Last week, I promised Beth Harte (as part of this thread) to clarify my views on an issue as old as the blogosphere:
Is it ever OK to ghostwrite blog posts for your client or employer?
Social media’s “true believers” say it is not. I say it is, provided the task is handled by an ethical professional working in close partnership with the blogger to create the content. I’ll support that position using a simple model for ethical reasoning. You may agree or disagree.
It isn’t a 400-word topic. So get a cup of coffee.
Before I start, let me clarify: My defense of ghostwriting doesn’t apply to Twitter and other real-time applications. Twitter has been called a “microblogging” site, but it’s really a giant chat room, and the person tweeting simply has to be there. This post deals strictly with substantive blog posts — those clearly and concisely written essays designed to engage readers and trigger discussion.
The “defense” I present here applies only to ethical PR writers and their clients who work closely with them. It applies to writers who help bloggers articulate their own ideas. I’m not talking about those who outsource blogs to vendors and never review posts. That’s disingenuous and just plain dumb.
In a perfect world, I might agree with the absolutists who say ghost blogging is always wrong. But this isn’t a perfect world. Writing skills have declined rapidly with the emergence of instant communication. Even among senior executives, clear writing is rare, in part because few business schools emphasize the craft. Time is another consideration. Executives are busier than ever — often too busy to conceive, draft, edit and maintain a blog without assistance.
I’ll examine this issue from three angles — intent, rules and consequences — taking in 3 major schools of ethical theory: Virtue Ethics, Deontology, and Consequentialism. But trust me, this isn’t a philosophy lecture!
What is the ghostwriter’s intent?
A ghostwriter who schemes to turn his client’s message into hyberbole and marketing fluff has no place in our discussion. Still, many who oppose the use of any ghostwriter or editor assume bad intent. Why?
Competent and ethical PR counselors know how to capture client messages honestly. They know how to develop clear and concise essays that reflect precisely the clients’ ideas and values. Good writers who know their clients also capture tone and style, including nuances and vernacular. Ask any speech writer how it’s done.
A ghostwriter’s messages are reviewed, revised and approved by the client — always. To bypass this step is irresponsible and dishonest. Your intent as an ethical ghostwriter or editor is to help clients overcome their communication shortcomings and to present an authentic story.
If, in the process, you introduce clients to online conversations that support their business objectives, so much the better. How could your intent be more noble than that?
Does ghostwriting violate the “rules”?
The purist assumes ghostwriting is wrong. Only the person whose byline appears should create the message. Period. To do otherwise violates transparency. That’s the rule. No exceptions.
Does this mean PR should have no role in a client’s social media messages? The purist’s sure make it sound that way. If you extend the logic, you must also believe it wrong for PR counsel to influence blog content in any way. After all, influencing what the client blogs about alters the message far more than simply drafting and editing the client’s original message. Using that same logic, purist’s must also agree that editing — even proofreading for typos and grammar — violates the rule of transparency.
Rules are universal principles that must be followed regardless of circumstance. As such, rules are inflexible and remove all judgment, good or bad. Sometimes you need rules to maintain order, but that isn’t the case in PR, nor is it the case in the blogosphere. You simply have to be sensible and act within an ethical framework. The marketplace will decide on your authenticity.
The charlatans among us will do as they please. Rules don’t affect them. But for the rest of us, ghostwriting doesn’t have to be a slippery slope toward lies and deception. Trust your judgment and your own sense of morality.
What are the consequences of ghostwriting?
If a ghostwritten post distorts the client’s message, it deceives readers. Deception is unacceptable in any communication channel, regardless of who drafts the message. But why would the team of client and writer seek to fool people? What does the organization gain?
A competent and ethical writer can actually enrich the process and the outcomes. He helps the client understand and connect with stakeholders. He drafts a clear and thought-provoking message — one that makes sense to the audience while also conveying the blogger’s ideas and tone. The ethical ghostwriter takes time to research audiences and he spots key issues that need to be addressed. The ghost helps his client understand and identify with online thought leaders.
While I admire the ideals of the purists on this issue, it’s unrealistic and a bit naive to expect the senior executives will manage these tasks alone. Executives lack the time, the skills and the understanding to make it work.
Still not convinced? Consider these potential negative consequences of a ghostwriting ban:
The client decides not to blog at all. A client unsure of his writing abilities may decide that a blog is outside his comfort zone or time constraints. The consequence: no connection to stakeholders, no conversation and no feedback from online communities.
The client blogs “ugly.” We’ve all seen poorly written blogs and posts full of grammar and punctuation errors. It reflects poorly on the writer and can lead to low readership and loss of credibility.
The client blogs inconsistently. Most executives I’ve worked for are busy running organizations. Sure, blogging could be added to their agendas, but there’s a good chance only those who love to write will do it regularly. Blogs only succeed when fueled with fresh content, and lots of it.
The client offends an online community. Online conversation isn’t the same as boardroom conversation (though there’s a good bit of salty language used in both). A ghostwriter can help the client understand online culture and avoid missteps that damage reputations. Think of the ghostwriter/counselor as you would a lawyer helping you navigate the legal system. The result is almost always better with him than without him. And it need not obscure dialogue.
We’re writers, they’re not
Some clients simply don’t write well. But most of our clients think clearly. And they could add to the conversations of social media if we help them.
Some need help expressing their ideas. Others need help identifying the messages that matter to their online communities. When ethical PR professionals and writers get involved, they can enable honest, transparent discussions that might otherwise never occur.
Yes, the ideas presented on a blog should always be those of the person whose byline appears. Ditto for the responses to comments. No one will argue that. But building trust has nothing to do with who drafts or edits messages. Trust grows from the performance of the organization, and if that performance is reflected in social media messages, everyone benefits.
I respect those who will disagree with my position — which most likely includes all the the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto. They see a ghost as something ominous and evil. I see it as helpful and friendly. You know, like Casper.
And would Casper lie to you?
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Dave Fleet presented a well-reasoned post on this topic last week. He and I aren’t as far apart on this issue as it may seem. Check it out if this topic interests you.
Update 2/3/09: Thanks to Chuck Hemann for raising this related issue and post from Josh Bernoff. It deals with paying bloggers to write. I promised Chuck I’d weigh in on the matter when I get some time. You can do it now by going to the post.
First ghost illustration from this post by Ramona Patrascanu