Ghost writing blogs: right or wrong?

On Monday I attended Dell’s excellent B2B Social Media Huddle. One of the hottest topics of debate, both at the event and on Twitter (#dellb2b), was the issue of ghost writing blogs. What I found most interesting was that not only were there legitimate differing opinions, but also there was perhaps even more misunderstanding and misinformation.

Some people thought that the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 outlawed ghost blogs. They don’t. They outlaw fake blogs, which are a totally different issue. Fake blogs are where a brand or agency create a blog that that appears to be independent or from a customer, when in fact it is being written by them.

A ghost blog is where a blog is transparently from the company or organisation, but where the posts have been written by someone other than the person identified as the author. Neville Hobson sparked the debate by stating that ghost writing a blog post was inherently wrong. Some in the audience thought it was OK and likened it to a speech being written for a politician and that people thought was was acceptable and therefore a blog post could also be ghosted. Neville’s argument (I paraphrase) was that a blog post was personal and therefore couldn’t be ghosted.

I’m a realist, not an absolutist. The politician’s speech analogy is a good one, because it actually helps to prove that ghosting can be acceptable. In reality the substance of most political speeches are actually written by the politicians. A good politician will brief a trusted staffer to write the actual words of the speech, but the ideas, tone of voice, emotion and meaning are all the politician’s very own. Step one is the politician, step two is the writer, step three is the politician polishing the writer’s work.

You can quite legitimately create a blog post in exactly the same way. The reality in many companies and organisations is that there are lots of people who only half want to blog. They want to do it, but won’t/don’t because of barriers such as a lack of time, insecurity about their writing ability, worries they can’t think of enough topics etc. That’s where the in-house public relations team or external PR consultancy can help. They can work with an author to create a post that the by-lined author is happy with. That might mean dictating the copy and the PR person typing it and polishing the prose. This doesn’t mean changing the meaning of the post, but can mean turning it into plain English by reducing jargon. Usually, as long as the blog makes it clear that the author had assistance then that’s totally acceptable.

There isn’t just one right way to write a blog. There are hundreds of different approaches that all work, there are also hundreds that don’t. That’s why appropriately experienced public relations people can help an employer or clients to get it right. Unfortunately you too often get the problem of PR people who don’t have the appropriate experience or expertise and then provide bad advice.

Matt Bamford-Bowes, head of social media at MediaCom Beyond Advertising tweeted ‘it isn’t surprising that companies pay PR teams to maintain blogs. It gives aligned tone of voice and point of view.’ I disagree that the role of public relations should be to ensure an ‘aligned tone of voice and point of view’ as that sounds far too much to me like turning it in to corporate or brand speak and the type of thing that marketing people who are used to controlling the message would want to do. If that was the role of the ghostwriter then I’d be opposed to it.

Vikki Chowney was faster off the mark than me and has already blogged about it. In the comments Benjamin Ellis makes a sensible reference to the divide between social media natives and traditional PR/corporate folks:

‘It will be a 50:50 split in the big wide world :- social media natives will say ‘bad bad bad’ traditional PR/corporate folks will say ‘fair game’.

Lots of mature businesses are stuck with ‘can’t blog won’t blog’ senior execs – the temptation for PR folks to ghost blog for them is almost irresistible. That doesn’t make it right of course. The biggest down fall is when the CEO meets a customer and the customer starts to talk to them about what they said in the blog post – big #fail / embarrassment, or if a customer posts a comment and someone else responds as the CEO #biggerfail.’

His example ideally illustrates how PR people shouldn’t crudely simply ghost write a blog, but there are so many other ways we can help clients to blog which legitimately do involve helping to write posts.

10 Replies to “Ghost writing blogs: right or wrong?

  1. I agree with all your points above and think that the key problem when discussing ghost writing, is that there seems to be two very different meanings of the phrase.

    I’m sure some view ghost writing as the practice of an agency simply writing their own copy, which subsequently leads to posts with little or no input from the client, which I think is a pointless exercise.

    But, like you point out above, ghost writing doesn’t have to work like that. If those writing the blog have constant contact with the client and they have a certain degree of input, then I think it’s certainly acceptable – and over time can hopefully be something they do more and more themselves.

    But as you say, it has to be a very tailored approach.

    “There isn’t just one right way to write a blog. There are hundreds of different approaches that all work, there are also hundreds that don’t”

    I think this really has resonance and those venturing into the space need to understand that it takes research, consultation and understanding before we can work with them to agree on a strategy.

  2. Great post, thanks Stuart. The clarification over the legal requirements is important. And the observations you raise about differing opinions from the social media/PR spectrum is on the money.

    I’m a realist on this issue too and like to think I sit somewhere between the two extremes. I’m all for transparency and openness. But I’m also all for helping businesses and brands (and individuals) create great content and navigate their way through this new digital world, using it to build better businesses as a result…

  3. Rob Skinner – I'm Rob Skinner. My family know me as Robert. My wife calls me Ert. (The part of 'Robert' that I don't always use...) I've been working in PR since 1987, mostly in financial services. In my spare time, I enjoy cycling reading, editing videos on my computer and practising my Welsh (dwi'n dod yn wreiddiol o Gaerdydd). And blogging. Do please post a comment! NOTE: this is my personal blog. It does not represent the views of the organisations I work for.
    Rob Skinner says:

    Good post, Stuart.

    I agree with you that there’s nothing inherently wrong with ghosting a blog post. Your speechwriting analogy is a good one.

    I’ll read a blog if it’s written in an engaging style on a subject that interests me. I don’t care if the ‘writer’ has had a little ghostly help.

    But I’m still sceptical about the very idea of a corporate blog. Most of the blogs I read regularly are personal rather than corporate ones. (And most of the corporate ones I follow are media and PR ones, which tend to be well written and personal.)

    Anyone thinking of starting a corporate blog should be crystal clear about its objectives and realistic about whether the target audience will be interested. It would be a shame if we were too busy obsessing about the role of the ghost to think about whether people will care enough to read it.

  4. Dr. Mark Pack – UK – Edit Liberal Democrat Newswire - the monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats. Author, "Bad News: what the headlines don't tell us" and "101 Ways To Win An Election." Eater of chocolate.
    Mark Pack says:

    Another good analogy I think is with sports memoirs. These are often ghosted or co-written and show the full range: from the one where the sports star has done almost nothing on the book and it isn’t even really their own account through to one where a ghost/co-writer makes the book happens and improves it, but the account is still one from the sports star’s heart.

    I don’t think there’s a neat clear dividing line at one end of the spectrum or the other. It’s a matter of balance and judgement in different cases.

    The analogy does highlight another issue though. Good practice these days is to acknowledge the ghost/co-author of a memoir, rather than present the book as if it were only written by the sports star.

    Should that apply to blogs too?

  5. Good post. Yours is a commonsense approach informed by experience.

    Barack Obama makes a good case study. He recently admitted that he can barely use his Blackberry and has never Twittered in his life. His famous use of SM and Twitter was ghosted. The SM community did not form a direct relationship with Barack Obama so much as with him as a symbol and with his messages. None of that takes away the authenticity of Obama as a politician – though one has to say that he came “clean” about how it was done after the election and that his preacher style is very one-way communication (rather than inline with SM dreamers. But so what?).

  6. Thought provoking post. I think certain people have to have a blog i.e. Obama and therefore if he doesn’t have the time to write it then someone else has to.

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