Save the Ghosts for Halloween

December 3, 2008 · 24 comments

ghost

A few days ago, my friend Susan Iskiwitch asked for my thoughts on PR agencies ghost blogging for clients. The timing was interesting since I had just been asked a similar question by Scott Meis as part of a Q & A post for his blog.

PR folks have been ghost writing for clients forever – bylined articles, quotes in news releases, speeches, key messages, opening remarks, etc. To be honest, I’ve never thought twice about it. It’s part of the job. It’s what we do. We determine the best way to communicate strategically and then set out to painstakingly write prose that delivers.

But…

It may seem like splitting hairs, but in my mind there’s a difference between ghost writing the typical items mentioned above and ghost writing blog posts, Twitter “tweets,” and blog comments. That’s because there is a different expectation in place when it comes to social media engagement.

When reading a newspaper article with quotes or watching an interview on your local TV news affiliate, there’s no expectation of interacting with the person being interviewed. It’s passive.

Not so in social media. People engage with the tools because they want to connect with people. If you don’t tell people that in fact an outside party is blogging on your behalf, then your social media efforts are a sham. And when you’re found out, you will lose trust.

So let’s say you are up front with the fact that your agency is blogging on your behalf. That’s not ghost blogging, but I’m still not a huge fan of it. Chances are good that no one will get upset about it since you’ve been transparent, but you miss out on one of the biggest benefits of social media, which is its ability to humanize your brand. In my opinion, the best way to bring your organization’s humanity to life is with voices from within the company.

Agencies can bring a lot of value to the content their clients’ create online in numerous ways, but I don’t think ghost blogging is one of them.

Am I looking at it the wrong way? What do you think about ghost blogging?

*Image by Stephen Groeneveld.

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{ 3 trackbacks }

SeanBohan.com » Blog Archive » Ghost Blogging and Authenticity
December 3, 2008 at 11:53 pm
Ghostblogging for clients « Melanie Thompson’s Blog
December 4, 2008 at 10:17 am
What’s Your Stance on Social Media Gray Areas? — Communications Catalyst
August 3, 2009 at 10:32 pm

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sean Bohan December 3, 2008 at 11:53 pm

BRAVO

Think this is a great post and should be required reading for companies that want to “use” social media.

found this via @ambercadabra

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2 Danny Brown December 4, 2008 at 12:00 am

I completely agree with you, David. I wrote something very similar recently and it agreed with everything you say.

I think the difference is, like you say, PR quotes are exactly that – “manufactured quotes” for wont of a better phrase. While still factual, they’re written with the sole purpose of getting reactions, and are crafted until perfect.

Blogs, on the other hand, offer a personal voice. Thoughts that are going through your head at a given time. Yes, it may be corporate blogging or it may be personal blogging, but it’s still YOUR voice. Which is exactly what your readers want.

They don’t want someone just coming out with the usual company spiel or sales pitch – they just want to hear what you really think about something.

While there’s nothing wrong with ghost blogging per se, I just can’t attach any real personal worth to them. And at the end of the day, isn’t it the personal touch that makes blogs so enjoyable?

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3 Adam Needles December 4, 2008 at 12:03 am

Hi, David. Interesting post.

I think the core thing gets down to being a PR person about substance, not spin.

Ghost writing, say for an op-ed, is one thing, but typically (I would hope) the executive for whom you are ghost writing sees it and signs off at some point. So you aided in the production of the piece, but it’s not entirely a sham. There was some post-production collaboration; there may have even been collaboration earlier to brainstorm ideas (you just wound up doing most of the work).

The problem with social media is that the person whose name is on the post is assumed to be the person who wrote the piece. And so whereas in ghost writing, the masquerede has a bit more legitimacy, in social media it borders on misrepresentation.

This gets back to my point of substance vs. spin. Who you are in social media matters; it is substance. So if you are ’spinning’ that you are someone else, that’s a problem; the medium requires substantive and transparent interaction. Doing anything else unfortunately violates the rules, and that’s the line in my mind.

Just a few thoughts.

Got here via @AmberCadabra – BTW.

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4 PRJack December 4, 2008 at 11:14 am

[with devil's advocate hat firmly on...]

Now what about a blog, written by the agency at the behest of an exec which is vetted and approved by said exec and posted?

And what if said exec simply didn’t have the time/isn’t a good enough writer to write a full bolg, but is willing to respond to comments made to that ‘ghost written’ blog?

Just where does the expectation of personal interaction lie? At the passive element – the blog? or at the active element – the comments?

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5 Jessica December 4, 2008 at 11:21 am

I agree with you that ghostblogging is probably not the most effective way to reach an audience and be involved in social media.

I work for a student-run PR firm, and we did write a ghost blog for one of our clients, and it just didn’t work out very well. We haven’t tried to do it again since, and I don’t think we ever will.

However, we do maintain our own blog, and are very interactive. We really enjoy the conversation aspect of blogging, and that definitely gets lost when writing a ghost blog for a client.

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6 Scott December 4, 2008 at 11:30 am

I don’t think it’s splitting hairs at all. Blogs and other forms of social media do rely on personality and to a degree transparency. IMO if it’s not somewhat personal then it’s not really a blog and I don’t much care for people on Twitter that do nothing but promote. Promote, fine, but tweet about your dog, your cat, your lunch, something to humanize. A PR ghost writer can’t really do that.

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7 Christine Needles December 4, 2008 at 11:30 am

Hi David. Adam and I had a spirited discussion about your post (and his comment) this morning. (Cool thing that blogs can create debate at home, too!)

In an ideal world, an executive would have his/her hands in social media as much as we have the opportunity to do as PR people – monitoring Twitter, engaging actively in conversations, driving content on a personal or corporate blog, reacting in real-time. But, as we know, this ideal is sometimes difficult to attain.

As PRJack pointed out, the lines are blurring between what is considered media, a blog, a community, a conversation place. There are corporate blogs that may have a goal of driving dialogue in an industry, but to start out, you’ve got to have good content to build a following. A corporate blog might also have a goal of serving as a platform for sharing insights and information — providing an avenue for thought leadership. Is that wrong? I don’t think that every blog must have the same goal.

I think in some cases, if you have an executive (whose primary job, let’s not forget, is to lead the business and focus on the customer) who is a thought leader and expert and has ideas he/she wants to share publicly in a more dynamic forum like a blog, supporting and facilitating that effort is a good thing. That might mean a PR person helps to frame up a post and even might handle the logistics of posting it online. Is this any different than an admin assistant typing up a response to an email as dictated by an executive? We’re not talking about “spinning” ideas (and I really hate to use that term), or creating content from scratch. We’re talking about facilitating the sharing of another person’s thoughts.

I think the line is drawn when interaction starts to take place. A PR person shouldn’t masquerade (as my husband put it this morning) as the executive on Twitter or in blog comments. In the end, it is about substance, as Adam said — but with social media, we might want to think about being more open and understanding of how that substance is generated and shared.

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8 Stuart Foster December 4, 2008 at 11:31 am

Just here to reiterate what I tweeted your way. It’s definitely distasteful and totally disingenuous, but if it’s done with transparency it could technically be considered ok. I’m totally against doing any kind of corporate blogging through contract people or agencies. Blogging should be a customer service beacon…and only an in-house person can provide that.

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9 Doyle Albee December 4, 2008 at 11:42 am

David:

Great post. I believe, much like PRJack, that this is not entirely a “black and white” issue. For a company/exec to just assign someone to “go write a blog for me” is wrong, and I can’t think of a single exception to that.

Then we get into shades of gray.

Transparency is one measure. If a blog is written in a “company” voice, it doesn’t much matter where it comes from, as long as it doesn’t try to fool the audience into thinking it’s something it’s not. If a blog is there to offer specials, ask for feedback, etc., on behalf of the company, nearly anyone can write it, from internal PR to CEO to PR firm. If it is well-received by the audience, it’s a good effort. If not, it will be, at best, ignored.

I also believe that if an individual can be engaged in the process and simply gets help with grammar, punctuation, etc., that’s also OK. We had a client with great ideas and a passionate voice, but he knew full well he needed help (SIGNIFICANT help) cleaning up his copy. Even great ideas usually have a hard time breaking free from the tyranny of horrible writing.

Overall, if a social media project is genuine, transparent and honest in its interaction with the audience, in many cases, the actual hands on the keyboard are not important. But, as you wisely point out, an effort which is disingenuous — like putting out “my” blog written by my PR agency — is not right, and will eventually fail.

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10 PRJack December 4, 2008 at 11:55 am

Hooray for grey/gray areas! ;) Just like that one of the driving desires of human nature – to classify and pigeon hole things – is revealed! Sometimes the best answer is made up of more than one solution!

I have to say, though, that the idea of blogging without approval and consent is way bad. That is, as many have said, misrepresentation plain and simple.

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11 PRJack December 4, 2008 at 11:59 am

one last thought before I duck into a meeting and contemplate the nuttery otherwise known as the Canadian Government…

One would like to think that where there is a very tight relationship with trust and full understanding – not always the case in Agency/Client situations – that the messaging of a leader could be ‘mimicked’ by someone else. The crux still being the approval. Without that the ice gets mighty thin indeed.

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12 Brandon Chesnutt December 4, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Great topic.

Personally, I vote that transparency and authenticity is a big part of social media and an agency should not “ghost blog” or “ghost tweet” without disclosure.

The traditional one-way communication between consumers and a “brand” or spokesperson has been placed on the back-burner and, with social media, we now focus on human to human interaction.

If an agency moves away from the role of a counselor to becoming the “artificial face” of a company and the gatekeeper of all things social media, it’s crossing the line.

I think a great way to hurdle this whole issue is to clearly set expectations when developing a social media strategy. Help the client understand what is involved and clearly define who will do what. For example, stating that the agency will not blog on behalf of a client, but will help with crafting ideas. I think most professionals, regardless of their industry, will agree that not everyone is a writer and sometimes they need help with the mechanics. It’s acceptable if an agency helps a CEO or company blogger with copy editing or assisting with crafting a post so it’s more conversational.

The next step, if the client really sees value in social media, the agency should help train them to use it effectively.

Brandon
@bchesnutt

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13 ambernaslund December 4, 2008 at 12:54 pm

I keep coming back to the issue of expectations. What, exactly, is your audience asking of you? When they arrive at your blog, what are they expecting to find, and are you delivering that to them?

I think that if your audience is expecting that they’re hanging out at your corporate blog to get an authentic, real voice from real people behind the company, you had better give that to them. If they’re there expecting something that’s informative but not necessarily personal, you’d better deliver that, then. And how do you know? You ask. Before you ever launch that blog, you best be talking to the people that will be reading it.

There’s no one right answer, but I think certainly part of the backlash against mainstream media is the “canned” messaging. If we’re using blogs to perpetuate just another canned message, we’ve simply opened another broadcast channel, not made our communications any more “social”.

It’s all about goals and expectations between the writers and the readers.

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14 Jacqueline December 4, 2008 at 4:43 pm

As a small business marketing consultant I would say that although I don’t currently blog for clients I could see that they might not have the time to post as frequently as they would like to – and my services would then be used. Granted they would probably be used with owner of the blog approving them, but if I can generate more posts because I write more frequently they might see that as valuable. I guess you can hate that – but it is helpful to small businesses who are strapped for time and want the SEO.

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15 davidmullen December 4, 2008 at 5:20 pm

Wow! This has started a great discussion here. I haven’t had time to respond thoughtfully to your comments today, but I will this evening.

In case you thought I wasn’t going to jump back into the conversation… :)

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16 Patrick December 5, 2008 at 12:18 am

You are spot on, David. Ghost writing quotes for a press release is one thing, ghost writing a blog post is another because of the transparency element. I agree that ghost writing is a common practice, but I would encourage more executives to write with the aid of a PR team, rather than approve a piece after it’s done. I like authenticity in the voice of a company.

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17 davidmullen December 5, 2008 at 9:56 am

@danny brown – “and at the end of the day, isn’t it the personal touch that makes blogs so enjoyable?”

YES! I agree. That’s why ghost blogging is not only dishonest, but it brings limited/no value to your organization. Over time, people learn your “voice.” They come to expect it. What happens if the person at the agency who writes your posts leaves or if you hire a new agency. Your name is still on the banner, but suddenly it doesn’t sound so much like you anymore. And people *will* pick up on that.

@adam needles – Sorry to cause such a stir in the Needles house! Hope you didn’t get banished to the couch. :)

“the problem with social media is that the person whose name is on the post is assumed to be the person who wrote the piece.”

I wouldn’t refer to that expectation as a “problem” generally, but it does present the problem for ghost blogging. As I said, the difference in the space is the expectation that people have. You’ve summed that expectation up perfectly here.

@PRJack – Darn you and your good question!

“What if said exec simply didn’t have the time/isn’t a good enough writer to write a full post, but is willing to respond to comments made to the ‘ghost written’ blog?”

1. If said exec doesn’t have time to blog, why can’t he micro-blog instead? or use a multi-media platform like Utterli to share short videos with his thoughts? The point is that he doesn’t *have* to blog. There are lots of ways to engage with the community that aren’t as time intensive as blogging.

2. Why does it always have to be the busy executive/CEO who blogs? It doesn’t. You can identify a number of passionate employees from across job functions to blog. Many do that. At that point, the exec may have time to participate, since he could do a monthly or bi-weekly post on the state of the industry, or some other high-level topic.

3. Interesting question about ghost-blogging but the exec responding to comments. I actually think the ghost blogging part may be found out quicker, though, if you do that. Again, “voice” is important. And the exec and agency would have to work damn hard to make sure they are always matching in personality and voice. It could be mimicked for a while, but you’d always be a couple responses away from slipping.

@christine needles – Hope you’ve forgiven Adam. :)

“A corporate blog might also have a goal of serving as a platform for sharing insights and information – providing an avenue for thought leadership. Is that wrong?”

Heck, no it’s not wrong. In fact, it’s one of the benefits of corporate blogs. I wasn’t challenging it’s purpose as a thought leadership tool. It’s about letting readers now who’s thoughts they are and who’s writing it.

I don’t have a problem with facilitating the sharing of another person’s thoughts. I have a problem with masquerading as someone you’re not. That’s the difference.

I agree that we need to be open and honest about how the substance is generated and shared. Ghost blogging is the opposite of open and honest, though. See what I mean. As I mentioned in the post, I wouldn’t get upset about a blog being up front that the agency is doing the blogging. But I wouldn’t recommend going that route because I don’t think it delivers the best opportunities for you to attract and engage your customers. Why? Because they want to hear from *you!*

@doyle albee – I see no problem at all with someone engaging in the process, but getting help with grammar, punctuation, etc.

@brandon Chestnutt – “human to human interaction” Love it! That’s exactly what it’s all about. And you’re right that setting expectations with clients when developing the SM strategy is important. That could also help shape your strategy. If execs don’t have time to commit to blogging, you find other ways for them to engage that are less time intensive.

@amber naslund – Great point on identifying why folks are even coming to your blog in the first place. That definitely helps shape everything about your space. And, as you point out, you better damn well deliver on their expectations.

Also a great point about canned messages. That’s another reason why I think there is no appetite for ghost blogging in SM. People are tired of it, IMO.

@Jacqueline – Wow! “Hate” is such a strong word. I don’t think it’s beneficial in the long run. And, it’s really only beneficial in the short run until people find out someone else has been writing it all along. The initial reaction to that will be losing trust in the organization. And for good reason. If we aren’t transparent up front that someone else is writing all this stuff, then the expectation is that the exec is writing it. So, in essence, we would have been telling a lie. Yes, I believe omission can be considered a lie, too.

Again – why do they have to blog? Why can’t they use Twitter or Plurk or Utterli or any of the other platforms that allow you to engage in short bursts. Remember that SM is mostly about relationships. Blogs aren’t the only way to build those.

@Patrick Evans – “I like authenticity in the voice of the company.”

Exactly. Isn’t that what we all want? That’s how companies actually humanize their brands and benefit from the relationships with customers that SM facilitates.

GREAT conversations. Any other thoughts?

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18 PRJack December 5, 2008 at 11:05 am

Hey David… good fun that! And I gotta say your first to responses to my “questions” were home runs! Without my ‘Hat’ on I wholeheartedly agree. Part of the problem stems from the belief that ‘you have to blog’. That’s a big jump from ‘wanting to blog. And as you say… why does it have to be the busy exec? I think we’re seeing these exact things becoming more and more accepted as parts of Mar Comm as people become more savvy about SM Marketing.

That 3rd response… well, it’s not that you didn’t hit it outta the park, it’s just that the park is big and swampy. And if people were to focus on your first two points they likely wouldn’t have to deal with the third!

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19 Marifer December 5, 2008 at 11:29 am

Great post. I’m glad I catch on to the conversation thanks to your tweets with Patrick regarding this post this morning. Ghost writing quotes, like you mentioned in your post, is something we do without even thinking twice about it, and consider ethical since we definitely get the approval of the person we are quoting before we release it to the public. If they don’t like it, they change it, we just guide them. But, social media is a completely different thing all together. Social media platforms give you that that one-on-one feeling of getting to know not just the company they represent, but the person as well. You can’t ghost write that. You can’t fake personalities. For companies there is a need to have a plan/strategy behind their social media efforts, but the final results (blog post for example) should be real, not just pretend.

Thanks for putting it out there. I’m sure this topic will continue to spur many more great conversations.

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20 Lauren December 7, 2008 at 6:42 pm

Hey David – Just a few thoughts.

I have had the pleasure of working for both an agency and an association, which is pretty similar to a corporation in my mind (ie. the company that gives me my paycheck and the one I do PR for is the same).

An interesting comparison to your blog post is that of Edelman and Wal-mart, although they were not transparent about it at all, and in fact, made up the person who was blogging. However, if they had been up front that the agency was doing it, would it have made it better? Slightly, but not much.

If a company has a corporate social media plan, to even claim transparency it needs to be someone in the company. An agency is paid to bring positive about the company through media relations. Are they going to be viewed as a reliable source for transparency? In my eyes, no. They don’t have the corporate personality that the company is trying to get across to either their customers, members, target market, etc. It completely takes away the one-on-one feeling that a person might have.

It’s kind of like the automated phone system for customer service: which is better, a live person or the recorded voice? Which is going to make a person more at ease and relatable? Which is better, agency blogging for company or company blogging about themselves? And does an agency have the clout to blog about anything they want, gaining that transparency?

I agree with your post – two thumbs up. It’s great!

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21 Geri Rosman August 4, 2009 at 1:50 pm

David: I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. Cool that you attract such intelligent people who offer such thoughtful comments. For me, it comes down to one of two things: tweeting “about” a company or tweeting “as” the company. As a fellow publicist, I think the first is fine but the second one, well, I have a real problem with that too!

There’s a company here in NJ that I’m speaking with right now that I believe has a terrific opportunity to utilize social media to build buzz about their brand. So for them, I’d like to tweet “about” them — upcoming events and locations, about the founders, the product. But that would be me sharing my knowledge about the company.

I feel pretty strongly that “ghosttweeting” is misrepresentation. How could a CEO or senior executive possibly have the time to approve every tweet? How does your tweeting as someone else bring any credibility or authenticity to your client, their company, product or service?

Short and sweet? Tweet “about” not “as” and then your good to go! Hope this adds a bit to our conversation. Best/Geri R

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