The Ethics of Ghost-Writing in Social Media

ethics_session Last night I co-hosted a session on social media ethics with Michael O’Connor Clarke at the Talk Is Cheap 2 conference in Toronto.

Ethics is always guaranteed to generate discussion, as much of it comes down to where you draw your own personal line in the sand. To my delight we had a standing room-only crowd, and we got into some interesting discussions around the ethics involved in engaging using social media (slides are at the end of this post).

One of the more interesting discussions arose around the ethics of ghost writing online.

Ghost writing?

In case you’re not familiar with the terms, “ghost” writing in general refers to (usually professional) writers creating content and then attributing it to someone else.

Note: there’s a difference between ghost blogging, astroturfing (bad) and character blogs like Captain Morgan (dodgy execution – in fact they seem to have packed the blog itself in now – but ok ethically).

Undisclosed ghost blogging is unethical

Undisclosed ghost blogging, while tempered somewhat by the intention behind it, is unethical in my opinion.

Unlike ghost-written speeches, where the spokesperson lends their name and approval to the writing by actually saying the words, ghost-written blogs can be published without the named person ever seeing them. Think, for example, of Kanye West’s blog, which kept publishing posts even after he was arrested this year. The result: brand damage.

When you’re online and especially when using social media tools, I think the expectation is that when you see someone’s name on something then it’s actually that person. That’s the point of “social media,” right? It’s social. If I’m not building a relationship with the person I think I am, there’s something very wrong with that. What’s more, when it becomes apparent that you aren’t who you’re pretending to be, you lose all of the trust you’ve built up with me.

One participant asked why, if ghost blogging is bad, is ghost micro-blogging ok? Twitter accounts like Barack Obama and Stephen Harper aren’t written by those individuals (unless Harper likes to write in the third person), but the participant thought people seemed to think it was ok.

My response: it’s not ok.

I don’t think either of these accounts is ethically sound. Neither are the many accounts like them, whether political or non-political. The staffers are pretending to be someone they’re not. They aren’t ‘hurting’ anyone per se, but they are misleading them.

Disclose

The key point for me is simple: disclose what’s going on. Be transparent.

I’m not completely naive. I don’t expect every politician, most of whom are probably cynical about these tools, to use them personally. I’d love it if they did, but I’m ok with other people writing on their behalf. They just need to disclose that fact.

If these accounts, or the many similar ones to them, simply inserted a quick “Written on behalf of PM Harper by [name]” I’d be absolutely fine with it.

If your CEO doesn’t have time to blog, don’t offer to write it for him and pretend he did it. Either be open and have a disclaimer from him that acknowledges “I don’t write these posts, but I do read them and I stand behind them” or just have a company blog. Then again, consider whether blogging is the right forum for you.

Isn’t it obvious?

One argument that I heard last night is that no-one really believes it’s Obama on the other end of the account anyway.

On Twitter, that might be true as it’s still largely early adopters on here. They’re savvy about this kind of thing. However, I don’t think that excuses it. What’s more, if you consider ‘older’ social media platforms such as blogs, you’re not dealing with people who live and breathe this stuff – you’re dealing with people who are much more likely to take things at face value.

As I said earlier, much of this topic is personal. What do you think? Is ghost blogging unethical to you? Is ghost micro-blogging different?

(Image credit: George Saratlic via TwitPic)

  • The writing process takes time and effort. Professional writers are well suited for the job. I would say “ghost blogging” is ok if every post has been read and approved by the actual person. If someone else does it as a routine, just for the sake of filling in the blanks, then it’s not right.

    I also agree with you that Twitter micro-blogging shouldn’t be done by someone else. The instant message is a personal touch, and should be done by the actual person.

  • As someone who once posted that ‘Ghost blogging is going to happen’ – in a moment of frivolity might I add – I find this post very interesting.

    Most people believe what they read in the papers but that’s not always true. Most people believe that the piece by the marketing director of XYZ Corp in ABC magazine was written by her, when it probably wasn’t.

    While I agree with you that ghost blogging is unethical, and ghost tweeting is not quite as bad because people are ‘savvy’ about it, I still think we’re in a very grey area when we say ‘savvy’. At what point do people become ‘savvy’?

  • Interesting post Dave. I think this is going to be a bigger and bigger issue as social media tools get more and more integrated into business and organizational communications strategies.

    I’m not sure where I come down on the debate, frankly, but what you’re suggesting here with regards to SM runs completely counter to established practices in most companies and organizations. A quote in a press release is almost NEVER written by the person to whom it is attributed. In some cases they haven’t even seen it (which I object to. It’s ok for me to write a quote for the president but he has to approve it, in my opinion).

    To play devil’s advocate, isn’t the job of most comms people to learn to be the voice of the head of their organization? The PR department is writing the speeches, drafting the guest columns and preparing correspondance, why not blog too?

  • Joe… I’m with you on the press releases. The person attributed, in my books, must approve the quote. Personally I try to take quotes from speeches, where possible.

    You raise a great question about PR people being the voice of the head of the organization.

    I think different media have different expectations associated with them. I don’t think this is the primary reason for the need for ethics in this space so I deliberately didn’t focus on it, but I think it’s still true.

    The difference here comes down to disclosure. You might write the speech for the president, but they’re reading it (and I’ve seen many, many people re-write speeches before giving them). However, blogging (and social media in general) is much more personal – it’s not usually a speech from on high – it’s a conversation and a relationship that you have with these people. For example, I wasn’t surprised by the perspective that Brendon has above, because we’ve communicated with each other over time. If I found out that it was really his communications guy, not him, that I was communicating with, I’d be pretty annoyed.

    To me, the rules of traditional media don’t translate across to new media.

    That’s my (convoluted) take – I’m curious to hear what other people think.

  • I’ll ditto Rudy’s comments – especially since that comment was far more eloquent than the one I was thinking about!

    I think the issue here has at its heart what constitutes “ghost blogging”. I don’t like the term if only because of the automatic insinuations that link to ghost writing – which is used in a very ethical manner when preparing anything from OpEds to speeches. In all those cases the legitimizing factor is approval.

    What we’re talking about here is ‘mis-represented’ or ‘bait ‘n’ switch’ blogging whereby one person is assuming the persona of the presumed blogger with no disclosure. That’s just plain wrong.

    A matter of semantics – sure. But I think with more and more people adopting SM Marketing it’s a ‘split hair’ worth delineating.

  • I can see the need for hiring a writer to help research or cover product launches etc, and that is often the job of the marcom writer. BUT there has to be appropriate credit given. It’s as simple as a small byline letting us know the post wasn’t written by the blog owner. If the CEO can’t write it then make the marcom person the blogger.

    We know that speeches aren’t written by the presenter, but the presenter almost always puts her own spin on it, taking ownership. The same should hold true for blogs. Take the research or even editorial help then write your own blog.

  • Thanks for responding to my comment, Dave. As I said, I am not sure where I stand on the issue and I think you make excellent points.

    Conversations ARE different. I suppose the debate is not really about ghost blogging or ghost tweeting, but rather what the content is intended to do (message, not medium). If it’s a semi-automatic twitter account used to alert followers to updates etc, maybe ghosting it is more acceptable than if it’s actually supposed to be part of the conversation.

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  • James Hanifen

    I just wanted to say I really appreciate your posts and the work you do. It is hard to find good material on corporations and social networking, especially on the overall ethics of what social media is and how it is to be used properly.

  • James – thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to say that. Glad you find it helpful.

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  • Ghost Blogger

    I am the writer for the CEO of a large company. I write for one person only. It is my job to study this person, to read what he writes. He even allows me access to his e-mail so that I might know his positions on topics without having to have a conversation. When I write, I forget my own interests and I write as that person. I gather notes on the things he has said in meetings or written in e-mail. My job is to know him well enough to draft something that really represents his position on important topics. Sometimes he drafts and I edit. Sometimes I draft and he edits.

    In all cases, the documents, blogs, etc. are thoroughly reviewed and edited before they are sent, published, etc.

    In my view, this is not unethical. He communicates more frequently than he would if he did not have a writer.

    Please consider adding this type of ghost blogging dynamic in your use cases.

  • Hi “Ghost Blogger,”

    First, a friendly tip for you – one of the first things I mentioned in the ethics presentation that sparked this post is that on the web, nothing is anonymous. Your name was in your email address, and your company name is obvious from your IP. While I’m a nice guy and I’m not going to do anything with this knowledge, I know where you work and who you write for.

    As for your “use case” – I suspect it is already covered by the general scenarios in my most recent post – http://is.gd/kEYL. My primary question is, did you simply write the solitary post without any initial direction or does he give you a detailed brief of the key ideas?

    I see no disclaimer on the site that anyone other than the CEO is involved. That’s a big hole in the set-up from my perspective, given that the site sub-head describes it as [edited for privacy] a dialog with the CEO.

    Without digging deeper and knowing more about what happens, this seems to me to be in the “wrong” category. There are far better ways for the CEO to communicate than through a ghost-written blog. If he doesn’t have time to write the blog himself, why not have a blog by “the CEO’s Office” that you could write openly, while still using/quoting his thoughts as inspiration?

    My two cents. This is a grey area, so opinions will differ on this.

  • Leah

    Regarding ghost blogging –
    Having spent quite a bit of time in the business world, attending board meetings and shadowing executives, I take it for granted that many decisions are “made by committee.”

    I also take it for granted that an executive would have many people involved in their work, including speeches, reports, and blogging.

    For those reasons, I do not find it objectionable to find that an executive may use a ghost-writer. Nor do I find it objectionable to find that the identity, or even presence, of the ghost-writer has not been disclosed on the site.

    But if you want to change the rules, change the rules, and do so consistently. Make it clear that you now want a list of “credits” for speeches, presentations, blogging and so on. In most cases, it’s not hard to find the names of staff members who are likely to have been involved, anyway.

  • Hey Dave, giving out the sub-head of the blog in question made it pretty easy to find. So much for letting Ghost Blogger remain anonymous.

    I would have expected this comment to come on your more recent post on ghost blogging though, I wonder why Ghost Blogger chose this one to comment.

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  • Hi Dave,
    This is an interesting topic.
    This may be off topic, but I have someone asking to repurpose my blog content for publication. This person wants me to give up IP rights.
    When I asked for examples of their writing, they said they don’t have any because they’ve been ghostwriting & want to write under their own name now.

    That leaves me where? (very uncomfortable w/ agreeing to share mind share for my ideas!)

    Thanks for starting the conversation.

  • Hey Connie… I don’t think you’re off-topic at all. I would back away slowly from that one. Repurposing your content doesn’t sound like writing under their own name. They could always just quote you…

    Chris – thanks for pointing that out… I guess in a way that just proves my point. To be a nice guy, I’ve edited that sub-head down. Let’s be nice and just keep it between us, huh?

    You’re right though – surprised this is happening here.

    For reference, there’s a more recent (and very interesting) discussion on this topic in a recent post here: http://davefleet.com/2009/02/ghost-blogging-wrong/

  • The way I see it, ghostwriting is ghostwriting and can be done ethically in any medium. I’ve elaborated on this in great detail here. http://koifishcommunications.com/blog/?p=525

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  • Really interesting article. I had never heard of “astroturfing” before, but it makes sense, especially with the political climate now-a-days..

    I’m still no entirely sure what ghostwriting is supposed to do with a blog? I guess people could act as some sort of expert, when they are not? I mean what is the motive behind ghostwritting a blog, other than imitating a famous person?

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  • Http://I-sight.com

    I agree with you, but I think calling it unethical might be a bit strong. I’d agree that it’s not in the spirit of the medium and probably not a very bright business or political decision to fake it – but unethical? My friend writes letters on behalf all kinds of people and these letters get published in old world editorial pages. I think consumers are smart enough to realize that corporate blogs “from the CEO” or politicians are marketing propaganda. No one is being deceived.

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  • My approach to ghost blogging is simple. I ghost blog for brands, not individuals: this tends to happen with large organizations which have a “corporate voice” and are happy to run blog posts attributed to the bigger picture rather than to individuals. 

    With smaller companies, though, I discourage them from hiring ghost bloggers because they – the individuals – usually ARE the brand. Ghost blogging is a no-no here. So instead of ghost writing for them, I teach them how to write blogs for themselves. This I do through F-2-F workshops and also 1-2-1 tuition.

    Even within larger companies, I go in and coach their blogging team and show them a) how to write for blog and b) what to blog about, so my only participation is to act as editor and hand-holder. 

    It’s not rocket science. And it leads to a much more honest incarnation of blogging, in line with what your excellent article is talking about.