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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Invisible Hand

Though I wasn’t selected to be one of the “Four Horsemen of PR” (Steve Farnsworth, Todd Defren, Lou Hoffman and Paul Roberts), I still wanted to participate in their new blog project. Over the next four weeks each will be given a common topic to blog about, and following each topic their individual perspectives will be shared and discussed via social media.

Steve extended an invitation for me to join in covering one or all of the topics and I accepted the challenge. I find this to be a great social media exercise and an excellent educational resource for up and coming PR pros. I only hope that my insights and opinions add to the dialogue and holds up with the offerings from this collective of PR heavyweights. The group’s first topic: Is Ghost Blogging Ethical?

For the non PR pros and writers peeking in on this project, “Ghost Blogging” refers to the act of an anonymous wordsmith penning blog posts under the guise of being someone else (e.g. the CEO of a Fortune 500 company). Just imagine if all of the great and sometimes controversial blog posts from the Dallas Mavericks basketball team owner, Mark Cuban, were not his own words.

It also can refer to a non-organizational entity anonymously writing blog posts on behalf of that organization as though coming from one of its actual employees. Ghost blogging is not an uncommon phenomenon and because it involves communication skills and writing, often times you’ll find a PR pro playing the ventriloquist to other people’s words.

As a person who has owned up to engaging in this practice in a previous blog entry, one would assume that my position on this is pretty cut and dry. However, my actual take is a tad more nuanced. And at the crux of that nuance is this concept of “ethical.”

According to the definition provided, the term ethical simply means that something (in this case a practice) conforms to accepted standards of social or professional behavior. If this is the definition of ethical and I’ve already indicated that ghost blogging is pretty common, that would support it being a widely accepted professional behavior – thus proving it to be ethical. Besides, if the moral majority of our profession thought otherwise, there would be more of an uproar, as well as a stigma attached to the practice, say as in “Pay for play.”

But again, I’m still zeroing in on the nuances. The act itself of Ghost Blogging may be accepted as ethical, but its implementation may not be. Blogs, particularly CEO Blogs, provide audiences with another window into the thought processes of leaders. It provides the reader with a more intimate connection to the author because these are allegedly his/her exact words unfiltered or hampered by legal and PR. Additionally, these first-person blogs also provide content unavailable in press releases or organizational publications.

Going back to the Mark Cuban example… if we learned that a team communications staffer or a personal publicist was behind his blog entries, it would make the whole thing seem disingenuous and somewhat deceptive. People that become fans or devotees to a particular blog, do so to receive, among other things, the truth. There is no truth in deception, especially when you by into a narrative. When one commits to a first-person blog what you’re saying in essence is that you believe the insights, the humor, the venom, the admissions and the honesty, as provided only in this type of forum.

Because I’m in the field of public relations, a bit of a cynic and I decided long ago to the take the blue pill to unhitch myself from the matrix, I look at organizational blogs in a completely different manner. I don’t become attached to these blogs or necessarily believe that the entries are penned by leadership. So to reach into a comparison that hits a little closer to home for me, I offer the world of hip hop.

When you think of ghost writing in general it can give one pause, but when it comes to hip hop music, where the perception of authenticity is king, it can be met with a negative backlash. I remember when I first discovered that not all rappers wrote their own rhymes, that sometimes other lesser known or more prolific artists were the authors (thanks S. Carter for shedding light on that).

Back then it was a very taboo thing for rappers to employee someone else to provide the words they said. It meant not only that you didn’t have the skills to say rhymes but also that the rhymes you said rang hollow because someone else put them in your mouth. In essence…you’re wack. And CEOs that don’t write their own blog entries, maybe they should be considered wack too (but we’ll leave that up to the blog readers to decide).

In conclusion, the question may be asked, given all that has been said, should Ghost Blogging continue as a practice? To this question, my answer is YES! Ghost Blogging provides another useful function for PR professionals and will more than likely provide somebody with a job. But maybe…just maybe, there’s a better way to handle the blogs done for organizational/company leaders. As opposed to indicating “written by…,” maybe we can indicate “as written in collaboration with…”

That’s just my five cents on the topic (you can keep the change).


  1. Practitioner,

    I enjoyed your post.

    You're right. This topic of ghost blogging carries considerable nuance.

    The following sentence in your post in particular caught my attention:

    "Blogs, particularly CEO Blogs, provide audiences with another window into the thought processes of leaders."

    This strikes me as the crux of the matter; i.e., does the content of the blog reflect the "thought processes" of the person/blogger?

    I agree with you.

    If that person/blogger depends on a writer to capture those "thought processes," the macro mission has been accomplished.

    Lou Hoffman

  2. Hey Lou thanks for weighing in. I read your post on the topic, as well as Todd and Robert's and it appears that we all stop short of calling it unethical.

    I only take issue when the Ghost Blogger is not just conveying the thoughts of the individual he/she is blogging on behalf, but also trying to manufacture the spirit of the person's personality (including their whit). I don't find that to be "real." But everything else is fair game.


  3. In my post I wanted to include a paragraph on how the “blogger” might comfortable add acknowledgment that there was another hand in its development. All I could come up with is something about an editor. For the sake of time, I could come up with any clever solutions, I dropped it from my post. I was delighted at your turn of phrase, “written in collaboration with…” It is spot on!

  4. Larry,

    Agree with your point.

    Yet, the best writers whether ghosting a speech, op-ed or a post are able to "channel" the individual at the helm.


  5. Steve - I borrowed that credit acknowledgment from the ghost writers who work with entertainers or politicians to write books. But I suppose technically, they aren't ghost writers if we actually know who they are.

    Lou - I suppose I didn't view it from a creative standpoint. If you're a writer that can actually channel another individual's actual personality and whit, then you've got skills. And in my book, that makes you one "bad" writer.

  6. Totally understand both sides of the argument. I would rather see the posts attributed to the writer, but then have occasional posts (actually) written by the CEO- more of a guest blog post.

    That would say to me, "hey, I don't have time to always write this blog, but I feel this is important and I want to share".