Ghostwriting and blogs: Let’s take a closer look

ghostlyLast 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 ghostinothing 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

26 Responses to Ghostwriting and blogs: Let’s take a closer look

  1. Eden Spodek says:

    In your opinion, is it ever okay for someone who counsels clients about social media to hire a ghost blogger to write his own blog? Seems misleading to me if that person is being hired for his expertise and he isn’t doing the writing himself.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    Great question, Eden. It places the dilemma in a different context, but it doesn’t change the analysis.

    CEOs and senior executives, the people we most often counsel on matters of social media, seldom have the core skills to blog and seldom have time to devote to it. They’re the ones I was most concerned about when writing this post. And they’re the ones who benefit most from the support of PR professionals.

    But I won’t duck the question, sticky as it is. Under my guidelines, it’s OK for anyone — including this consultant — to enlist the help of a writer/editor, provided that writer works closely with the blogger and that the ideas presented are those of the blogger.

    Is it smart business for someone who touts himself a blogging expert to use a ghost? Probably not. After all, social media is supposedly his core expertise. It would be a bit like me hiring someone to develop lesson plans for my classes. Since I’m the teacher, lesson planning is my expertise. Who can do it better? Outsourcing it might cost me some credibility with my students, even if the final lessons were based entirely on my ideas.

    What you don’t tell us (in fairness, you may not know) is precisely how involved the writer is in the process. Without knowing this, it’s hard to give a definitive answer.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Mary says:

    Bill – Thanks so much for being level headed on this topic. The emotional ‘taking sides’ seems pretty silly to me. We really can’t generalize about web practices: people use the tools in so many different ways and indeed, the market will judge.

    As a writer, I greatly prefer excellent writing in posts, and business blogs that show poor command of the language cause me to question their overall professionalism. At least, let a writer help the business not embarrass itself.

  4. Doug Blemker says:

    Bill: I want to add a bit of a flip on one of your comments. Your post mentions that “A ghostwriter who schemes to turn his client’s message into hyperbole and marketing fluff has no place in our discussion.” From my experience, especially with marketing professionals, they are the ones that write the marketing fluff not realizing how inappropriate that sounds on a blog.

    Trained public relations professionals, especially those with journalistic experience, can shine by taking what those leaders believe is appropriate writing and crafting it more for the audience at hand.

    As an educator and a professional, I don’t want to dismiss the initial intent of your statement. Young public relations professionals and students have a very difficult time understanding differences between “promo speak” and other types of writing. The sooner a new employee or intern is guided to understand the differences in this type of writing, the more productive this employee can be in the workplace.

    Whether ghost writer or not, the best possible writing for the most appropriate audience must evaluated with every piece — blogs, annual reports, promo pieces, etc.

  5. Hey Bill,

    You already know where I stand on this issue, but I’m glad to see you articulate your position in such a thoughtful way. I think you provide some good examples that support why this issue isn’t as black and white as some would like to make it seem. I look forward to reading the discussion on your post.

    Heather (@prtini)

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    For those interested in Heather’s position on all this, check this “Twitter encounter” with Beth Harte:

    Heather also jumped in with both feet on Beth Harte’s post about the ghosts, knowing full well it wasn’t gonna be a group hug. Entire thread is worth a look, and I applaud Heather for her willingness debate the topic with civility. Not enough of that in the PR blogosphere — not enough at all.

  7. Ed says:

    Certainly adding a credible perspective to the issue of ghost-writing. Like many others, I always prefer the management to blog instead of ghost-writing. Most of the times I discourage it because the management eventually grow to rely on the writers more than formulating what they should deliver in the blog. That’s when the authenticity is eroded away.

    I would say, I will only accept ghost-writing for the legitimate reasons you stated above and anything else is a big no-no. I suspect when we actually open up the window to ghost-writing, there will naturally be those who will game the system with such practices. Just look at all the so-called SEO this… SEO that. Not sure if that’s the best example of gaming the system and ethics.

  8. Chuck Hemann says:

    Hey Bill –

    I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a “social media purist,” nor one that thinks this issue is as black and white as some, but I know that I would recommend against ghostwriting.

    Is it our responsibility to understand and know the client’s “voice?” Sure. Is it possible to generate a close proximity to their “voice?” Probably. However, I don’t think we could ever fully replicate how a client would respond to a particular question/problem. Is it our responsibility to help clients through difficult messaging problems? Yes. Is it our role to help them craft their message for maximum stakeholder consumption? Sure. Ultimately though, it needs to be THEM, and not us disseminating the information. They need to be the ones talking with customers/investors/employees. Not us. If I were a customer lodging a complaint with XYZ brand and learned later that it was a PR firm who responded to my inquiry, I think i’d be a little upset.

    This leads me to my second point – social media (not just blogs) are meant to be 1:1 conversations between stakeholders and brands. My sense is that a company gains more credibility with stakeholders if they are answering an issue from an employee or customer or investor WITHOUT consulting with their communications firm. I think there is a real danger with making your messaging look “overly refined.”

    One other point…when a brand spends time carefully crafting blog posts (or tweets for that matter) for stakeholder consumption it looks boring and pre-packaged…i.e. no personality. The best social media brands respond to stakeholder issues, provide information to their community and demonstrate that they have a pulse. Constantly putting out carefully crafted messaging isn’t effective and will probably be tuned out eventually.

    The beauty of social media is that there really is no formal structure. Trying to create one by building a bank of posts, or tweets seems like you are trying to force the conversation on your readers instead of just letting the conversation go where it may.

    Oh, one other quick point…using a PR firm to ghostwrite or, for that matter, help manage messaging in social media feels very much like a brand trying to “control” the conversation, which we all know won’t work.

    At any rate, thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Chuck (@chuckhemann)

  9. This topic came up on Friday at a social media breakfast planning meeting and we had proponents on both sides of the discussion. A colleague who I greatly respect was adamantly against using ghost writers–ever–for blog posts.

    I have been pondering the question of using ghost writers for business blogging and how it relates to “flogs” and “astroturfing” for some time. I find your argument thoughtfully and logically crafted and will share it with enthusiasm. Thank you.



  10. Rick Simmons says:

    i read with much interest the back forth with Beth and I still disagree with your premise. It is true that there are those who do not write well – so why not fess up and disclose that they are getting help putting their words down. Anytime you are telling others it is your words you should be up front – sorry – you did not convince me other wise here or with what you wrote on Beths blog

  11. Bill – good to see a reflection actually in relation to what is meant by ethics here as so many people discuss whether or not something is ethical without any apparent understanding of what ethical means.

    I tend to feel that the genuine communicators who originate their own thoughts and frame these into speeches or blog posts are the ideal. If we have to accept that not all CEOs and other managers are sufficiently articulate, then having a “ghost writer” to help frame the message can be seen as acceptable within ethical parameters.

    But, why should we accept this position? If we expect senior management to understand finances (although recent developments show many are as innumerate as they are inarticulate), why shouldn’t communications be more highly rated as a competency of effective managers?

    If organisations are to be increasingly open, with a wide variety of employees (at all levels) encouraged to communicate, how can we justify a gate-keeping role as a ghost-writer?

    Recently I heard about an organisation which handled a staff layoff situation quite poorly saying that no managers felt capable of explaining the situation to the media. However, half a dozen articulate employees spoke to the media on camera outside the factory gate after being told they were without jobs.

    I wonder why we are still so willing to accept an argument that senior folk are too busy or lack the skills to communicate for themselves? Any other basic tasks we feel they need a “ghost” to help them with?

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    To Ed:

    “I would say, I will only accept ghost-writing for the legitimate reasons you stated above and anything else is a big no-no.”

    Sounds as though we’re pretty close on this, Ed. I’m helping my client communicate. I am not creating his messages or his approach. I am not producing messages that deceive.

    To Chuck:

    Is it our responsibility to help clients through difficult messaging problems? Yes. Is it our role to help them craft their message for maximum stakeholder consumption? Sure. Ultimately though, it needs to be THEM, and not us disseminating the information.

    I don’t think we disagree on this issue one bit, Chuck. Maybe I should have used only the word “counsel” and not the word “ghost.” Once again, my approach doesn’t put words or messages in the client’s mouth, it just helps them communicate more effectively.

    One other point…when a brand spends time carefully crafting blog posts (or tweets for that matter) for stakeholder consumption it looks boring and pre-packaged…i.e. no personality.

    Again, I am in full agreement. The “brand” (a construct of marketing, not PR) should NEVER speak to stakeholders — though I don’t know how it would being inanimate and all. People must do the speaking, and competent PR counsel helps them. Again, we’re not as far apart on this issues as it seems. And if I edit out the word “ghost,” I think we’re on the same page.

    Trying to create one (a formal structure) by building a bank of posts, or tweets seems like you are trying to force the conversation on your readers instead of just letting the conversation go where it may.

    I agree completely. “Building a bank of posts or tweets” to use whenever is a bad idea, and it’s not mentioned or even hinted at anywhere in my post. You’ll note, also, that I specifically excluded real-time discussion like Twitter from my defense.

    However, as a blogger myself, I do sometimes build up a few posts in the queue for weeks when there’s a lull in the conversation. The key thing seem to be missing here is my call for writer and blogger work as a team. But the ideas belong to the blogger. I thought that was clear in the post. Maybe not.

    To Allen: Thanks. I certainly don’t expect everyone to buy my logic. But the argument is built on logic and the application of ethical theory. Because the “ghost” topic is one with tenable arguments on both sides, disagreement is only natural, and it’s welcome here anytime at my house.

    But I also believe it’s naive to think that business executives cannot or will not turn to ethical communication professionals to help them. That’s what we do. It’s a big part of our value.

    Rick: Kinda knew you’d feel that way, since I read your comments over at Beth’s place. That’s OK. We can agree to disagree. I see that your beliefs are strongly held, and I’m a strategic enough communicator to know I’m not gonna move them. Thanks for dropping in to contribute. Be well, man.

  13. Bill,
    While I appreciate and can understand your reasoning, call me skeptical. I think opening the door for ghostblogging — even when initially well-intentioned and ethical — opens the way for efforts to become more like traditional PR and marketing communications.

    In some arenas, like speech writing, news releases, etc., ghostwriting is acceptable. However, in the online world, authenticity is expected. And, Dave Fleet noted several viable alternatives if an exec doesn’t want to blog (at all or frequently).

    While I tend to be a purist than not, I do not see any issues with a communications pro giving prior review a post for grammar, etc., and other areas like points the author might want to consider.

    A blog is simply one tactic in social media marketing. If it’s not a good fit for an executive in particular or a company in general, there are other means.

    Take care,

  14. Thanks for the thoughtful contribution on ghosting and social media, Bill. As someone who spent a great deal of time “ghosting” in the business world, I don’t see a challenge with organizational leaders using professional communicators to write blog posts for them, or any other kind of communications, for that matter.

    I don’t see the validity in the argument that blogs should be considered some sacred ground where the person posting must have written the post. A good ghostwriter adds value, which you’ve described.

    At the end of the day, a blog post disseminates some message. A smart exec or business leader would be wise to employ the talents of a professional writer if that person could better articulate the message. For goodness sake, we certainly accept this in every other part of society. Does anyone believe the president has more than a passing hand in crafting his speeches? Using the logic of social media purists, should we shout down speeches if they aren’t written by the presenter?

    Professional writers play a critical role in organizational communications. It would be crazy to not employ these skills in the social media world.

    And, with regard to “voice” mentioned by some of the posters above, ghostwriters replicate the “voice” of their clients all the time. I used to write up potential question-and-answer scenarios for executives all the time. It was part of the valuable counsel I brought to the job. Any savvy ghostwriter could do the same in a blog post or other social media vehicle.

    Using Heather’s analogy above, I would argue that business leaders “ghost” other skills every day. CEOs and Boards sign off on the financial records “ghosted” by accounting firms and sign contracts “ghosted” by legal teams. The challenge is that communications isn’t granted the same level of acceptability as these professions, so people look negatively on words being outsourced. Being a communicator is just as specialized.

  15. Bob B: I would argue that social media is a different arena and has its own ground rules than what traditional (offline) marketing communications calls for.

    Advertising, media relations, etc., are more institutional, and viewed as being professionally created.

    Blogs and other social media tools grew on a much more grassroots level. They were used by every-day people to talk about their lives, passion, whatever. They were not created to promote a business, product, cause, etc. Therefore, the ground rules are indeed different.

    Yes, those tools are evolving, but the the basic, establish ground rules are not — and should not. Therefore, there is a level of authenticity expected.

  16. Bob is quite right that CEOs and boards use “ghosts”, or experts, in other areas such as finance and legal. This is not only acceptable, but validated by the legally recognised importance of those areas.

    So we could argue that strategic communications – indeed reputation management – should be seen in the same way and require a high level counsel.

    But in the same way that we do not excuse CEOs for being ignorant of the law or unable to understand a balance sheet, let’s not use communications skills to excuse an ability to think through and articulate a position or enter into debate and discussion.

    I don’t accept the “social media is different” argument though. Although the tools may well have emerged through grassroots, this does not mean they have to be used in the same way by organisations as by individuals.

    The telephone, email, indeed snail mail, each fulfil professional communications purposes in a different way to the everyday user. They weren’t conceived for promotional purposes, but they do the job.

    For me, whether or not the CEO is blogging or being ghosted is very similar to whether or not they are responding to comments in a staff publication or crafting responses to communications received from other stakeholders.

  17. Bill Sledzik says:

    To Heather: Thanks for weighing in, and for your usual wise and balanced perspective. This is a most thought-provoking passage:

    I wonder why we are still so willing to accept an argument that senior folk are too busy or lack the skills to communicate for themselves? Any other basic tasks we feel they need a “ghost” to help them with?

    Senior executives (CEOs in particular) spend a great deal of time involved in the communication function — more than 50% of their time according to one study I read. But not a lot of that time is spent writing. Some CEOs write very well, others not so well. I’d love for you to visit my school and help make this argument to the College of Business, where communication skills are more or less an afterthought. Agree that our leaders should place more emphasis in this area, and that PR should be promoting that idea aggressively.

    The time issue is another matter. Yes, execs SHOULD spend more time on issues of communication — and some of their own writing — but I’m not optimistic they will until we define the return on “shareholder value.” Sigh.

    To Bob: I didn’t include the speech-writing analogy in this post, as I’ve seen it shot down by the purists every time it’s presented. But you’ve framed it nicely:

    Does anyone believe the president has more than a passing hand in crafting his speeches? Using the logic of social media purists, should we shout down speeches if they aren’t written by the presenter?

    Purists tell us that audiences expect everything outside the social media circle to be developed by “ghosts” but see blogs as “sacred ground.” That doesn’t mean we all have to accept the logic. The assumption of the sacred blog also assumes that communication OUTSIDE the social media space is somehow NOT authentic. And that troubles me more. As a PR professional, my goal was to make ALL communication authentic. And in most cases, I think I succeeded.

    To Mike: First, I’m glad we connected, as it’s always great to meet PR pros in the region. I do quibble with this passage in your comment, though:

    In some arenas, like speech writing, news releases, etc., ghostwriting is acceptable. However, in the online world, authenticity is expected.

    Maybe I was an odd duck in the PR biz, but my speeches, news releases, etc. were authentic as well. Oh, they didn’t have the “attitude” you’ll find in this blog, but the messages fit the client’s voice, not mine. At they were vetted for accuracy at a much higher level than any blog post.

    There seems to be a prevailing belief that PR writing outside of the social media realm somehow turns to marketing fluff. The people who would let that type of writing permeate their clients’ social media efforts aren’t reading this debate. Their busy writing copy about “state-of-the-art, cutting-edge solutions.”

    Look forward to chattin’ in the Twitterverse, man.

  18. Bill — a thought provoking and useful discussion.

    One thought (only one!) comes to my mind. Is social media an extension of the person or the business? If it is personal in nature, then content should be the providence only of the author, though the author would be free to solicit counsel from anyone he or she desires, including a professional.

    If the vehicle is an extension of the business, then the rules of engagement for other business communications should apply, including planful counsel and execution.

    I believe it is the collision of these two impulses that leads to the disagreement. Social media mavens (or accolytes, or devotees) seem to believe that only personal communication is authentic (a point to which you allude in your last comment, above.)

    However, even given the different (if related) objectives of personal and business communication, authenticity should be a feature of either type of communication. But the characteristics or “rules” of that authenticity may differ from one another. That doesn’t destroy authenticity or imply outright manipulation or fraud. It’s just a sensible and understandable result.

  19. […] study, so you can imagine my surprise when I came across a blog discussing this same topic.   Bill Sledzik,  an associate professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kent State University, spent his […]

  20. I don’t consider ghost writing a devilish and awful thing to to. It has some good side effects which completely justify gossip writing. Besides, if there weren’t any ghost writers , executives would be lost.

  21. Well written and reasoned post. Thanks to Daniel Johnson Jr. for forwarding it to me -we had this very conversation not too long ago!

  22. […] A defense of ghost blogging by Bill Sledzik […]

  23. […] I think it’s great that you and Lucia are so close, Chris, but I have to assume that with more than 32,000 followers, she can’t be making these personal connections with everyone. There just isn’t enough time. And if her face is the face of Pandora, what happens when she decides to leave? Does the Pandora personality and its credibility go with her? What if she just needs a break – managing an entire SM marketing campaign must be stressful – does the team take over on her accounts? Then you open a whole new can of worms with the ghostwriting issue. […]

  24. Hi Bill, I read your post and some of the comments, it is interesting how the ideas of people differ so widely on such subject matter. I am also a blogger and a ghostwriter and I have been doing it for quite some time now. But I learned a lot from this thread.
    Though there are some very strong opposing arguments, yet I second your opinion on ghostwriting.

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