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Ghostwriting, Social Media and Ethics

by Beth Harte  |  
January 15, 2009

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*:

  1. What is the communicator's intent and what is the audience's degree of awareness?

  2. Does the communicator use ghostwriters to make herself/himself appear to possess personal qualities that she/he does not have?

  3. What are the surrounding circumstances of the communicator's job that make ghostwriting a necessity?

  4. To what extent does the communicator actively participate in the writing of her/his own writing?

  5. 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

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Beth Harte is a marketer, blogger, speaker, communicator, thinker, connector (people & dots), adjunct marketing & PR professor and Director of Marketing at Advent Global Solutions.

Beth has over 15 years of experience in integrated marketing communications, strategic planning, branding, SEO/SEM and five years of experience with social media. Beth speaks on a range of topics including: integrated marketing and communications, public relations, brand monitoring and management, social media measurement & ROI.

Beth's blog, The Harte of Marketing is featured in AdAge's Power 150, a globally recognized ranking of top media and marketing blogs and the MarketingProfs' Daily Fix blog.

You can find Beth here too: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Beth also digs smart people, brilliance, history, the arts, culture, books (historical fiction & business), politics, travel, beer, and cowgirl boots.

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  • by Jamey Shiels Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Beth, Excellent examples to consider. Aurora Health Care is exploring starting a CEO blog and one of the initial questions was around ghost writing in the event the CEO couldn't maintain a regular schedule of posts because of the demands on his schedule. My response was not to use ghost writers because we want to be transparent and open. I know our employees, and most audiences, will quickly see through a ghost writer which would diminish our reputation and impact on the community. We've decided to move towards a larger scale blog with multiple authors to post relevant health care content. We have the experts and a blog is one way to give them a voice and engage them in the conversation. Organizations would be better served to tap the staff that have a passion for this medium and empower them to speak for the organization. This will lead to better content that is direct from the source, knowledgeable, relevant and truthful.

  • by Jason Fleck Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    In these times, portraying your own voice is critical. Your voice is unique to you and that's who people want to know. Social media is all about building relationships and if you pretend to be someone your not, your audience will see right through it. Eventually, you'll come face to face with a lot of the people you meet online and can no longer hide behind the ambiguity of the internet.

  • by amyz5 Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    This is an excellent post and something that keeps coming up. Personally, I think ghostwriting these communications does not make sense, illustrated perfectly in your second example. Whole new ball game!

  • by mack collier Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Three thoughts: 1 - I've never worked in PR so I won't comment on acceptable/unacceptable behavior there. But in my mind, no content should be ghostwritten, and I refuse to do so for a client. This is a line that needs to be drawn in the sand because if we accept ghostwriting posts, then someone will come along to push the line, such as.... 2 - A company claiming to be someone else. Remember WalMarting Across America? They took ghostwriting to the next level, by claiming to be customers of WalMart, when in fact I believe they worked for Edelman, at the time. Sony got busted a couple of years ago for their 'All I want for Christmas is a PSP' blog, where they did the same thing, posed as a couple of kids that wanted a PSP, when Sony was writing the blog. 3 - You cannot fool the community. I am amazed that companies still think that they can fool bloggers. It NEVER works, and it ALWAYS gets found out. It's not only unethical, it's just plain stupid. Again, this needs to be stamped out at every level. If not, we'll end up with companies ghostwriting their blogs, posing as customers writing positive comments on blogs. No wait, we'll have MORE of that happening. Great topic Beth, that needs to be addressed.

  • by tyler Hurst Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    They're all unethical and wrong. Transparency is key nowadays. If you're not funny, witty or charming, pay someone to be that FOR you, but not AS you. Pretty simple.

  • by courtney benson Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    I agree with Tyler. The simple fact of the matter is that we all know the difference between right and wrong but for some reason; some people always want to conveniently forget.

  • by Amber Naslund Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Ethics aside (not that they're not important), when you blog or produce content otherwise in social media, the general idea is that it's because your customers want to hear the authentic voice of the company, straight to their ears. Why in creation would you insult them by saying, in essence, that their attention isn't important enough for you to do it yourself?

  • by Alison Driscoll Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Excellent questions to ask. I've done some ghostwriting and online persona management for clients and had to deal with several situations similar to the scenarios you posed (say that 10 times fast). I don't think there's anything ethically wrong with a company having a blog that appears to come from a CEO but is written by a professional blogger, as long as the blogger does his or her homework and communicates effectively with the organization he or she is blogging for. Whenever I undertake a new blogging client, I do a lot of upfront research and have an in-depth discussion with said client to "get on board" and almost become one of the team. The goal is to get me to a level that I know them well enough to post without running everything through approval. That said, as much as it is their job to inform me about their company, it is my job to inform them about their online activity. I always send an email with a link to the new post, as well as weekly status updates on any social media activity. This ensures that someone who is technically "on" Facebook knows what is happening on this site they (i.e. me) are using. I don't see an ethical issue here, as long as both sides are working together and communicating, for one simple reason: do you really think Justin Timberlake is the one friending you on MySpace? People "get" what's going on, and would rather read a well-written, frequently updated blog by a professional blogger under the CEO's name than a flat, boring, sparsely populated blog with grammatical errors.

  • by Liz Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    I agree. Ghostwriting is completely unethical. I told you on Twitter about a company who offered to do this for us, and just as you responded- how can someone ghostwrite about a company they don't work for? It doesn't make any sense. Great post Beth.

  • by Jeff Grass Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Hi Beth, Interesting and relevant post. I am currently finishing up my degree in public relations and writng a thesis on social media and its influence/impact on the practice of PR. This quesiton of ethics is one I plan to focus heavily on. If you don't mind, I would like to use some of your ideas and original thoughts on this topic ... attributing you as the source of course. Anyway, thank you for your insight. Your knowledge is appreciated. I will be subscribing to your blog and look foward to more posts. Regards, Jeff

  • by CK Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Interesting conversation. I have some questions that I'm now pondering: 1. Is it "unethical" for a CEO of a company (or even a president of a country) to give a speech that someone else wrote, perfected and he/she approved? These professionals have a lot going on so they absolutely rely on ghostwriters. Surely they set the parameters of what will be covered in the speech but I'm thinking they're really busy trying to guide the company (and the country)... yet the speeches are seen as "theirs" just like, exactly like, their blog posts are seen as 100% theirs. 2. Is it unethical for a third-party (let's say a PR agency) to write posts for a blog as part of the company's team (not as a person per se, but general posts)? 3. Hypothetically, let's say we're in a recession (oh wait, we are, darn!) and 30% of the company's staff and budget are cut. But that lone marketer still employed at the company really wants to push his company ahead into social media--while now doing the work of a full department--but needs the help of writers and needs someone 2.0 savvy to show him the ropes. Is it unethical for someone to help him write his posts so that he can feel more confident starting in this space? 4. Is it wrong for a company to hire outside writers to write their Web site copy, ad copy or case study copy since those communications are also viewed as coming from their company, too? I guess I'm wondering what the gray areas are...or if you guys/gals think it's more black and white. Thanks for an interesting discussion; looking forward to the feedback ;-)

  • by Lewis Green Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    CK asks the right questions. Before we call anything or anybody unethical, it's helpful to answer questions such as hers. Beth, ghostwriting and bylined writing are very different. I dislike the first for social media but am supportive of the second. To solve that problem, if I were advising a business, I would not recommend that busy CEOs write a blog. They have more important business to attend to. And if marketing cannot staff social media, I like the idea of creating a team of writers, both consultants and employees.

  • by CK Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    I guess I need to understand why speech ghostwriting (that literally is delivered from the mouth of the CEO/CMO/Prez) is accepted but not social media ghostwriting? That said, I'm not sure if I fancy the idea of ghostwriting a blog, but I'm asking. Wait, what if a band sings lyrics created by another professional (psst: it's done all the time) and while the lyricist is "credited" (and paid)...he/she hardly ever gets the credit; it's always "Oh I love that song by XYZ, they are such amazing artists!" Anyhow. Just more thoughts since the word "unethical" is at the heart of this and I really appreciate these exchanges.

  • by mack collier Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    CK those are GREAT questions! Here's my answers: 1 - "Is it "unethical" for a CEO of a company (or even a president of a country) to give a speech that someone else wrote, perfected and he/she approved?" I think when we are dealing with a public figure, most of us make the assumption that they likely had some help writing their speech, or in most cases, had someone write it for them. I was thinking yesterday that everyone is gah-gah over Obama as an orator, while his speechwriter gets none of the credit. I think the perception matches reality in this case. 2 - "Is it unethical for a third-party (let's say a PR agency) to write posts for a blog as part of the company's team (not as a person per se, but general posts)?" I don't think so. But again, it's clearly marked as such. So you know if a post is signed by 'The Team', that it likely was a group effort by....The Team. Perception once again matches reality. 3 - "Is it unethical for someone to help him write his posts so that he can feel more confident starting in this space?" I would say definitely not. This would be like saying that it's unethical for a company blogger to read one of your posts in an effort to improve their writing. I have no problem at all with a company blogger seeking help, but not let someone do the work for them. 4 - "Is it wrong for a company to hire outside writers to write their Web site copy, ad copy or case study copy since those communications are also viewed as coming from their company, too?" I don't think so. But again, we go back to perception. I think most of us understand that many companies hire people to hire them with their web copy, or write it for them. But the company works with them to craft that content, well usually. I think this all goes back to perception. If I see a person signing their name to a post, I assume they wrote it. If I see a person signing their name to a comment, I assume they wrote it. I think most people assume the same.

  • by mack collier Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    "I guess I need to understand why speech ghostwriting (that literally is delivered from the mouth of the CEO/CMO/Prez) is accepted but not social media ghostwriting? That said, I'm not sure if I fancy the idea of ghostwriting a blog, but I'm asking." Here's how I look at it: Can the average person hold a press conference and make public speeches on a regular basis? Realistically, no. Sure they could, but no one would show up for most ;) But almost anyone can blog. And the assumption/perception is that these people are writing their own posts. So if CEOs/companies start using the same tools that everyone else is using, we assume they use them in the same way we do. And more importantly, we EXPECT them to. At least that's my POV, maybe I am completely wrong ;)

  • by Paul B Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    On a tangential note, in response to Lewis Green's comment... I know there are many case studies of CEO's who blog. However, as the chief executive officer of a public company, responsible for signing on the dotted line for financials (SOX), and at the risk of potentially making foreward looking statements about trends, markets etc, this could be very dangerous. There are also competitive risks to CEOs blogging as they may inadvertently provide intelligence by blogging on a topic on the periphery of their radar that could be seen as clues to strategic intent. Competitors have the power of Google to assist with discerning strategic intent, why help them out--unless of course you're in the business of disinformation! For private and smaller firms, it's a less obvious decision, but one that should be contemplated thoroughly regarding risk/rewards. That said, strategy is all about resource allocation. If a CEO ultimately believes that it is in her best interest, and the best interest of shareholders/investors to blog, then I'm in the camp that he/she should write (AND COMMENT) on the posts.

  • by CK Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Thanks Mack. Very helpful. This is a topic filled with gobs of gray area. Surely I can't imagine anyone else writing my blog (that would be peculiar to say the least) but, let's face it, I'm small potatoes--a small fry. Yet, my clients (bigger fish) look to me to guide them in this space because of my experience in it, my marketing views and really having the best interests of the medium at heart. That guidance requires a lot of hand-holding and that can net into helping them find their voice (as they are used to using the company's voice) and helping put that voice to paper so they can get started--or "in the flow" if you will. As you know, lots of clients are scared when starting out as they're reading the stories making the headlines (which are always about backlashes and boycotts...lions and tigers and bears, oh my!). So many need to take baby steps for the first several months. That's not to say they're hiding: it is to say they're learning. When I learned to ride a bike I used training wheels--and when I learned to swim I had to wear those silly arm floaties for several months. I wasn't cheating, I was just not ready to go solo. But the point is, at one point, and after enough confidence was built, I did. And now I can now ride a bike and swim all on my own (tho' not at the same time.) Looking forward to what others think (and thanks to Beth for this topic).

  • by Rob O'Regan Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    All the scenarios you list are unethical. The whole point of a blog is that it represents a personal viewpoint, even if it's a "corporate" blog. No gray area there.

  • by tyler Hurst Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Speeches are okay because we EXPECT that. We know speeches are a one-time, one-way method communication. We know that in order for a speech to be great, it must be worked on, edited by and approved by a number of people. You only get one chance to give a speech. Ongoing communication is NOT okay.

  • by RL Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    I think it's all fair game. However, I do not take credit for what I just wrote.

  • by mack collier Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    CK I am absolutely there with you on helping clients. I see no problem whatsoever with a company blogging and having someone outside the company work with them to write their posts. Especially not at first, when as you say, the training wheels are necessary. In fact, I would ENCOURAGE companies to hire someone to help them at first.

  • by Beth Harte Thu Jan 15, 2009 via blog

    Thanks for the great responses and questions (CK!). :) First, let's not confuse traditional marketing & PR with social media. I think we all know that speeches, bylines, collateral, etc. are all written by other people and the ethics surrounding these activities were sorted out long ago. Let's just concentrate on social media for now. So, back to the original questions as they relate to traditional ghostwriting*: What is the communicator's intent and what is the audience's degree of awareness? According to Johanessen/Bivins: Does the communicator pretend to be the author of the words over which her/his signature appears? Is the audience aware that ghostwriting is common place under certain circumstances? (A note of interest, in traditional marketing it is considered unethical for someone to claim ownership over the words they did not write. For example, a speech.) ******** Does the communicator use ghostwriters to make herself/himself appear to possess personal qualities that she/he does not have? According to Johanessen/Bivins: Does the writer impart qualities and ideas that to a communicator who might not possess such qualities otherwise? The degree to which the writer distorts character has a lot to do with ethicality. ******** What are the surrounding circumstances of the communicator's job that make ghostwriting a necessity? According to Johanessen/Bivins: The pressures of a job often dictate that a ghostwriter be used (busy executives, politicians, etc.). However, it is not expected that the average manager or professor would hire a ghostwriter. Part of the answer has to do with job pressures and the other with the need and frequency of communication. ******** To what extent does the communicator actively participate in the writing of her/his own writing? According to Johanessen/Bivins: The more input the communicator has in her/his own writing, the more ethical will be the resultant image. ******** Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message she/he presents? According to Johanessen/Bivins: Most communicators assume that whatever they say or sign their name to is theirs, whether written by someone else or not. ******** Now that additional detail has been provided around each question does it help answer questions when ethicality is considered with social media in mind or does it present more questions? *Source: Public Relations Writing: The Essentials of Style & Format by Thomas H. Bivins

  • by Ambidextrous Fri Jan 16, 2009 via blog

    I agree with both camps. First off, who wants to read your blog? If it's dull and corporate, no one -- except possibly your competition trying to uncover strategy. Also, why in the world would a CEO want to publicly discuss his business? The GM's CEO does a great job of this. But maybe he should have spent more time watching the bottom line? On the other hand, using a blog to create a conversation with potential clients is a good idea. If you can show them that you're thinking about issues that concern them. And want to have them control the conversation. Outsourcing it? Depends. Copyediting is definitely a good idea (someone of you had "their" instead of "there") on your blog. If you have one person overseeing the contracted writer/blogger...who's available on a daily basis...outsourcing to a pro is a great idea: Simply give them a byline as editor to solve the transparency issue.

  • by Donna Chiapperino Fri Jan 16, 2009 via blog

    So we shouldn't pay someone to write policital speaches then? Is that really different? I understand that a blog is supposed to be your thoughts, but really - how are those two different at the end of the day? Just because it has been so many years and we KNOW that one is written by someone else? Because they are IN politics? Isn't the end purpose the same in many of these cases - to "sell" something. Whethere discussing an idea, a candidate, or a product what is the difference really? Do people really think that those Movei Stars shop at KMart? Or Kohls? Come'on!

  • by Beth Harte Fri Jan 16, 2009 via blog

    @DonnaChiapperino, I think you might have missed the point here. This isn't about traditional marketing (or politics) as we know it. This is about Ghostwriting, Social Media and Ethics. And yes, in traditional marketing, it is actually unethical for a President, CEO, whomever to take ownership for the words of a speech they did not write. Most people are aware that Presidents, CEOs, etc. do not write their own speeches. And many people made a point of calling out Barack Obama for NOT using social media tools in a manner that is conversational (it was his staff, of course). The difference is that social media is meant to be transparent/authentic and therein lies the difference with traditional marketing communications. Will companies/people/movie stars use social media tools for traditional marketing (i.e. no conversation, only broadcasting)?? Sure, of course. But as long as their audience/community is aware of that it's not actually them speaking and that it's an agency or staff person speaking on their behalf then it's not unethical (i.e. Barack Obama, Britney Spears, etc). Where it becomes an ethical issue is when the audience/community is NOT aware that the person speaking isn't really doing the talking...and yet claims or lets it be assumed that they are. If companies take your mindset when implementing social media (to just 'sell' something), their efforts will fail, just like a lot of their traditional marketing efforts have failed for years. The point to social media is that it gives companies a chance to connect and communicate with their customers online and it expands beyond traditional marketing (one-way) and sales (build relationships just to close the deal) efforts. Social media is indirect selling through relationship building...just like old-time mom & pop businesses did, except it's online.

  • by Elena Perez Fri Jan 16, 2009 via blog

    I write as the "corporate voice" of a non profit organization for their blog. I don't write as the President or another officer, but as the organization itself. I see that as a good work-around when you want an "official" blog voice but don't want a false byline. On the other hand, I think it's a good point that there are plenty of other areas where ghostwriting is completely accepted, and I think it will become accepted for corporate blogs too, as people continue to adopt social marketing outlets.

  • by April Biddle Fri Jan 16, 2009 via blog

    Excellent posts Beth. I think it's essential to write your own content to maintain the transparency inherent with this media. Trying to build real relationships with clients/prospects/whomever, but hiring outside talent to be "your voice" is like sending someone else on a job interview for you. Would that work? I think not.

  • by julia Sat Jan 17, 2009 via blog

    Media evolves. Social media evolves. Even ethics is determined by your own world views. What a blog was and is, has made your post interesting. Aren't blogs evolving? We used to think blogs are our personal, goodness-true-to-heart honest thoughts. Now blogs are for the public and as capitalistic marketing would have it - any vehicle that can make money is a "hot" vehicle. The ethics come after that - to be redefined by us, the public and not the originators. My personal view on blogs, is that, if you try to give others a false idea about your true self, that is unethical. Why should we pull the wool over people's eyes? Unless you are marketing; then it is perceived otherwise. The original blogs had no problem with that - all were original writers - the good, the bad and the ugly with all the grammatical errors and sentence constructions that will make another MIND YOUR LANGUAGE season. They just want to give voice to their thoughts. But we are discussing social media being used for purposes it was not originally intended for - the hungry marketing gurus and need for new media and channels to make people "buy" has taken over blogs and FACEBOOK, U-TUBE, PICASA etc. So when has marketing been ethical? I have been in the ad agency industry and it is all about perception and image. But of course, one can't make an apple to be a dragon fruit. A spade is still a spade, no matter how you dress it. By the way, most CEOS don't have time for blogging. Neither do I.

  • by Ricardo Bueno Sun Feb 22, 2009 via blog

    I think that each of these scenarios are all-around bad scenarios! The problem with that arises with ghost-written content is the awkwardness that arises when a web-client shifts from reader to interested prospect. Because you're not the one writing the content, references to what you've written might not be readily understood/remembered by you. I know some Agents who have experienced problems with this and have since opted out of having their content written by someone else.

  • by Dean Rodgers Fri Mar 6, 2009 via blog

    The way I see it, ghostwriting is ghostwriting and can be done ethically in any medium. I've elaborated on this in great detail here.

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