We’re Ghost Bloggers, We’re Here, Get Used to It!

Someone recently posted a discussion on Smaller Indiana, saying he didn’t recommend ghost blogging for his clients, but would write a blog post for the client as long as he could put a link to an email to his service as a way to show people the content was provided by a third party.

This is an oddly Puritanical viewpoint to have about writing, since ghost writing goes on everywhere else. Blogging is the last frontier where ghosting is frowned upon.

As a freelance writer, I have written sales letters, web copy, press releases, brochure copy, speeches for US Congressional campaigns, and of course, blogs. No one assumes that these things are written by the person who signed it, owns it, delivers it.

No one complained that I wasn’t being transparent. The client never said, “we’ll put your company URL on our press release.” I never got any credit for the sales letters or press releases, I got money. That was all the credit I needed.

Look, we outsource things in this world. Small businesses outsource their accounting to independent accountants. No one complains about that. Large companies outsource their advertising production to ad agencies. They don’t buy cameras and software, or hire full-time actors to wait around the office until they need another commercial. And of course, we’ve all been on the phone with the tech guy named “Steve,” who speaks with a thick accent. Think that’s not outsource? Think again.

So why the bias against ghost blogging? Is the only problem the fact that when I wrote it, I didn’t have an office and get a full-time salary from that client? Is that the hangup? That I don’t make 100% of my income from that particular client?

“It’s not transparent and authentic” say the so-called social media “experts” (and don’t get me started on those guys).

There’s a big difference between transparency and authenticity, and most people make the mistake of using them interchangeably.

“Transparency” means other people can see what you’re doing. “Authenticity” means you’re being truthful about what you say.

If we write a blog post for a client, the client is still being authentic. We’re echoing that client’s viewpoint. We’re saying the things they believe and espouse. We’re not making it up or giving them new ideas. We learn about the viewpoint through talking with the client, writing the information they give us, and then making sure they approve the post. (Inauthentic means I put words into the other person’s mouth, and say things that are out of character or completely contrary to their views.)

I would have to do these things if I were a full-time employee too. The only difference is I would then have to go to five hours of meetings to listen to other people blather on about the mission statement of this committee, and why it’s crucial that we use the word “provide” instead of “offer.” (Personally, I don’t think emotional torture and abuse of the soul is a prerequisite to writing authentic blog posts, but that’s just me.)

Transparency is a completely different issue. Yes, ghost blogging is not transparent. Neither is ghostwriting a book, a political speech, a CEO’s letter, or a press release. The politician doesn’t thank his or her speechwriter. The CEO doesn’t include a special P.S. shout out to their writers. Yet no one is clamoring that we need more transparency in those areas.

But speaking out against ghost blogging is like the Ladies’ Temperance Union decrying beer in restaurants, yet completely ignoring wine and liquor.

If you’re going to frown on ghost blogging, then you need to call for transparency in all ghost writing. Either freelancers need to claim credit on every ghostwritten piece of material that’s in the public stream, or we need to let go of this bias altogether. I think it’s inconsistent to take issue with ghost blogging and yet turn a blind eye to every other form of ghost writing.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.

    Comments

    1. @Jeff – Glad to know for sure you are a real person! :-)

      Just to be clear, I generally think ghostblogging is INCREDIBLY valuable. Just on numerical calculations alone, hiring a ghostblogger is much more cost effective than trying to write something yourself, assuming you are not a professional writer. Of course, you might hire an incompetent writer, but that risk exists anywhere.

      And furthermore, ghostwriting is not inherently unethical. It’s an accepted practice in some contexts. It’s really the audience that decides whether or not a piece can be ghostwritten. So yes, we both agree that ghostblogging can be accomplished ethically.

      My ultimate point is that hiring a ghost writer is a tradeoff. While there is a tremendous gain in cost savings you take on the risk of being branded as unethical. But I do think these are significant challenges above and beyond the ethical challenges of writing in general. All writers are expected to cite sources, but a ghostwriter is not only expected to cite sources, but to determine the degree to which audience expects to know they exist.

      It’s a fascinating field and it’s not black and white. Good luck in your continued efforts to ghostwrite (ethically) for your blogging clients!
      .-= Robby Slaughter´s last blog ..Netflix, Tyranny and Culture =-.

    2. Jeff Madden says:

      @Robby, I can assure you that the name “Jeff Madden” is not completely made up. If it was, that would have significantly changed the tone of some past coversations I have had with a few creditors!

      I can also see your point that everyone involved in the “to ghost write or not to ghost write” decision must behave ethically, just as they should in any other action. While ghost writing MAY introduce new ethical questions, I do not believe they are substantially different or of larger magnitude than existing ethical concerns that all non-demonstrative writing must deal with. (The obvious exceptions of academic work and sworn testimony – demonstrative works – create much larger ethical concerns.)

      The only issue I have with your original post is that you implied that ghost writing in and of itself was unethical by definition. However, I am now of the opinion that you did not imply that, but rather I inferred it by misunderstanding your original post. My change in opinion was caused by the sentence in your subsequent reply that said “My point is not that ghost writing is wrong.” I will go out on a limb and infer that you mean your point is not that ghost writing is wrong. At least, not by definition.

      So, we are not as far apart on this issue as I once thought. We might disagree on the value that ghost writers provide (especially if they have my communication skills), or even with the magnitude of the ethical questions involved, but I think we can both agree that ghost blogging (ghlogging?) can be accomplished ethically.

    3. @admin: Every writer everywhere “stands on the shoulders” of others. Both of us just did when we borrowed that phrase from Newton! The point is not whether or not the writer was inspired or supported by other people, it’s whether the readers of the medium expect for the byline to bear the name of the actual writer.

      Let’s use the example in the comment above, which is attributed to “Jeff Madden.” I would venture that most people would assume a real person named Jeff Madden actually thought up those words and typed them out in response.

      But what if Jeff Madden has an intern who writes blog comments for him? Perhaps if Jeff and the writer had a conversation, and if Jeff *approved* the comment before publication, most people would probably find that practice acceptable.

      Now, if the name Jeff Madden was completely made up, or if the writer never spoke to Jeff Madden, there might be reasonable grounds to debate the ethics of ghostwriting in this medium. I bet most people would find that practice unethical.

      My point is not that ghostwriting is wrong. Rather, ghostwriting introduces new ethical questions *on top* of the existing ethical questions already present in writing. You can save time and money by using a ghostwriter, but you have to be extra careful that you aren’t violating the expectations of the audience in the medium.

      The point is well taken that not all writing is intended to show evidence of past effort. I do think that all writing is intended to show evidence of expertise. The ethical ghostwriter restates the beliefs of the subject in written form. As long as that conversation occurs and the ghostwriter accurately characterizes the ideas, the practice does demonstrate expertise. However, a non-expert can hire an unethical ghostwriter to make them look good in written form. This fails to meet the test for readers: that the originator of the ideas actually knows what they are talking about.

      I suppose in summary the most important point to make about ghostwriters is to ensure that you and your ghostwriter both make ethical choices regarding the generation of ideas and attribution. If you don’t, you may suffer at the hands of the people.
      .-= Robby Slaughter´s last blog ..Starbucks and Going Lean =-.

    4. @Robbie, the reason students and journalists are not allowed to “ghost” their work is because students are expected to demonstrate knowledge and learning. Journalists are expected — by the public and by their very own ethics — to do their own work.

      There are very few other occupations that I can think of where one person does not stand on the shoulders of others. Trial lawyers and screenwriters benefit from the work of others, but they get all the credit.

      And what about the graduate student who does all the work writing an article for an academic journal. There’s always a professor’s name attached to the article as one of the co-authors, yet I’m willing to bet the grad student did most of the work.

      The professor may have talked about the idea, proofed the paper, and gave final approval, but the grad student did all the wordsmithing.

      Sort of like what a ghost blogger does.

    5. Jeff Madden says:

      Robby,

      There is nothing “mythical” about who is being referred to:

      The original post decried the use of ghost bloggers but, as has been pointed out, other forms of ghost writing are perfectly acceptable. No arguments have been made completely for or against the practice.

      When people complain about ghost writers, they almost always bring up the ethical implications of a student hiring a “ghost writer” to complete academic work. But maintaining that practice as unethical, while allowing for other forms of ghost writing is not inconsistent. The student is being graded on their knowledge of the subject matter at hand and the work done in researching and preparing the paper, the evidence of which is the paper itself. Having someone else write the paper and presenting it as the result of the student’s own efforts (and receiving course credit for it) is fraud. It would be akin to taking an oath in a court of law, and delivering false testimony that someone else wrote (another situation when “ghost writing” would be unethical, and even illegal). A politician, on the other hand, is not graded on the words they speak, but the actions they take (or at least they should be). When a speech is delivered, no matter who writes it, it becomes the speaker’s promise for future actions, not evidence of past efforts.

      The issue with celebrities hiring ghost writers is a little more grey when it is very possible that the only reason a person buys the book is because they believe it to contain that celebrity’s own writing, as in the cases of Bill Cosby and Hilary Clinton, mentioned in the link you provided. However, that falls more towards the category of celebrity endorsement, and is very different than the purchased term-paper. Equating them shows a basic misunderstanding of the purposes of two very different types of media (I am forced to contemplate the validity of an “Ethics Scorecard” generated by someone who profits from “ethics training and consulting”). The celbrity ghost writer only comes up in the ethics debate because people pay money to read what is written, unlike a blog post that is free to the public.

      The ghost written blog, just like any blog, is written to get information to the public, similar to a public speech. As long as no false statements are made, ethics plays little part in who actually writes the words.

    6. Who are these mythical people opposed to ghostblogging but not opposed to other forms of ghostwriting? Clearly, you are either completely against ghostwriting (because it’s misattribution) are you a completely for ghostwriting (because it’s legitimate outsourcing.)

      Obviously our society is used to the idea that writing is sometimes done by somebody else. However, we are not consistent. It’s okay if a politician uses a speechwriter, but a violation of ethics if student pays someone to author a college essay. It’s fine if a company hires an advertising firm to write copy, but we sometimes riot when celebrities use ghostwriters.

      Sure, ghostwriting is commonplace, but that’s not an argument that it’s an ethical practice. Lots of aspects of our society are common but also undesired. However, ghostwriting is certainly convenient. That’s the real reason to hire a ghostwriter: you can save time and money.

      The challenge of ghostwriting is that it’s not as clear cut as other forms of outsourcing. Everybody knows politicians never write their own speeches and everybody knows that newspaper columnists always write their own columns. But no one is quite sure exactly what is done on blogs. Ghostbloggers and their clients have to be careful to represent their work in a way which doesn’t upset their readers.

      Of course, clients could just do all their blogging themselves and avoid any potential ethical issues, but that’s never going to happen.
      .-= Robby Slaughter´s last blog ..How and Why to Meet =-.

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