Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

Guy Kawasaki Discloses Ghost Writers, Defuses Issue

I’ve written several posts on ethics and ghost blogging recently, so it’s hardly surprising that when I spotted a post suggesting one of the biggest names in social media has other people write under his name, I paid attention.

Bottom line: Guy Kawasaki, creator of Alltop and Truemors, has three other people writing through his Twitter account on his behalf.

Aran Hamilton chose to use the first post on his new blog to discuss how this changes his view of Guy (disclosure: Aran is a client, but we are not involved with his personal blog). Like Aran, although I’ve never met Guy I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s accomplished, which was initially shaken somewhat by this news.

Here’s the situation, in Guy’s own words (from the iampaddy blog):

“…there are two people who tweet on my behalf. One, @amoxcalli, is a grandmother in LA who has an exquisite eye for the interesting and controversial. She adds about five tweets per day. The other is @billmeade. He is the best beta tester of books that I have ever met. I wish he would do more, but he does about one tweet every two days or so.”

To put this in context, Kawasaki posts about 35 messages to Twitter per day according to Tweetstats. Of these, again according to Kawasaki:

  • One is an automated Alltop announcement
  • 10-15 are automated tweets from Truemors
  • Five or six are undisclosed messages from other people
  • The rest (doing the math, 13-19 tweets or thereabouts) are from Kawasaki

I have no fundamental problem with the automated tweets. I don’t like them personally – they’re the reason I don’t follow @guykawasaki on Twitter – but from an ethical standpoint I have no concerns and from what I understand they work well for Guy.

However, I do have a problem with undisclosed authors.

The problem with ghost-writing in Twitter

The person who is posting many of the messages to this popular account (over 90,000 followers) may not be the person you thought. In fact, that’s the case in up to a third of cases on some days (taking the clearly automated messages out of the equation).

In cases where the ghost writers work on behalf of someone with a large personal brand, this kind of practice is even more grating. The brand is built on the trust of people who believe they are reading the thoughts of the person who is named.

The other authors were, last night, not disclosed anywhere on either Guy’s account or on those of the others involved. 

To me this represented a lapse in judgement. Guy has plenty of interesting things to say himself, so why have other people write for you?

Guy Kawasaki responds

I emailed Guy to get his comments on this issue. His answers, in typical Guy Kawasaki style, were up-front and to the point (it was also late last night – thanks, Guy, for the quick reply).

DF: In your interview with Paddy Donnelly, you mentioned that two other people contribute to your Twitter account. This was a couple of months ago. Is it still the case?

GK: There are still two people (and very infrequently a third) who tweet for me. Gina Ruiz and Annie Colbert. Bill Meade does from time to time.

DF: Why did you decide to have other people write under your name?

GK: Because I want a constant stream of the most interesting links in all of Twitter.

DF: Do you feel it is misleading to have other people write under your name on Twitter?

GK: Nope–especially because I don’t hide the fact.

DF: Have you considered disclosing the other authors in your profile?

GK: That’s a good idea. I just changed it. Never thought of that.

DF: How do you feel about the ethical issues raised by ghost writing using social media tools in general?

GK: Surely, there are more important things to think about.

Closing thoughts

I appreciate the honesty in Guy’s answers, although his dismissal of ethical issues worries me. Still, Guy is well known for his pragmatic style so a philosophical debate over ethics is unlikely to be priority #1. For me, however, ethical issues are important ones to discuss.

I’m especially happy that Guy chose to amend his Twitter profile to disclose the other authors. Indeed, I turned-on my computer this morning and he has already changed his bio.

That’s a smart move and, for me, defuses most of the controversy around the issue. While I still think that having other people tweet for you isn’t a great approach, this removes some of my concerns. Still, how do we know if it’s Guy writing in any particular case?

From the poll I ran on a recent post, about two thirds of people think that, with disclosure, this kind of practice is ok. 

What do you think?

(Image credit: hawaii)

What’s Your Code Of Ethics?

Ethics decisionsBruce Weinstein, in a Business Week column, suggests that along with energy, health, technology and other “Czars,” we need an Ethics Czar. What’s more, he suggests that that Ethics Czar should be you.

I’ve written a few times in the past couple of months about ethics in social media. Whether it’s ghost blogging, so-called “experts” coming out of the woodwork, Wikipedia entries, astro-turfing (here’s another recent example) or shameful “viral” strategies, I take a pretty dim view of shady online practices. So, this post resonated for me.

Weinstein suggests six parts to a code of ethical conduct:

  • Lead by example (do the right thing, be honest, own up when you screw up);
  • Praise generously (tell people when they’re doing a good job);
  • Criticize to build up, not break down (constructive criticism);
  • Be kind, unwind (relax on a regular basis);
  • Punish fairly (treat people equally);
  • If it is to be, it’s up to thee (take action when you see things that are wrong).

Code of Ethics for the Web

These principles translate nicely to the web – follow them and help to make your corner of the Internet a better place:

  1. Lead by example: Rule #1 – use common sense. If you wouldn’t want to see your tactics in the newspaper, reconsider whether they’re the right thing to do.
  2. Praise generously: The web is built on links. If you like something, say so and link to them. Tell people when you like what they write. Comment, link and contribute.
  3. Criticize to build up: A major part of our blogging policy at work is “do no harm.” That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize; however it does mean we should do it for the right reasons. When you criticize, do it from a constructive angle – offer tips to improve, or the other side to the argument. Don’t just shoot things down for the sake of it.
  4. Be kind, unwind: This is one principle at which I fail. Take time away from the stress of work, both online and offline. You’ll find that you’ll come back re-energized (or so I’ve heard).
  5. Punish fairly: As Weinstein noted, “one measure of good managers is the extent to which anger influences the way they punish employees.” If you’re angry, take a breath. Think it through.
  6. If it is to be, it’s up to thee: If you see something unethical, call it out… constructively.

What would you change?

(Image credit:

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?”


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.

PodCamp Toronto 2009 – Bigger, Better?

I’m at the end of an exhausting but wonderful weekend. PodCamp Toronto 2009 was held over the last two days and, as an organizer, it was an immensely rewarding experience.

I’ll have posts on various topics from this year’s event throughout the week, so I’ll keep this post brief. 

First, a few interesting points about PodCamp Toronto this year:

  • More than double the size of PodCamp Toronto 2008 – between 500 and 600 people this year (over 500 confirmed)
  • Top trending topic on Twitter on both days; pretty much all day Saturday (see below)
  • Hundreds of photos posted on Flickr already
  • For a short time, PodCamp Toronto was “bigger than Jesus” (hat tip to Bob Goyetche and Mark Blevis) at one point this weekend

My Presentations

I gave two presentations this weekend. One was planned in advance – thinking about and doing social media measurement takes up a good chunk of my time nowadays, so it made sense to talk about it and I signed-up to present on that several months ago.

My second session was a little more impromptu – I woke up on Sunday morning and decided I felt like presenting again, so I signed-up to host a session on the ethics of social media PR. Happily, both sessions were well-attended and well-received.  The slides for each are embedded below.

I’ll have more thoughts, and a couple of interviews, from PodCamp Toronto over the next few days. 

For now, if you went to PodCamp this weekend, what did you think? What was good/bad/indifferent?

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.


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 Shameful Strategies Behind Many Viral Videos

TechCrunch posted a very interesting guest post today by Dan Ackerman Greenberg, who talks about the tactics his company uses to drive people to view videos on YouTube.

Greenberg co-founded The Comotion Group, a “viral marketing” firm. He boasts that in the past three months he’s achieved 20 million views for his clients. However, I’m not linking through to their site, as quite frankly I don’t think they deserve the Google juice – the tactics he espouses are, quite frankly, disgusting.

First, though, the positives. The post does provide some very useful pointers for producers of YouTube videos:

  • Make it short: 15-30 seconds is ideal
  • Design for remixing
  • Don’t make an outright ad unless it’s really amazing
  • Make it shocking
  • Optimize the thumbnail image

However, Greenberg’s post also outlines a few “strategies” that I find disgusting:

  • Using fake headlines
  • Paying bloggers to post the videos
  • Spamming forums on websites
  • Spamming peoples’ comments on their MySpace pages
  • Spamming email lists
  • Fake comments by his company on videos to provoke controversy

Oh, and this classic:

Also, we aren’t afraid to delete comments – if someone is saying our video (or your startup) sucks, we just delete their comment. We can’t let one user’s negativity taint everyone else’s opinions.

Yes, you can. That’s called conversation. It’s a two-way thing.

This is exactly the kind of behaviour that I, along people like Todd, Brian, Geoff and many, many others, despair about. This is the kind of thing that gives marketers and PR practitioners a bad name.

Why am I going to town here? Because, even when confronted with the inherent problem with his tactics, Ackerman Greenberg continued to defend them.

In response to criticism about his fake comments:

What we do is grease the viral wheels. If that means commenting back and forth between fake users, who cares? It’s all about entertainment – we’re just making the whole experience entertaining, not just the video itself.

And again:

Beyond commenting back and forth to make the comment thread more interesting on each video, what exactly do you guys find so morally wrong here?

I’m not naive – I know this goes on all the time. The difference here is, Ackerman Greenberg has come out and admitted it, and I give him some credit for that. He also has some useful pointers, for which I also give him credit.

Still, the fact that this happens all the time isn’t an excuse for copying it. There are precedents for all sorts of unethical behaviour, but that doesn’t justify the continuation of those behaviours.

Deep down, I think Ackerman Greenberg knows this is wrong:

I can’t reveal our clients’ names and I can’t link to the videos we’ve worked on, because YouTube surely doesn’t like what we’re doing and our clients hate to admit that they need professional help with their “viral” videos.

How about: They’re afraid of being exposed?

Unfortunately for Ackerman Greenberg, as an enterprising commenter on the TechCrunch article found, his LinkedIn profile claimed:

Notable clients include: 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros Records, Fox Atomic, Walden Media, Yari Film Group, Nike, Oakley….

Ackerman Greenberg quickly removed this from his information once the commenter flagged it, but Google’s cache (posted here for future prosperity) reveals he did in fact post those names.

If Ackerman Greenberg & co don’t see the error of their ways, hopefully their clients will. This kind of behaviour shouldn’t be encouraged.


Update: Neville Hobson and Doug Walker have also posted good responses to this.