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“What do you think about ghost blogging?”

It was a simple question from someone in the crowd for a recent talk I gave. I answered honestly, but carefully. It didn’t matter. I was essentially speaking to a room which included 10-20 people who currently get paid to blog for people or companies as those people or companies. Unless I said I have no problem with it, I was doomed.

The great thing about the people who took issue with my answer, at least those who approached or emailed me later, was they understood my stance but wanted to discuss the issue. Frankly, the responses pushed my thinking (which I love) and all but made this post necessary.

My answer that day was something along the lines of the following, which was captured by live blogger Heather Sokol:

“Transparency is key in social media. Ghost writers are the opposite. The biggest problem is getting found out. You run the risk of being disingenuous. It intimates that you have something to hide.”

I stand by that definition, but want to make sure we consider several different angles and perspectives on the issue.

  • When I say “you” in that description, I’m referring to the company. The writer in question is just doing a job for said company.
  • As my new friend Rhoda Israelov very thoughtfully illustrated to me, there is a vast difference between a personal blog or journal and a business blog or company blogging program designed to drive business leads, search results and the like.
  • Professional writers are and have been authoring pieces that are published under a company or executive byline for decades. The practice is generally accepted and understood by some (I would argue not by Joe and Jane Q. Public, but still).
  • My definition — that ghost blogging is not an honest or transparent practice — is simple because it’s clear. If the author named didn’t write the piece, the naming of that author is dishonest. Just because societal norms, or lack of public concern, have dumbed us into thinking it acceptable doesn’t change the definition of the act.
  • In no way do I mean to attack or demean those who author ghost pieces. My thoughts are intended to initiate discourse on the matter for all to understand it better. There are degrees of dishonesty and gray areas here larger than I am, perhaps, illustrating. These professionals who work hard to deliver the company voice and value through their writing are nothing if not responsible, professional, first-class individuals who provide valuable service to their clients. This is a philosophical discussion, not a personal assault. I hope that it is taken as such.

It appears I am not the only one who questions ghosting as a practice. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, essentially the PRSA of Great Britain, says the following in their policies:

“Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations a blog run by a professional to give the impression of independent support is illegal and contravenes the CIPR Code. The CIPR discourages the practice of ghosting a blog.”

CIPR president Kevin Taylor assures me that the policy advises members to “exercise caution in terms of ghosting blogs.” They accept that drafting material on behalf of a client for all sorts of purposes is part of public relations professional’s every day operation but says, “people should be aware of exceeding their field of competence.” The organization discourages ghosting because readers of personal blogs expect to be hearing the thoughts and views of that person.

PRSA’s Code of Ethics doesn’t mention ghost blogging, but is chock full of “don’t be dishonest” and “don’t engage in deceptive practices” tomes. The International Association of Business Communicators doesn’t singled out ghosting either, but does include this policy:

Professional communicators give credit for unique expressions borrowed from others and identify the sources and purposes of all information disseminated to the public.

If you agree that ghost authoring is generally accepted as a business practice, these two organizations have condoned behavior that contradicts their own codes of ethics.

Doug Karr, an outstanding Internet marketing consultant and social media thinker in his own right, wrote in reaction to my aforementioned talk, “Ghostblogging isn’t a dirty word nor is it a dirty profession, it’s an incredible one. A great ghostblogger investigates the source and accurately writes the posts on behalf of them.” He continues, “As long as the premise of those blog posts are your message, why would anyone care that someone else typed it up?”

I know what Doug is shooting for here, but there’s a big difference in someone who takes dictation and writes for you. I would stipulate that if the named author is actively involved in writing the piece — dictating outlines, emphasizing points to cover and actively editing the document — I have much less of an issue and would consider the writer a copywriter/editor rather than a ghost writer.

And perhaps that’s where the hang up is — semantics. When Israelov wrote me to describe what she does, she said, “I do not ‘pretend’ to be the business owner. Typically, the blog reads ‘The ABC Company Team.’” This, to me, is not ghost blogging. This is professional writing services. The byline isn’t dishonest. Israelov is a member of the ABC Company Team since they’ve paid her to write for them.

Similarly, Lindsay Manfredi of Linzstar, who blogs for several clients and bills herself as a ghost blogger, told me this:

“I don’t encourage my clients to hide, I am simply assisting in the bigger picture. Ultimately, it’s their ideas that are being blogged. And I also have clients who write their own, give it to me to edit and expand on, and then post away to the community they are marketing. Everyone is different, and everyone has a say. At least that is how I operate my business.”

Renee Wilmeth, another of my fellow Blog Indiana presenters and, dare I say, Internet marketing ethicist, reminded me that books are ghost written all the time with no disclosure. True, but I would argue that’s still being dishonest with people. This lack of disclosure isn’t something most people understand. They assume the CEO wrote the book, or simply don’t care. Ghost writing hides the fact the named author isn’t capable of writing the material, whether it be due to time, writing acumen or even intelligence. It’s lying to people. Does the fact the public accepts it make it right? Not at all.

Still, there are some fantastic and talented writers out there not only writing materials for companies and their executives, but selling their wares as “ghost blogging,” or “ghost writing.” They are honest, ethical, genuine people earning a living loaning their talents to those who don’t have the aforementioned time, acumen or intelligence to compose pieces for their audiences.

These are very good people.

So how do we balance, assuming some of you might see my point about the ethical question of ghost blogging, the air of dishonesty with the professionalism and class of these important pieces of the social media and corporate communications puzzle?

Here are some ideas to put some parameters around the topic. They are suggestions. I want your input so we can collaborate on perhaps a standard we can all live by:

  • If the writing piece in question is written under no byline for the company, you’re a copywriter, not a ghost writer.
  • If the writing piece in question is written under the byline of a person who takes a proactive role in outlining, dictating and/or editing the piece, you’re a copywriter, not a ghost writer.
  • If the writing piece in question is written under the byline of a person who simply reads the copy the writer provides offers cursory suggestions and edits, you should be listed a co-author on the piece (e.g. – Jack Smith with Bill Jones or Jack Smith and Bill Jones). If you’re not, you are a ghost writer and this is, by definition, not being honest or transparent with the audience. Is this ethical? I say no. Does it make the writer or the named author bad people? No. It’s just not within the spirit of being honest with your audience.
  • If the writing piece in question is written under the byline of a person who never even touches the project other than to pay the author, it’s just a flat lie and unethical in my book.

Still, even if a person were to ghost write a book for someone, never receiving credit or acknowledgement for the work, I can’t fault them for using the system we’ve grown to accept to provide for themselves.

The principle is unethical by definition. The social acceptance of the principle makes the degree of severity insignificant enough for us to not consider the practice wrong.

The core issue I hope to discuss here is being honest with the audience about who wrote the piece.

Does this mean these principals will be implemented across companies and through writing communities? No. Does it mean I’m right and these are the know all and end all to the discussion? Certainly not.

That’s why I’ve offered them. Tell me what you think. Am I wrong? Am I too black and white on the issue? The comments, as always, are yours.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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