Disclaimer: This article was originally written and published waaaaay back in 2011 in response to a “controversy” that hit close to home for me right at the fateful point where I’d thrown caution to the wind and dove headfirst into full-time freelancing as what came to be known as a content marketing specialist. I’m republishing it now because I was truly impressed to see that, while some of the thoughts and wording are obviously dated, the overall theme and argument are as sound and thought-provoking today as they were back then. — Justin P Lambert.
For a few years now, there’s been a whirlwind of controversy all over the web about the topic of ghostwritten blog posts. Go ahead and Google it. I’m really pretty amazed at the amount of virtual column inches this story has taken up.
Here are a few thoughts I think are very well presented, whether I agree or not:
The Ethics of Ghostwriting Online by Dean Rodgers at Koifish
Ghostwriting, Social Media and Ethics by Beth Harte at MarketingProfs
The Ethics of Ghostwriting Blogs and Marionette Social Media by Dave Wieneke at Useful Arts
The Ethics, or Lack Thereof, of Ghost Blogging by Jason Falls at Social Media Explorer
Give equal attention to the comments on these well-thought-out posts and you’ll see the battle lines have been drawn.
You’ll also see all manner of buzzwords flying through the discussion: ethics, transparency, integrity, continuity and disclosure, among others.
Forgive me if I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, but…
I DON’T GET IT.
It seems people are up-in-arms over the fact that someone — like a busy executive, entrepreneur or celebrity, for instance — would have the audacity to allow another person to write articles on their behalf without advertising to the world that they’ve done so.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure as a species, we’re already fairly comfortable with that concept:
ghost writer– noun — a person who writes one or numerous speeches, books, articles, etc., for another person who is named as or presumed to be the author. Also, ghost·writ·er. (Origin: 1895–1900, Americanism) ~ Courtesy of Dictionary.com
Did you notice we’ve had ghostwriters named as a legitimate, understood profession for over 120 years? That’s an interesting concept.
No one expects the President to write his own speeches. No one expects a Major League Baseball player to write his own autobiography. No one expects a busy CEO to chime in on every company newsletter with his own 350-word article… so why is a blog post so tremendously different?
Some people say it’s a matter of transparency. Social media, they say, is built on the personal, human connection. The people. And since blogs are the godfathers of social media, they need to keep in line with that ideal.
Okay, I suppose I can see what they mean about social media’s personal connection. But that hasn’t stopped businesses from taking over every aspect of it with one form of marketing or another.
I challenge anyone to locate a viable social media outlet that does not have some form of sponsored interaction, self-promotional message, shameless commercialization or other come-on included on the very first page you see when you log on.
Sponsored tweets, Facebook Pages, everything about LinkedIn… this is marketing. Messages based on the basics of solid copywriting, especially writing quality headlines. Advertising, really.
For over a century, when marketing managers decided to launch a new advertising campaign, who do they call?
cop·y·writ·er [kop-ee-rahy-ter] — noun — a writer of copy, especially for advertisements or publicity releases. (Origin: 1910–15; copy + writer) ~ Courtesy of Dictionary.com
Exactly. So in 2011, when a marketing manager decides to jump into, or expand, a social media marketing strategy, why on earth do we consider him unethical or deceptive if he wants to call the same guy he’s always called to handle writing top-notch marketing copy?
Copywriters have never signed their name to the bottom of their ads, in any time, in any media, in any industry, for any reason. Period.
Many of these ads feature the personal pronouns “I”, “we”, and “our” when referring to the company’s products, services, expertise or experience. Some even (God forbid!) include a picture of the “face of the company” such as the owner or a celebrity spokesperson.
I’m pretty sure, back in the day, I even saw one or three direct mail sales letters SIGNED BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE COMPANY!!! (Here’s a shocker: I don’t think he wrote it! Not one word of it!)
Has anyone ever taken a company to task for letting some copywriter futz around with what appear to be the words of the president of the company? For that matter, has anyone ever called a celebrity spokesperson unethical for reading their cue cards when the camera rolls?
Of course not.
Because they’re doing their job.
I’m a writer. It’s what I do.
If I’d started freelancing 20 years ago, I probably would have focused a good portion of my time on trying to land freelance magazine article gigs in addition to my copywriting and speechwriting work. One of the best, and most profitable, ways to handle that aspect of the market is to ghostwrite articles in trade magazines on behalf of wanna-be experts who want and need publishing credits to build their credibility.
Since I started freelancing during the 21st century, it only makes sense that, instead of pursuing print magazines, I pursue their digital equivalents: blogs.
That’s right, I’m that horrible touchstone to the end of civilization as we know it: a ghostwriter.
I write articles that my clients post on their blogs in hopes of earning credibility, building a community, sharing valuable information, and (in most cases) making a buck or two.
Why do they hire me? Because I write well, and they don’t. Or I have the time to write and they don’t. Or I like to write and they don’t.
Whatever the reason, they’ve decided that they need to connect to their audience in the interactive digital media world, and a blog is the medium they’ve chosen to use. So, like so many millions of businesspeople before them, they’ve weighed their options and they’ve decided to hire a professional to polish their message to a high shine.
I don’t see what’s wrong with that.
As a professional writer, I know I’m not going to take on the responsibility of firing off blog articles that no one is looking at and approving, of course. I’d never allow one of my posts to be put out there without the understanding that the client has reviewed and approved every comma in there.
But once that’s been done and the client has signed off on the work, it’s his. Not mine. And in my estimation, since he paid me as a ghostwriter, he paid for the privilege of putting his name on it with no more questions asked. From anyone.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, the same argument works perfectly well with tweets, status updates, questions and answers on LinkedIn or Quora… really any social media format, because all of it serves as a valid marketing method for various businesses and individuals to explore.
Personally, I don’t offer ghosttweeting services or any other site-specific ghosting. But it’s not an ethical issue for me.
I simply don’t consider myself an expert yet in those areas. You can bet that as soon as I do, I’ll start suggesting the possibility to every ghost-blog client I work with.
Is that unethical? I don’t think so.
It’s just good business.
What do you think? Should blogs be ghostwritten? Should the blog owner let you know if he or she doesn’t write all the content? What about social updates? Blow up my comments!