Three Simple Rules About Blogging Ethics and Money

Yesterday’s clarification by Judge Marco A. Hernandez about treating bloggers as journalists points out the need for bloggers to follow basic ethical principles, especially as it relates to accepting money or requiring payment for our services.

Oregon blogger Crystal Cox had been sued for defamation — and lost — after writing blog posts that were critical of Obsidian Financial Group and its co-founder, Kevin Padrick. Cox had claimed she was a journalist and used Oregon’s Media Shield Law as her defense. But Hernandez decided she wasn’t a journalist at all.Roll of money

The reason she lost, the reason she was deemed to be not “media,” was that she basically tried to get Obsidian to pay her to repair the damage she was causing. As Hernandez wrote: [Read more…]

Inc. Magazine is NOT Charging You to Write Their Story

Hi Erik, this is Ken Lehman of Winning Workplace. You wrote that blog post about Inc. Magazine’s Top Small Company Workplaces.


I recognized the company name, even if I didn’t recognize Ken’s name.

Photo of Ken LehmanKen had read my blog post where I questioned the ethics of Inc. Magazine’s Top Small Company Workplaces story, and the fact that they were charging $149 for the application review just to be considered for the TSCW review.

Turns out I was barking up the wrong tree. And I have to thank Ken for patiently, and kindly, setting the record straight. Here’s what he told me:

Winning Workplaces is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded by his family in 2001. They were the Fel-Pro family, a business that was started and run by his family for more than 80 years, before they were sold.

Winning Workplaces was created to help small and mid-sized enterprises to become great places to work. They have done this project for 8 years. This is their 9th year for the award.

2010 was the first year Inc. was their media partner. Prior to that, they worked with the Wall Street Journal, and prior to that with Fortune Small Business.

In other words, Winning Workplaces gives the awards, and they have a relationship for Inc. Magazine to write the article. From there, other journalists pick it up, and it gets published in other news outlets.

The fees that are assessed — and they didn’t assess for the first several years — are paid to Winning Workplaces, not to Inc. They are nominal and cover the administrative costs to do the project. They are not any kind of editorial or advertorial, as I had previously thought. No one needs to apply without seeing the application first, and on the website, you can preview the application before you put any money up.

Winning Workplaces is made up of a small staff and his family has put a lot of money into the project over the years. Ken doesn’t even get paid for this. He does it for the satisfaction of helping other companies.

Ken said that the people who complete the application will often tell Winning Workplaces that the process is very instructive to their own businesses, and it helps them think about their workplaces differently. It gives them ideas about how they can improve themselves, regardless of whether they win, become a finalist, or even miss the first cut.

This year, they have 28 people lined up to do the initial reviewing and screening. Some of them volunteer, and others get paid nominal amounts to follow their whole methodology to do it. That’s where the money goes, not to Inc. Magazine.

When Ken’s family started Winning Workplaces, they did it because there was no recognition project for smaller organizations. In the 90s, when Ken was working for Fel-Pro, they made Forbes list of one of the good places to work in America. And when Fortune magazine started its 100 best companies to work for list, Fel-Pro was #4. When Fel-Pro was sold in 1998, one of the things they did was to share what they had learned with others, so they hit upon starting an organization. That’s where WW came from.

However, in 2000, Fortune Magazine stopped accepting applications from companies under 1,000 employees, and there was nowhere for smaller companies to go for this kind of recognition. That’s where the Top Small Company Workplaces project came from.

Since that time, it has proliferated, and there are now a number of recognition projects and lists around the country.

But — and this is where Winning Workplaces is different — theirs is the only ones where you can win once. Then you go into their hall of fame, and you can’t repeat.

Everyone else, on the other hand, has a business model where they sell their feedback to help companies move up the list, and earn a higher number, or at least to not fall off the list. In other words, companies will “sell” you consulting to keep you on the list; Winning Workplaces purposely avoids that kind of contamination.

So, having learned all that from Ken Lehman, I can see how the Top Small Company Workplaces award is actually worthwhile and beneficial to companies. I have to say a special thank you to Ken for calling me and setting me straight.

And now I want to enter the contest myself. But since we just moved into our new space 2 days ago (and we’re sharing it), I don’t know that we qualify.

Inc. Magazine Charges YOU To Help Write Their Stories. Is That Ethical? (Update: Yes, It Is)

Everything in this post — as I originally wrote it — was wrong.

A few days after I wrote this, I received a call from Ken Lehman of Winning Workplace, who very kindly and patiently explained to me what an idiot I was. (Okay, he didn’t really say that, but after talking with him, I realized I had been an idiot.)

I wrote a follow-up post to give you an idea of how Winning Workplace creates the Top Small Company Workplaces project for Inc. Magazine (i.e. this is Winning Workplace’s award, and Inc. is their media partner, and publishes the story. I think WW would do the award project even if they didn’t have a media partner. They’re just that awesome about their support for small businesses.)

So, I debated whether to remove this post or leave it up. I’m only leaving a very small part of it up, and deleting the rest.

Not because I’m embarrassed by it. I mean, I am. I’m totally embarrassed. But I’m typically okay with leaving evidence of my embarrassment in place for others to see.

No, I’m deleting it because I know the power of Google, and I don’t want Google to use this post as part of their search algorithm. After listening to Ken, I’m convinced that Winning Workplace is doing some excellent work, that Inc. Magazine is doing a good thing by publishing the story, and I don’t want my post to taint their work by associating it any search results Google may come up with.

So, read the smoking remains of this post, and then go over to the Inc. Magazine is NOT Charging You to Write Their Story to see the real story. And if you’re so moved, apply for the Top Small Company Workplaces award.

Want to apply to be one of Inc. Magazine’s Top Places to Work in 2011?

Great! It’s only $149 ($249 if your company has 101 – 500 employees).

And that’s just to see the application. Once you fill out the application, you may be selected as one of the Top Places to Work in 2011.



Really? We’re STILL Talking About Ghost Blogging?

What is it with these social media purists and ghost blogging? What exactly do they not understand?

Ghost blogging is a service that is provided by ghost writers. We transcribe interviews from our clients, get their approval for what we’ve written, and we post it to their blogs.

This is no more inauthentic than hiring a social media agency to run your social media campaign, or an ad agency to create your TV commercials. It’s no more inauthentic than private labeling/white labeling a product made by someone else — food companies do it all the time, and no one complains.

Avinash Kaushik makes a misinformed tweet about ghost bloggingMy friend, Doug Karr, recently wrote a post about Avinash Kaushik’s rather misinformed statement about “ghost blogging being the antithesis of everything social.”

Doug said:

It’s always interesting when someone with as much authority as Avinash throws out a rule like this. Not only do I disagree with Avinash, I know many, many companies who would disagree as well. Ghostblogging is not the antithesis of everything social… inauthenticity, dishonesty, and insincerity are the antithesis of everything social.

As a professional ghost blogger, I’m sick to death of people who paint ghost bloggers as some sort of moral leper, the used car salesmen of the social media industry. (Oops. There, now you’ve made me offend used car salesmen. Happy now?) These social media purists decry ghost blogging as being less than honest because CEOs of large corporations and small businesses don’t spend 1 – 2 hours a day crafting a single blog post.

“Oh, but if you were serious about it, you’d make the time,” they lilt, wagging their fingers at the slacker CEOs who whine that they’re “tired” after a 14 hour day. “Because social media is all about the conversation and community and the inherent good in other people.”

No it isn’t. Social media in the business world is all about making money. Businesses can’t pay their workers with conversations. You don’t appease shareholders with community. And their vendors don’t want to hear about all the good you’re finding in other people when they ask why you’re 60 days overdue.

If we followed the social media purists’ logic to its logical conclusion, we would not be allowed to use these other ghost-type services:

  • Businesses would have to produce their own ads, commercials, and graphics in-house. They could not hire an outside agency to do it. Or if they did, there would be a big disclaimer on it saying it was produced by that agency.
  • Software companies could not outsource their programming to freelance coders. They should do it all themselves.
  • Celebrities should not hire ghost writers to help with their books. They should be allowed to suck on their own.
  • Politicians would not be allowed to use ghost writers to write their speeches. They would have to mumble and fumble their way through every speech, no matter who they were. Or if they used a ghostwriter, they would have to interrupt their speech every 10 minutes with, “This speech was written by my ghost writer, Jeff Shesol.”

Ghost blogging is the last bastion of any kind of ghosting, where some purist thinks that we shouldn’t be allowed to do it because it’s “inauthentic.”

Do you know what’s inauthentic? Inauthentic is following fewer than 100 people while 25,000 people follow you on Twitter. f you’re in “the conversation” business, don’t you think you should have a conversation? Otherwise, you’re just holding a one-way broadcast with 25,000 people, and are showing that you’re not willing to listen to anyone else. That’s not authentic in the least bit.

Whether the purists like it or not, ghost blogging is going to only get more popular. As companies want to enter the social media marketing realm and realize they can’t, because they just laid off their best writers, they will look for other ways to gain that competitive edge. If they’re going to outsource their web design, their ad creation, and their strategy, why shouldn’t they outsource their writing too?

There are freelance writers in all other parts of business — marketing copy, TV scripts, radio scripts, ad copy, web copy, annual reports, press releases, white papers, grant proposals — so why is blog writing so different from all those other forms of ghost writing?

It isn’t. If you hire someone to write something for you, and you don’t stick their name on it, they’re a ghost writer. I don’t care if it’s marketing, advertising, or grants. They’re a ghost writer. No one is complaining about their inauthenticity or their non-transparency.

So the purists need to get off their high horse, learn how the world works, and accept the fact that ghost writers are skilled writers who are paid to provide a service for other people. And we’re going to be here for a while.

No, It’s NOT Okay To Edit Spam Comments

Last week, I asked the question whether it was ethical to edit spam commentsto get rid of the URL that is being used to generate some SEO juice for the spammers, but leave the semi-spammy comment in place.

Stack of cans of spam

Now THAT'S a lot of Spam

I expected some vigorous debate and discussion with people on both sides of the argument. But with a couple of exceptions, everyone said, “No, this is not okay!

(Before I go on, let me say, we got some wonderful feedback and comments, so I want to thank everyone who took the time to read the post and respond.)

I was actually surprised by the near unanimous stance everyone took. I figured it would be more of an even split on the issue, with a large number of people saying they thought it was okay to beat the spammers by using their own energies against them, sort of a blogging jiu jitsu. But, nearly everyone was of the opinion that we, as real bloggers, should be above this, and should not resort to the same practices as the spammers.

Fellow blogger Brian Shelton summed it up best.

Erik, I think deleting them is the best option. Editing them just so you can keep a “semi-generic praise-ish” comment doesn’t seem right. Is it that important to receive praise, especially if it is not “legitimate” anyway. I think the ethical debate rests more in the decision to keep known spam comments – minus the links – just to make it look like people like your blog.

That was the majority opinion, and made the most sense. And it seemed to cover most types of blog comments, although Daniel Clark of made an interesting point:

It’s interesting that not a single person here, most notably the ones who say they will strip any and all links left in their blog’s comments, has opted out of including *their* link in *these* comments.

(Touché, Daniel.)

The Other Side of the Debate: Editing for Spelling & Punctuation

However, one person, an ethics blogger, said on his blog that he did not think it was inappropriate to edit typos and grammar errors in another person’s comment. But I disagree. That’s a line I won’t cross. It’s not up to me to fix someone’s spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors. They’re their errors, not mine, and they should not be fixed because I have to have everything perfect.

A post and its comments are a historical record, to show what people were thinking and saying at that time. If they make a mistake, it’s not my place to adjust the historical record because I have a weird fixation on spelling and grammar.

(And no, I don’t think spammers deserve to be a part of the historical record.)

That’s why most bloggers will fix an error in information by striking out the error and writing the correct information next to it. They will also put an Update: note at the bottom of the post, so people can see that the information has been updated and corrected. (Note: this doesn’t extend to typos and misspellings. I think we can fix those without telling everyone “I fixed a typo.”)

Photo credit: Freezelight (Flickr)

Why We’re Opposed to Medical Ghostwriting

My friend Melanie Audette recently sent me an article from the New York Times about the problems of medical paper ghostwriting, and how Senator Charles Grassley (IA-R) is putting pressure on the National Institutes of Health to put a stop to it.

Medical ghostwriting, sayeth the Times, goes something like this:

But evidence of the breadth of the practice has come to light only gradually, most recently in documents released in litigation over menopause drugs made by Wyeth.

The documents offer a look at the inner workings of DesignWrite, a medical writing company hired by Wyeth to prepare an estimated 60 articles favorable to its hormone drugs. In one publication plan, for example, DesignWrite wrote that the goal of the Wyeth articles was to de-emphasize the risk of breast cancer associated with hormone drugs, promote the drugs as beneficial and blunt competing drugs. The articles were published in medical journals between 1998 and 2005 — continuing even though a big federal study was suspended in 2002 after researchers found that menopausal women who took certain hormones had an increased risk of invasive breast cancer and heart disease.

We’re opposed to this kind of ghostwriting, because it’s dishonest, unethical, and presents all kinds of conflicts of interest.

“What’s that?” you’re asking. “But you’re in the ghostwriting business.”

Yes, but we’re not that kind of ghostwriter.

In medical ghostwriting, a writer for a pharmaceutical company will create a scientific paper extolling the virtues, efficacy, and non-lethalness of their drugs. But rather than release them under their own name, they instead invite some university professors to attach their name to the paper. The professors get publication credit in medical journals (very important if they don’t have tenure), and the drug companies can say, “Look, Dr. Dwayne Hoover of Medical University said our drug works and won’t kill you.”

The full scope of the ghostwriting problem is still unclear, but recent revelations suggest that the practice is widespread. Dozens of medical education companies across the country draft scientific papers at the behest of drug makers. And placing such papers in medical journals has become a fundamental marketing practice for most of the large pharmaceutical companies.

You have hopefully seen the problem here. First, the professor didn’t write it. Second, the professor is attaching his or her name to a drug that may actually not work as advertised. Third, there is an assumption of public trust that the professor did the work and did not receive payment for allowing his or her name to be used.

Universities Hypocritical In Their Response to Plagiarism versus Medical Ghostwriting

The New York Times said something interesting, something that should send shudders through the hallowed halls of our educational institutions:

Yet many universities have been slow to recognize the extent of the problem, to adopt new ethical rules or to hold faculty members to account.

It’s rather ironic, since universities will expel students for putting their name on a paper someone else wrote, yet do nothing to the faculty members who do the exact same thing. So what’s the difference? Could it be that the professors bring in large research grants are valued members of the academic community and should be forgiven these little errors of judgment? If so, what kind of message does that send to the students who have been expelled for exactly the same thing? But more importantly. how will the universities turn their backs on all that money find a fair and ethical way to treat transgressors on both sides of the desk?

“But, but,” sputter the social media purists, “that’s what you do for your clients.”

Au contraire, my naïve little friends. We get the information from our clients and write it for them. The client tells us what they want to talk about, we gather the information by interviewing them, and then write the article based on what they told us. It’s the client’s words, the client’s thoughts, we just transcribed it.

It’s the same way a CEO writes a letter to the shareholders or a politician writes a speech (i.e. they don’t, someone else does).

“But, but,” re-sputter the purists, “it’s not their own work. They have to do their own work.”

Look, let’s join the real world here for a minute. As we have said before, this kind of ghostwriting goes on in the business and political world everywhere else. CEOs and politicians don’t write their own material, and no one has uttered a single squawk. Marketing directors freelance their graphics design and copywriting to professionals, and no one complains (nor should they). In fact, there are only two places where practitioners are expected to write their own content: journalism and. . . oh, uh. . . academia. Oopsie.

(And then there was one.)

Like I said, we’re opposed to medical ghostwriting. We never put words into a client’s mouth or thoughts into their head. Anything we create has originally come from the client, whether it’s a recorded interview, an article they forwarded, or even an article we found and asked “what do you think?” We don’t come up with something that may run counter to the client’s beliefs or practices and ask them to approve it.

This is vastly different from the university professors who let someone else write something they may not actually believe just for the sake of a publication credit and a fat research grant.

So while the academicians may sit on their high horse and unfurl their banners of academic integrity, you may want to take a look behind you first.

There seems to be some confusion within your own ranks.