The Ethics of Ghostwriting Online
There has been a lot of debate about the topic of ghostwriting as it pertains to various forms of social media. This is an important debate to have since the underlying issue is credibility, which is something we must all strive to maintain. In this context, terms like full-disclosure and transparency come up early and often. And, while both of these terms are extremely valuable to this discussion it would be a mistake to consider them absolute.
Dave Fleet is one of the many industry insiders who has recently taken on the issue of ghostwriting for blogs and social media. His position is that it’s OK to ghostwrite a blog on behalf of a corporate CEO as long as you provide a disclaimer that the blog is actually written by someone else. I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. If you make that disclaimer, by definition, it ceases to be ghostwriting.
My take is that ghostwriting is ghostwriting and it can be done effectively and ethically no matter what the medium. So long as the attributed author takes full ownership and responsibility for the material, message, language and ideas being presented, there is no foul. The way I see it, it is up to the individual to choose how they wish to represent themselves publicly. If they wish to enlist a professional writer to help them express their ideas as eloquently and coherently as possible, that is their right.
Though still controversial, Ghostwriting for individual executives on company blogs is becoming commonplace. Blogging has come a long way since “the good old days” of a few years ago when blogs served more as online journals written by a singe person expressing their own thoughts. Today, it is hard to distinguish a great blog from an online magazine, which has lead some old timers to declare that blogging has died. This is wrong. Blogs have not died, they have just evolved. Today, they provide an excellent platform for many types of companies to provide information, interact with customers and build its brand. However, expectations regarding the quality of content have risen. Frankly, I prefer reading things that are well-written and have been proofed and edited. And I’m not alone.
As with any type of communication, there are always multiple variables to consider. Blogs and social media have quite a few. We encourage most of our clients interested in blogging to go with a multi-author format. This allows us to write as ourselves as part of the client’s team when it makes sense (which is most of the time). However, there are some posts that are most appropriate coming from a member of the company’s senior management. In those cases we are always willing to edit or ghostwrite these posts.
When ghostwriting a blog post on behalf of a client, we follow some very rigid guidelines. First and foremost, we make sure that the attributed author reads, edits and approves everything before it is published. This is critical. It is equally important to make sure that the attributed author is involved with responses to all comments made to that particular post.
As you delve into various forms of social media, the waters get a little more murky. While I believe that you still could ethically ghostwrite for someone on Twitter or Facebook, I can’t think of many instances where you should. Practically speaking, if an individual client is involved with social media in a professional capacity, it is something they should do themselves.
We do maintain Twitter accounts for a number of clients. In these cases, we normally Tweet on behalf of the company as a whole. We field questions, weigh in on relevant issues, share interesting articles or promote new items on the blog. Followers rarely are concerned with the actual identity of the person of people manning the Twitter account. If asked, we gladly reveal our identity.
Typically, when agencies or companies run in to trouble is when they intentionally misrepresent their identity and motives online. And when they get caught, they deserve every bit of grief they get. It is great that the marketing community, for the most part, is vigilant about maintaining ethical standards as we plunge into this ever-changing world, but going after ghostwriting seems to me to be a mistake.