Posts Tagged ‘ghost blogging’

Six Lessons From The Ghost Twittering Saga

Eureka momentLast week, I wrote a post about an a-list blogger (Guy Kawasaki) who used ghost writers on his Twitter account. The reaction to that post has been thought-provoking, to say the least.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole episode, as a client put it, was watching the ripples go out from my post. Whether it was posts by the likes of Stowe BoydNeville Hobson, Sarah Perez, Li Evans and others, stories in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times or the sheer volume of discussion on my post, this topic certainly caught the attention of a lot of people.

I’ve had plenty of conversations about this post over the last week, and I’ve done a fair bit of thinking on my own. I’ve learned some interesting lessons:

Ethics works in grey areas

The more I write about ethical issues in social media, the more I’ve come to realize that ethical dilemmas are rarely black and white. There’s rarely a clear right or wrong, and most of the debate takes place in the grey area inbetween.

To make matters more complicated, the extent of different peoples’ grey areas varies. Some people see ghost writing, for example, very clearly at one end of the scale and others see it at the other end, but most see it as somewhere in the middle. As I’ve thought about it more and more (and as I’ve been exposed to over 200 peoples’ views over the last few posts), I’ve come to see it as more of a grey area.

I still have my views; I still think it’s wrong and, at best, often ineffective; but I see the other side too, along with a spectrum of opinions inbetween.

Different people use tools in different ways

I’ve always thought of Twitter as a place to connect; as a place to learn; as a place to share. From a corporate side, I’ve thought of it as a place to build relationships; to answer questions; to trouble-shoot; to manage issues. I’ve rarely thought of it as a place to overtly promote.

This week I opened my eyes a little and recognized people using Twitter in ways that I haven’t considered acceptable, and doing it successfully. I was aware of it before, but I avoided those people and in doing so forgot that it was happening to an extent.

New perspectives are valuable. I’ve re-gained one this week.Respond quickly to controversy

While I don’t think that referring to people who raise concerns as “self-appointed consciences of Twitter” is a great way to defuse things, I thought Guy Kawasaki responded well to the ethical concerns I raised.

I know Kawasaki tells people to forget the A-list, but I wasn’t expecting him to change his approach to disclosure just because of one email from me, Z-lister that I am. 

On the contrary, not only did I get a prompt and polite response from guy, but he immediately tweaked things based on my concerns. His twitter bio now names the other authors, and posts from them now include their initials at the end.

(To be clear, Kawasaki never denied the practice and conducted an interview earlier this year where he discussed it; however this was the first time it was disclosed up-front in his bio)

A separate discussion has started over whether his use of Twitter constitutes spam, but that’s not what I asked him about. Those issues are for another day. He addressed my concerns.

Naive to think it wouldn’t get personal

I naively hoped to avoid provoking personal attacks on Kawasaki from commenters. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. I’m sure he’s used to it and has a thick skin, but I was sorry to see the attacks happen and I did my best to stop those I saw.

Fortunately, we also got into a vibrant debate on ghost writing on Twitter, which was my initial hope.

On ethical issues, act proactively not reactively

As the conversation evolved, I noticed that numerous people weren’t convinced by Kawasaki’s response because he had to be asked before he changed the way he went about things. In their view, it was a grudging shift rather than a genuine one, and as a social media figurehead he should have known better.

Whether that’s the case or not, there’s a good lesson to learn for the future – if there are vulnerabilities in what you are doing, take the opportunity to fix them now. Don’t wait for people to shine a light on them.

Reflection on why I take a stand on ethics

 This week’s saga also caused me to reflect on why I keep coming back to the theme of ethics. Initially, I did it because some activities ran contrary to what I considered the ‘right’ way to go about things.

Over time, I’ve become more of a pragmatist. The fundamental ethical concern with things like ghost writing is still there, but I’ve realized that there’s also a pragmatic layer to why I feel so strongly about these matters.

I’m a consultant. I advise companies on, among other things, how to find their feet using these tools. I don’t want to see my clients on the receiving end of something like this week’s controversy. The risk/benefit ratio just doesn’t justify unethical tactics.

How about you?

I learn from your reactions to all my posts. It’s why I post so much, and why I post on topics ranging from those about which I know a fair deal, to those about which I know very little. When a post resonates like the ghost twittering post did, I learn even more. 

What did you learn from all this?

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)

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.

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)