A few weeks back, Geoff Livingston and I wrote an off-the-cuff, tongue-in-cheek post "Top 25 Ways to Tell if Your Social Media Expert Is a Carpetbagger" and it drew the most interesting conversation around ghostwriting (#7 was "Will ghostwrite blog posts and other social content for you").
There are lots of writers, agencies and companies that are willing to ghostwrite social content for their clients. Is it ethical or unethical? Public relations content has been ghostwritten for years, right? So what's the difference? Well, let's explore it a bit.
In Richard Johannesen's book "Ethics in Human Communication," he analyzes the ethics of ghostwriting with a series of questions*:
- What is the communicator's intent and what is the audience's degree of awareness?
- Does the communicator use ghostwriters to make herself/himself appear to possess personal qualities that she/he does not have?
- What are the surrounding circumstances of the communicator's job that make ghostwriting a necessity?
- To what extent does the communicator actively participate in the writing of her/his own writing?
- Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message she/he presents?
Those questions and the ethics surrounding them are easily answered in the traditional marketing and/or public relations arena. But what happens when you add social media into the mix? How do the ethics around ghostwriting change when companies are supposed to be authentic and transparent?
Let's consider the following ghostwritten situations:
- A CMO at a non-profit decides the non-profit needs a blog so they can increase donations and decides to outsource all the writing to a local blogging company that has just pitched him on their services (but he insists that he is listed as the blogger). After six months, the blog is doing really, receives a lot of comments from the community and is up for an award. The CMO is so excited that he states to a local reporter: "I am very proud of my blog and all the work I've put into it! I really hope I win the award this week."
- A VP at an ad agency asks her intern to write in a witty, cohesive manner all of her blog posts and comments because while very smart, she is not very funny and lacks the ability to write thoughtfully. The intern also starts Twitter and Facebook accounts under the VP's name so he can promote the posts and once in a while joke around with people. After a few months of blogging, someone posts the following comment: "I recently saw you speak and a conference and got a few minutes to speak to you afterwards–you seem to be a lot different in person than how you write."
- The manager at a Fortune 500 company is very busy, but thinks it would be really cool to have a blog and join a few social networks. He gets permission from the VP of marketing to kick off the blog. After a few weeks, the manager realizes that he actually hates writing and doesn't have much to say. He knows he can't stop the blog after working so hard to get permission, so he outsources the work and the comments on the social networks to his PR agency.
- A president at a mid-market company has been pressured by her agency to start a blog. She tells them it's fine as long as they don't bother her with the daily work of it. The agency guarantees that they will diligently work with the marketing and PR team to make sure the content is accurate and factual. The next week several blog posts appear under the president's name.
- A CEO releases a post, under his name, in which he shares his company's vision for the new year and changes that will affect the year's coming revenues for the better. The post receives positive comments from employees, partners, investors and customers to which the CEO replies. Initially stock rises and sales grow. Six months later the company starts having financial trouble and when questioned the CEO claims he had no knowledge of the post or the comments because an agency was hired to write them all.
What do you think? Are these scenarios ethical or unethical?
*Source: Public Relations Writing: The Essentials of Style & Format by Thomas H. Bivins