. However, so that I don't straddle the fence, I will say that I'm not too concerned with the authority behind the blog post as long as the information I'm reading is indeed correct.

Yolanda Morris
Yolanda Morris

I'm a bit torn since I do offer ghostwriting services. However, so that I don't straddle the fence, I will say that I'm not too concerned with the authority behind the blog post as long as the information I'm reading is indeed correct.

Mike Driehorst
Mike Driehorst

Great post and timing Dave!

I'm involved in planning a Social Media Breakfast in Toledo, Ohio, and during a lunch planning meeting Friday, a discussion of ghostblogging and related ethical questions came up.

On the ning.com site established for SMB-Toledo, I started a blog post and highlighted your post so others could read and learn WHY. GHOSTBLOGGING. IS. WRONG!

See: http://smbtoledo.ning.com/profiles/blogs/blogging-ethics-why.

Take care,
-Mike

Mike Driehorst
Mike Driehorst

Great post and timing Dave! I'm involved in planning a Social Media Breakfast in Toledo, Ohio, and during a lunch planning meeting Friday, a discussion of ghostblogging and related ethical questions came up. On the ning.com site established for SMB-Toledo, I started a blog post and highlighted your post so others could read and learn WHY. GHOSTBLOGGING. IS. WRONG! See: http://smbtoledo.ning.com/profiles/blogs/blogging-ethics-why. Take care, -Mike

Andrew Sinclair
Andrew Sinclair

I agree with Dave on his points about why ghost blogging is wrong if your strategy is to build a “truly” personal relationship between author and reader. But, I only agree with this idea if this is your strategy. If your strategy is to deliver relevant content that people find interesting, and want to publish it in an easy format, and have a conversation with your readers, maybe it’s not so bad? I understand the majority opinion here but I have to say that I disagree with the idea that ghost blogging is “wrong in principal”, and feel we must look at the underlying assumptions being made here: 1,Social media is democratic, meaning the space is a truly liberal and free. The positive here is that you can say what you want, but this also means buyer beware and personal responsibility is needed. This means if I chose to have someone else write for me, that’s my choice. You may not agree with it, but I still have the freedom do it. Just like you have the freedom to simply stop reading the blog or comment on the post. 2, What defines our “true selves” on the internet? Whatever makes it under her ‘by line’, whether she wrote it or not, is a representation of what she thinks and believes. The bottom line for me is that as long as she is willing to put her reputation behind what it says, it might as well be her saying it. Now before I’m pounced on, I’ve elaborated on these ideas here (Dave, I hope it’s ok to link to my post from your blog): http://www.connectdigitally.com/2/post/2009/02/why-ghost-blogging-is-wronga-dissenting-opinion-sort-of.html

Andrew Sinclair
Andrew Sinclair

I agree with Dave on his points about why ghost blogging is wrong if your strategy is to build a “truly” personal relationship between author and reader. But, I only agree with this idea if this is your strategy. If your strategy is to deliver relevant content that people find interesting, and want to publish it in an easy format, and have a conversation with your readers, maybe it’s not so bad?

I understand the majority opinion here but I have to say that I disagree with the idea that ghost blogging is “wrong in principal”, and feel we must look at the underlying assumptions being made here:

1,Social media is democratic, meaning the space is a truly liberal and free.

The positive here is that you can say what you want, but this also means buyer beware and personal responsibility is needed. This means if I chose to have someone else write for me, that’s my choice. You may not agree with it, but I still have the freedom do it. Just like you have the freedom to simply stop reading the blog or comment on the post.

2, What defines our “true selves” on the internet?

Whatever makes it under her ‘by line’, whether she wrote it or not, is a representation of what she thinks and believes. The bottom line for me is that as long as she is willing to put her reputation behind what it says, it might as well be her saying it.

Now before I’m pounced on, I’ve elaborated on these ideas here (Dave, I hope it’s ok to link to my post from your blog):

http://www.connectdigitally.com/2/post/2009/02/why-ghost-blogging-is-wronga-dissenting-opinion-sort-of.html

Kerri Birtch
Kerri Birtch

Wow Dave, quite the discussion you've got going here. Lots of good debate, but in the end, my opinion still firmly holds that ghost-blogging is just plain wrong. If you actually *want* to be in the social media space and respect that space, there are other ways of hosting a blog as others have pointed out. Having someone else write it for you (type it, write it, sprinkle-content-fairy-dust-whatever on it) just doesn't make any sense and really flies in the face of the pillars of social media which Terry outlined very early on. I'm surprised to see so many people have skipped over those important points.

And as a side note - people who do not reveal their own identity in this space also bother me. OMGWTFWYT - I don't see any 'About' section or contact info on your blog?

Kerri Birtch
Kerri Birtch

Wow Dave, quite the discussion you've got going here. Lots of good debate, but in the end, my opinion still firmly holds that ghost-blogging is just plain wrong. If you actually *want* to be in the social media space and respect that space, there are other ways of hosting a blog as others have pointed out. Having someone else write it for you (type it, write it, sprinkle-content-fairy-dust-whatever on it) just doesn't make any sense and really flies in the face of the pillars of social media which Terry outlined very early on. I'm surprised to see so many people have skipped over those important points. And as a side note - people who do not reveal their own identity in this space also bother me. OMGWTFWYT - I don't see any 'About' section or contact info on your blog?

Michelle Kostya
Michelle Kostya

Wow! Loads of discussion on this topic. Great post and a lot of good points on blogging ethics and why ghost blogging is wrong. A couple thoughts on how this may differ from other forms of "ghostwriting"
- Lots of CEOs and Politician (and other busy people) have ghostwriters for speeches - but when they make the speeches themselves they are actively delivering it. Possibly adding their own twist to the written words - and authenticating that they OWN the words (and that they agree with what is written).
- Ghostwritten articles and such are likely reviewed and fact checked (you would hope) by the individual who is meant to have written it. It seems they would be more involved in a process done infrequently - then a blog which must be written far more regularly. I would still rather these were written by the individual - but I recognize that these are regular practice.

I think you have some great alternatives to ghost blogging. Blogging is so wonderful the way it is now - honest, and authentic...it will be sad when we have to question everything we read as to both the intention AND the writer.

Michelle Kostya
Michelle Kostya

Wow! Loads of discussion on this topic. Great post and a lot of good points on blogging ethics and why ghost blogging is wrong. A couple thoughts on how this may differ from other forms of "ghostwriting" - Lots of CEOs and Politician (and other busy people) have ghostwriters for speeches - but when they make the speeches themselves they are actively delivering it. Possibly adding their own twist to the written words - and authenticating that they OWN the words (and that they agree with what is written). - Ghostwritten articles and such are likely reviewed and fact checked (you would hope) by the individual who is meant to have written it. It seems they would be more involved in a process done infrequently - then a blog which must be written far more regularly. I would still rather these were written by the individual - but I recognize that these are regular practice. I think you have some great alternatives to ghost blogging. Blogging is so wonderful the way it is now - honest, and authentic...it will be sad when we have to question everything we read as to both the intention AND the writer.

Scott Fry
Scott Fry

Interesting comparison between blog post ghost writing and art by Thorne

However, art is about the visual, and by comparing it to writing is like saying that it is the words themselves that people focus on in a blog post. This is not the case; the “art” in a blog post is the ideas the post provides, the insights. Much less important is how they are delivered. Therefore, if the person in the byline had input on the ideas/insights, I still say that calling the practice “wrong” is too harsh.

And as we know, particularly in this day and age, the writers of music rarely ever get the glory. So that comparison is almost one in the same. Though I was a little crushed when I learned Elton John didn’t write Tiny Dancer ;)

Scott Fry
Scott Fry

Interesting comparison between blog post ghost writing and art by Thorne However, art is about the visual, and by comparing it to writing is like saying that it is the words themselves that people focus on in a blog post. This is not the case; the “art” in a blog post is the ideas the post provides, the insights. Much less important is how they are delivered. Therefore, if the person in the byline had input on the ideas/insights, I still say that calling the practice “wrong” is too harsh. And as we know, particularly in this day and age, the writers of music rarely ever get the glory. So that comparison is almost one in the same. Though I was a little crushed when I learned Elton John didn’t write Tiny Dancer ;)

CT Moore
CT Moore

So, uh, who's less ethical? The ghost writer or the person they're writing for? The pusher or the addict?

CT Moore
CT Moore

So, uh, who's less ethical? The ghost writer or the person they're writing for? The pusher or the addict?

Andrea Ross of JOMB
Andrea Ross of JOMB

If only I could get credit for all the brilliant blog posts, quotes, inventions and speeches that I have reviewed and agreed with.

Andrea Ross of JOMB
Andrea Ross of JOMB

If only I could get credit for all the brilliant blog posts, quotes, inventions and speeches that I have reviewed and agreed with.

Thorne
Thorne

RE: "so long as the post are reviewed by the person they are attributed to, and that person has some stake in the content of the article (ideas expressed) and is in agreement with its content, I really do not see the problem.” It's deceitful. Suppose whoever commissioned a piece of art or music falsely claimed authorship of it. That would be deceitful. To put your name to something you did not create is just flat-out deceitful. And once people realize you've been BSing them . . . .

Thorne
Thorne

RE: "so long as the post are reviewed by the person they are attributed to, and that person has some stake in the content of the article (ideas expressed) and is in agreement with its content, I really do not see the problem.”

It's deceitful. Suppose whoever commissioned a piece of art or music falsely claimed authorship of it. That would be deceitful.

To put your name to something you did not create is just flat-out deceitful. And once people realize you've been BSing them . . . .

Janet Barclay
Janet Barclay

I agree with Scott Fry: "so long as the post are reviewed by the person they are attributed to, and that person has some stake in the content of the article (ideas expressed) and is in agreement with its content, I really do not see the problem."

Janet Barclay
Janet Barclay

I agree with Scott Fry: "so long as the post are reviewed by the person they are attributed to, and that person has some stake in the content of the article (ideas expressed) and is in agreement with its content, I really do not see the problem."

Shel Holtz
Shel Holtz

Thanks for this, Dave. I've written several times on the ethical issues surrounding ghost blogging and I'm right there with you. The lamest argument supporting ghost blogging is that books, annual report letters, speeches, and other communications are routinely ghost-written and people don't have a problem with it. This ignores the social dimension of a blog. If it says, "This is my blog" but someone else is writing it, it's as disingenuous as it gets and insulting to readers who have been attracted to the blog in order to hear -- and possibly engage -- with you. If you don't want to write your own blog, don't blog. There are more than enough alternate channels that you don't have to hoodwink your audience. That said, WRITING your own blog and TYPING it are two different things. Bill Marriott dictates his posts into a digital recorder that his communications staff transcribes, word-for-word. That's fine; they're still his words, which is the heart of the issue.

Shel Holtz
Shel Holtz

Thanks for this, Dave. I've written several times on the ethical issues surrounding ghost blogging and I'm right there with you. The lamest argument supporting ghost blogging is that books, annual report letters, speeches, and other communications are routinely ghost-written and people don't have a problem with it. This ignores the social dimension of a blog. If it says, "This is my blog" but someone else is writing it, it's as disingenuous as it gets and insulting to readers who have been attracted to the blog in order to hear -- and possibly engage -- with you. If you don't want to write your own blog, don't blog. There are more than enough alternate channels that you don't have to hoodwink your audience.

That said, WRITING your own blog and TYPING it are two different things. Bill Marriott dictates his posts into a digital recorder that his communications staff transcribes, word-for-word. That's fine; they're still his words, which is the heart of the issue.

Beth Harte
Beth Harte

Dave, thanks for writing about this! I love your angle here. I just wrote about it too on MarketingProfs Daily Fix and my blog. If I might add to the debate here with a little snippet (re: ethics):

In Richard Johannesen’s book “Ethics in Human Communication,” he analyzes the ethics of ghostwriting with a series of questions*:

1. What is the communicator’s intent and what is the audience’s degree of awareness?
2. Does the communicator use ghostwriters to make herself/himself appear to possess personal qualities that she/he does not have?
3. What are the surrounding circumstances of the communicator’s job that make ghostwriting a necessity?
4. To what extent does the communicator actively participate in the writing of her/his own writing?
5. Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message she/he presents?

Those questions and the ethics surrounding them are easily answered in the traditional marketing and/or public relations arena. But what happens when you add social media into the mix? How do the ethics around ghostwriting change when companies are supposed to be authentic and transparent?

*Source: Public Relations Writing: The Essentials of Style & Format by Thomas H. Bivins

Here's the issue as I see it...a lot of PR/Marketing folks are trying to transfer their normal understanding/writing (A LOT of ghostwritting) to the world of social media. It doesn't work in the context of being authentic, transparent and honest. Social media tools (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc) cannot be interchanged with press releases, speeches, bylines and the like. Social media, the ability to share and discuss information has changed how we as marketers/PR folks interact.

For argument's sake & totally fictional: What if Nike set up a soccer blog for girls (say ages 5-18) and had Mia Hamm blogging and commenting with all her fans (i.e. all posts has Mia Hamm’s name on them). Nike becomes a huge success with this blog and their sales skyrocket (coincidently they just also happen to release the "Mia Hamm soccer cleat"). Then one day, Mia Hamm does a charity soccer event and some of her biggest blog fans show up (let's assume PR isn't involved in a publicity stunt) and they approach Mia and say "I just LOVE your blog! But I have a question on post X." And Mia stares at them like "Huh?" And the girls get it...right away...it wasn't really Mia at all, they stop going to the blog, Nike's sales drop. Oh, and yeah, the one 18 year old has her own blog and writes about Nike's fake blog with the fake Mia Hamm posts, Newsweek picks up on it, then AdAge, then Twitter... Sound farfetched? Google Wal-Mart/Edelman.

If an agency/freelance writer/consultant ghostwrites (i.e. writes the copy based off a thought, due to poor writing skills, etc), they are ultimately setting that client (and yourself) up for a brand management debacle. Why even do it? Like Dave said, counsel them to try other social media tactics.

davefleet
davefleet moderator

 @Dachia_PhD I think the distinction comes down to transparency and that final review. Several years down the road from this original post, I've come to the conclusion that the key comes to either disclosing the author (or using a generic name, thus not misrepresenting them), or ensuring that the named person  reviews, edits and ensures that (a) it reflects their voice and (b) they stand behind it before it goes out under their name. 

davefleet
davefleet moderator

 @Ellen Thompson I think that makes sense, Ellen - that way you maintain control of the topic and the content, but delegate some of the writing while maintaining ultimate control of what goes live. Thanks for sharing.

Paul
Paul

IMHO, there's nothing wrong with ghost writing with full disclosure, though I suppose at that point it's not really ghost-written, is it? To OMGWTFWYT's (and your) point on the origination of a post versus its composition: there's two ways of looking at this.

1: Book publishing, where something is flagged as Author with Ghost-/Co-writer (here I'm thinking of some of James Patterson and Tom Clancy's stuff; both come up with plots and essentially farm them out to other individuals to flesh out the details) or an "As Told To" (c.f. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for instance, which was "told to" Alex Haley)

2: Your typical newspaper or magazine, where writers might be assigned to cover a particular topic or story. Many of the ideas covered would typically be assigned by an editor.

Here's the rub: in both of these instances, you could easily argue that the idea originates with someone else. However, the final product carries the author's name on it, either in conjunction with the originator or on its own.

Of course, I think there's a relatively easy way around this, though not as personal. If a newspaper runs an editorial, it's usually unsigned. Someone, clearly, is writing with the newspaper's "voice," and assumed assent. If you're just publishing in the name of the company, and not as a voice that may or may not belong to an individual listed, I'd imagine that the "ghosting" issue falls by the wayside.

Paul
Paul

IMHO, there's nothing wrong with ghost writing with full disclosure, though I suppose at that point it's not really ghost-written, is it? To OMGWTFWYT's (and your) point on the origination of a post versus its composition: there's two ways of looking at this. 1: Book publishing, where something is flagged as Author with Ghost-/Co-writer (here I'm thinking of some of James Patterson and Tom Clancy's stuff; both come up with plots and essentially farm them out to other individuals to flesh out the details) or an "As Told To" (c.f. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for instance, which was "told to" Alex Haley) 2: Your typical newspaper or magazine, where writers might be assigned to cover a particular topic or story. Many of the ideas covered would typically be assigned by an editor. Here's the rub: in both of these instances, you could easily argue that the idea originates with someone else. However, the final product carries the author's name on it, either in conjunction with the originator or on its own. Of course, I think there's a relatively easy way around this, though not as personal. If a newspaper runs an editorial, it's usually unsigned. Someone, clearly, is writing with the newspaper's "voice," and assumed assent. If you're just publishing in the name of the company, and not as a voice that may or may not belong to an individual listed, I'd imagine that the "ghosting" issue falls by the wayside.

Dave Fleet
Dave Fleet

Hi "b," thanks for your comment. I disagree with your thoughts in two points:

1. "New media" is no longer completely unregulated. In fact, there are fairly stringent new guidelines down in the US, imposed by the FTC which are beginning to formally define some of the acceptable and unacceptable practices. Ghost blogging isn't part of that, but to claim that new media is unregulated is false. Setting aside legal issues, there's also the "taste test" that each of us should apply to what we do - does it feel right? Your mileage may vary, but ghost blogging fails my taste test.

2. It takes no training to turn on a computer and tweet or to write a blog post. Similarly, it takes no training to pick up the phone and call a journalist. However, it takes training and expertise to do any of those things well and get results. What's more, there's a big difference between tweeting "Hey, check out my stuff" and building loyalty and awareness within a targeted audience, through to dealing with crises when they emerge. This is still an evolving area, and the skillsets are raw but I suggest that most people would have no idea what to do in the face of a large-scale online backlash towards their company.

Thanks again for your thoughts. Please don't feel you need to be anonymous to disagree - I welcome hearing the other side, and the debate it spurs.

Dave Fleet
Dave Fleet

Hi "b," thanks for your comment. I disagree with your thoughts in two points: 1. "New media" is no longer completely unregulated. In fact, there are fairly stringent new guidelines down in the US, imposed by the FTC which are beginning to formally define some of the acceptable and unacceptable practices. Ghost blogging isn't part of that, but to claim that new media is unregulated is false. Setting aside legal issues, there's also the "taste test" that each of us should apply to what we do - does it feel right? Your mileage may vary, but ghost blogging fails my taste test. 2. It takes no training to turn on a computer and tweet or to write a blog post. Similarly, it takes no training to pick up the phone and call a journalist. However, it takes training and expertise to do any of those things well and get results. What's more, there's a big difference between tweeting "Hey, check out my stuff" and building loyalty and awareness within a targeted audience, through to dealing with crises when they emerge. This is still an evolving area, and the skillsets are raw but I suggest that most people would have no idea what to do in the face of a large-scale online backlash towards their company. Thanks again for your thoughts. Please don't feel you need to be anonymous to disagree - I welcome hearing the other side, and the debate it spurs.

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