Ghostwriting executive blogs: a fact of life or a big fat lie?
Earlier this year, I joined in a LinkedIn discussion about whether its realistic to expect that senior leaders in an organisation write their own blogs. A hoary old chestnut, I know, but as a corporate communicator, I write for a number of senior managers across various traditional media and felt I wanted to contribute to the conversation. So, I threw my comment into the stream, decided to keep an eye on the conversation, and pretty much figured that would be the end of it.
Except I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Sure – this has been argued around in circles many times before, and by far greater authorities than yours truly. For other robust discussion on the matter, check out
Sure – this has been argued around in circles many times before, and by far greater authorities than yours truly. For other robust discussion on the matter, check out Mitch Joel’s post ‘The Death of Social Media,’ and his podcast, ‘The Great Ghost Blogging (and Ghost Tweeting) Debate (again),’ with Mark Schaefer. The podcast was recorded in response to Mark’s post, ‘Why its ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging,’ where he takes the pragmatist’s view that ghost blogging is simply a reality in our fast-paced corporate world, and people should be more accommodating and accepting of this necessity.
All this discussion highlights to me that there probably isn’t a straightforward answer.
My comment in the LinkedIn discussion was along the lines of there being different answers for different executives, depending on individual circumstances – but that fundamentally, blogging is about authenticity, transparency and honest interaction – and hence it is generally inappropriate to use a ghostwriter.
I added a caveat, though. I said that there is a place for the intuitive ghost writer who has a close relationship with the executive they are writing for. If that writer is capable of producing truly authentic writing that looks and feels like the the executive (and I believe this is possible), then maybe it’s ok.
But is it? Is it really? I am genuinely at a loss.
Because, even if we as communicators manage to capture the voice and the passion of our executives, is it not still a lie we are telling to the audience by pretending that it is actually that person writing the blog? By the same token, those executives aren’t in their roles because they’re great copywriters, and there’s a good chance that they aren’t good at articulating what they truly think about a topic (let alone have the time to record it). On this basis then, aren’t ghost writers simply an enabler for that voice? Aren’t we just the vessel through which they speak?
I’m not about to re-state the well-made, passionate arguments of Mitch and others of his ilk about the foundation of social media being transparent, human interaction – thus rendering ghost blogging a farce which perpetuates everything we hate about sanitised, corporate spin. Nor will I re-hash the pragmatists’ side of the coin. I just wanted to unpack this whole dilemma I’ve been having with myself – and invite you all to have your say as well.
You see, as a writer, I see my role as helping people to find their voice. I don’t want my job to be about ‘key messaging’ and taking the company line. Not everyone can write, and I see it as a privilege to work with people to help them articulate what they really want to communicate – whether that’s a note to a team from their leader, a compelling piece of editorial, or a friend’s CV.
If ghost writing for a senior executive is some form of public deception, what about the letter I write for my friend to her Mother who is terminally ill? Or the heartfelt thank-you letter from the chief executive at the end of a year of financial crisis and many redundancies?
I know I may be diluting the argument here by introducing other media. Part of the case against ghost blogging is about the platform itself. There is an assumption that blogs and other new media will be written by the person that owns it. Transparency and authenticity are the revolution that new media bring to communication. Being subjected to years of spin and sanitised corporate communication and public relations has taught us to expect that a chief probably won’t write his own speech, or introduction to the company magazine.
The idealist in me wants to believe that as a communication professional, I can shine the light on the path of authenticity. I can show them the error of their ways and help them to find their own voice of truth … or can I?
Maybe it’s all about balance.
What do you think?
Why is it completely unacceptable for a student to have another person write a paper for them but in the business world it IS acceptable for an executive or other to hire a ghost writer?
Like academia, the blogging world demands honesty, transparency, and accountability in ones written word.
If these executives can’t write, for lack of word, thought, or experience, then they simply shouldn’t write blogs! How simple is that?
Melissa: “Too many communicators think “blog” is an interchangeable term for “newsletter”. A blog should be about dialogue.”
Yes, and if you’re not writing your own blog, how on earth do you expect to dialogue with anyone on the subject manner in a cohesive manner?
To the executives of the world:
Be authentic or (please) just don’t blog. Please don’t waste my time as a reader.
Hmmm. I don’t know many executives who have the time or the inclination to manage a blog. Their time is spent building and managing the company they are running. And chances are, that’s exactly where they should be spending their time.
It’s no secret that blogging is time intensive and takes dedicated daily time for writing, editing, posting, and responding. I can’t think of one C-level executive that I know who would be able to dedicate such consistent time to a blog. And because of this, I would strongly recommend that someone else in the organization take over a blog–under his/her own name–someone with enough credibility with the audience, but also with enough time and interest in undertaking such an endeavor. Often times, this means someone in the marketing department. I feel this is good, as this is what marketing does, as long as the posts are “human” and not marketing spin.
The idea of blogging is one of transparency as was said in your article. I agree–however, if an industry really demands that an actual CEO offer a blog, I think a ghost-writer is in order, as long as the ideas come from the exec to the writer. Authenticity of ideas is more important to me than who actually strings the words together.
I agree with Mark. There are many different purposes that blogs serve.
I’ve never been a fan of being told how to use the web. Thankfully there aren’t hard rules on how I can use something like a blog to produce virtually any type of response from readers, if any at all.
Isn’t the tactic of ghostwriting an exec blog sometimes similar to a celebrity endorsement? Do we really assume the celebrity actually uses and loves the product they’re promoting?
Susan, beautifully written post. Thanks for moving the dialogue ahead. Kind of. : )
I see a lot of the same themes here that cropped up in original post I wrote. I would like to challenge your readers to take a realistic look at how blogs are being used today and the purposes they serve in the real world. Not the world we would like to have or wish to have, but the one we work in every day.
Blogs are usually not about dialogue although it is fashionable to think so. I may post this comment, but it is a comment, not a dialogue. And most company blogs seldom receive comments, but that does not make them useful and relevant. I point to GE as an example. One of the finest B2B blogs in the world and yet I will get more comments in a day than they receive in a year. No dialogue. Still a blog.
Blogs are used to promote and pontificate, to educate and illuminate. They are written by execs, yes — but also by teams, agencies, and even by ghost writers.
So before considering the rules of blogging, we should have a clear-eyed view of what a blog is, and the MANY purposes they serve, right?
Thanks again. I very honored that my post prompted this discussion. Well done.
This is such a tardy response, especially in the world of social media, but I couldn’t just let it slide. Thank you so very much for taking the the time to visit and comment.
I think you make a great point. Blogs are many things to many different people and I guess the underlying rule in all new media right now, is that there are no rules. I think I even said that in another post once. Anyway … yes, before going off on a self-righteous rant about what a blog should or shouldn’t be, it’s fundamental to establish what we want our blog to be for us. It’s like any communication, right? You must consider: What is it that you are trying to achieve by undertaking this activity? What is it’s purpose and how does it fit with your strategy?
Thanks for the perspective,
Interesting piece and some pretty curly questions around both the ethical and business sides of the exercise.
I believe that if the ghost writer is being engaged formally to represent the views of the CEO, it should be done anonymously regardless of the medium. While blogs are regarded by much of society as an open expression medium, surely not that many people would be naive enough to believe too many CEOs would write their own pieces all of the time. The CEO is responsible for representing the brand and should do so in the most appropriate light possible, if this means having someone fully or partially ghost the writing to ensure both quality, consistency and appropriateness of the message, that is simply taking due diligence for the task.
There is an interesting piece in the September AICD journal on some of the risks associated with inappropriate company blogging/twittering etc you might like to take a look at, and I am pretty sure there is at least the British head of a large oil company, one swimmer and a couple of footballers here in Australia who wish they had a ghost writer for much of their publicity.
Interesting discussion. I’m curious, in the situations of executive ghost blogging, did they start the blog with the intention of using a ghost blogger, or brought one when the reality of the time/effort it takes to blog became apparent.
Also, in case of executive blogs, what is the purpose/goal for the blog? Are these mainly internal or external (public) blogs?
Interesting topic! I actually have a fairly black-and-white opinion on this one. As far as I’m concerned, if the message is ghost written, then it’s not a blog.
The need for ghost writing is a reality. Yes, some senior execs have poor written communication skills, but this doesn’t mean they escape the need to communicate. In those cases, I would call their pages “Messages from the CEO” (or whoever), NOT a blog.
Too many communicators think “blog” is an interchangeable term for “newsletter”. A blog should be about dialogue. If it doesn’t have comments and interaction, it’s not a blog. And if the leader hasn’t written the message themselves, how can they authentically engage in dialogue with the people who leave comments?
Blogs aren’t suited to everyone. If your leader doesn’t have the right personality or writing skill to adequately manage their own blog, then I strongly advise one thing: DON’T DO IT! Give them a page where their ghost-written messages appear and a link to a mailbox for people to send comments directly to the person if they are so moved.
One option is not necessarily better than the other. Like any other communication channel it’s just about choosing the right option for your organisation.
Back when I worked for a local council, one of the council members used to get great feedback from constituents about ‘his’ newsletter. He used to call me up and have a laugh because all of his residents thought he was such a great writer – I wrote the whole newsletter. The point is that I took the time to learn the cadence of his speech, the style of his expression so that my writing, based on his ideas, sounded exactly as though it were coming from him.
Was this dishonest?
What about all the speeches that I have written for Ministers, Mayors and Presidents of general practice organisations? My words, their delivery of words that I sculpted to sound as though they would naturally come from that person’s mouth.
Not too dissimilar to the opinion pieces/ editorials I have written – the process was the same, my writing crafted in their voices.
I do get the ‘big fat lie’ angle: in this hyper-connected world we live in now, authenticity is everything.
But, as you and others have said, if the message and its intent are authentic and truly reflect the organisation/ spokesperson’s core values, where’s the harm in ghostwriting?
I’m not really from the world of business blogging, but I think that the blogging community in general prefers honesty. Not everyone has great writing skills, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have interesting things to say. I think that’s where ghost writing really has a place, I just tend to believe that the collaborative effort of the post should be noted in some way.
Caf – what is more true to the heart of new media than collaboration – isn’t it all about community!? I think you’ve nailed it – and it’s so simple. Acknowledging that a blog is a collaboration or has been edited or ‘word-smithed’ seems so obvious. Would an audience feel cheated if they weren’t getting raw Mr Chief Executive, I wonder? At least they’d know up front, though.
‘a fact of life or a big fat lie?’ suggests these things are mutually exclusive and at times, regrettably, they’re not.
When ghost writers remain true to themselves while representing their executive authentically, then the fact of life is simply delegation to people better able to construct a story to engage with. Authenticity must be represented, though, both in style AND message. And the most authentic stories are those which the ghost writer also believes.
‘Big fat lies’ emerge from disconnects. Perhaps the exec doesn’t walk the talk or style of the ghost’s interpretation (regardless of whether they ‘approve’ the content and context). Or maybe the ghost writer’s and exec’s beliefs drift apart. When ghost writers no longer feel they’re authentic, maybe it’s time for them to find a new haunt.
You’re quite right Michelle – they’re not mutually exclusive, and the connection between the exec and the ghost writer, if it’s going to work at all, is fundamental. If it’s clear that neither the message or the style are those of the purported author, then their credibility is blown and the trust of the executive by stakeholders will be damaged. Perhaps irreparably in the blogging media that was borne out of being ‘real.’
Hi Susan – that’s a great question you’ve posed!
My personal take is that as long as the ‘ideas & thoughts’ expressed in the blog are the executive’s own, then it is perfectly acceptable to have a ghostwriter document those ideas.
The key lies in the authenticity & ownership of the ideas – and not who writes them down.
It would only be unacceptable & deceptive if the ghostwriter came up with the ideas & gave credit to the author.
After all, many of the world’s best-selling authors have their books ghostwritten, but because the ideas are authentic, it works!
If the readers are under the impression that the Senior Exec (or perceived author) has written the content and the content has been approved by the perceived author, I would suggest that all is well. It’s a simple way to approach the topic but perhaps a simple approach is all that is required?
David – Sometimes a simple approach is indeed the best. But my ‘thinky-head’ just can’t leave it at that. I believe there is complexity brought to the debate through the nature of blogging and other new media, the foundations of which grew out of a disdain for spin and sanitised corporate-speak and a cry for something real and human. For me, it ain’t that simple. That doesn’t mean it can’t be for others.