This is part 1 of 4 in a series of posts inspired by Steve Farnsworth. I was nudged to join in by Steve Lamb (his post is up already), and so here I am, blogging about the ethics and issues of Ghost Blogging. Before we go any further, I would like to point out that I absolutely wrote this post myself. All of the spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, factual omissions and insight are my own.
Or are they? Who is the ‘me’ in ‘my own’? I could be Dave, the office burglar and still say this post is ‘my own’, and in doing so break no laws, and engage in no deception. You read this and assume that is it written by ‘me’. There’s a photo on the side of the blog, and a name on it too. It seems fair to assume that is me that wrote it. Surely if it was written by someone else, I, they or both of us would be deceiving you? What about if it has been edited and proofread by someone else in the office? Let’s step back a bit for a moment.
So, is ghost blogging ethical? It really depends on your definition of ghost blogging, and what it entails. I’m going to give you my answer before I give you a definition. To my mind, ghost blogging is rarely ethical, or at least it is rarely executed ethically. That’s partly a matter of my career path, in that ghost blogging, in the sense that many people mean it, is essentially allowing content written by someone else to be taken and passed off as your own original work. In the academic world that is plagiarism; a pretty fast way to end your academic career.
Now, you might argue that the original author has willingly given over their work – although more often that not a junior wage-slave was cajoled into producing the piece – and that that fact makes it alright. However, be it a staff member writing for a CEO or a PR company supplying copy to a professional blogger, to my mind it is still at the very least an act of deception. It is passing off a piece of writing as something that it is, in fact, not.
There is another definition of ghost blogging that is less commonly used, but that I am more comfortable with. The simple act of writing for somebody. Ghost writing has a long history. Often, celebrities or their agents will engage a ghost writer to produce their autobiography. It is slightly different than the most common form of ghost blogging, because increasingly often the ghost writer is acknowledged, and it is increasingly the case that people would assume a ghost writer has been engaged. Not to cast aspersions on Katie Price’s literary skills, but if you are reading her biography, you would probably assume that she had engaged the services of a ghost writer. Actually, Katie Price’s books are ghost written, by Rebecca Farnworth. And here is a distinction in the shades of grey in Ghost writing: Katie Price chooses the plots to her books. And the ghost is a shadowy entity; Not fully visible, but known to be present. That’s very different from the kind of ghost who’s existence is denied.
Here is the biggest danger with ghost blogging, especially for CEOs and senior figures: It’s the danger that a customer, business partner or other industry figure reads their blog that week. The believe, as they have been lead to, that the post represents the thoughts and views of the senior figure. Then they run into them in “real-life”. What happens as they strike up a conversation about the post that they read and enjoyed? The post that wasn’t written by the CEO, which doesn’t represent the CEO’s views. Firstly is the potential for the CEO to look like an idiot who forgets what he does from one minute to the next, and secondly it makes the customer look like an idiot for believing it was written by the CEO. Thirdly, it destroys trust between the two of them; Trust being the very thing blogging is meant to help with. That, for me, is the biggest no-no.
The roots of blogging were about being transparent, building trust, and ghost blogging goes against that. To be clear, I don’t think that is wrong for a busy CEO to have someone else write their post for them, particularly in the incidents where it is essentially based on an interview or conversation with them, or that they have at least defined the key points and main narrative. The idea of passing off writing that has never been past the eyes of the CEO as having come through the lips of the CEO is a dangerous thing to do. In the case of a speech writing, while the words might not have been the CEO’s, they have been spoken by them. The danger with ghost blogging is that the middle-man who is cut out is the person who should have been the messenger.
If a blog post is described as ‘written for’, rather than ‘written by’ the claimed author, then we are the right side of the line. If it claims to be ‘written by’ someone who did not originate its content, then a deception with no ethical grounds has been carried out. It is also a deception that leaves the perpetrators with nowhere to go. If there is something in that post that is factually inaccurate or professionally naive, then the CEO must either accept the error as if it was his own incompetence, or admit to the error.
Let me leave you with some words from an article in The Independent earlier this year:
In the film, adapted by Polanski with Robert Harris from his 2007 novel of the same name, McGregor’s professional author is enlisted by former Prime Minister Adam Lang, played with a Blairish glint by Pierce Brosnan, to write his long-overdue memoirs. “So, how do we go about this?” Lang asks casually, drink in hand, in an early scene. “I interview you and turn your answers into prose,” comes the sober reply. And there, in a nutshell, is the art of ghostwriting.