So what’s wrong with ghostwriting an executive blog?

I’ve been thinking about an item in a recent survey that says only 20 percent of senior business executives write their own blogs.

The survey was conducted in October by PR veteran David Davis who published the results last week. Shel and I talked about it last Thursday in show #100 of our biweekly podcast.

While I take this survey overall with a little pinch of salt as apart from geographical facts it doesn’t provide any detailed information breaking down the survey group, nor say how many actually sent back responses, the item in question about executive blogging is quite interesting as I think it shows the tip of an iceberg as to what is already happening in some organizations.

Let’s look at the specific survey questions re executive blogging and the posted results:

  1. Do you write your own blogs without advice?
    – Yes 17%
    – No 83%
  2. Why don’t you write your own blogs?
    – Too time consuming 48%
    – Difficulty in expressing themselves in writing 39%
  3. How would you describe a ‘ghost written’ company blog?
    – ‘A sham’ 8%
    – ‘Totally misleading’ 5%
    – ‘Marginally misleading’ 43%
    – ‘Acceptable’ 44%

The answers to questions 1 and 2 don’t surprise me a bit. This would be broadly in line with what you’d expect in many organizations where senior executives don’t produce their own communication material. That’s one of the reasons why those organizations have communicators!

Communicators devise, plan and write the content and messages that CEOs and others will use and deliver. Press releases, speeches, presentations, etc. Why should an executive blog be different?

Before you say “Yes, but…” in relation to those phrases we hear all the time about blogs (authentic voice, personality of the author, etc), let’s look at question 3 – the interesting one.

The answers are quite telling and, in the absence of any other detail, must be based on one crucial assumption – that there is full and clear disclosure somewhere as to who the author is. I cannot really imagine that the 44 percent of those senior executives who say it’s acceptable to do this would have said that otherwise. On the other hand, this view is countered by 43 percent saying it’s marginally misleading (although I’m not sure what the word ‘marginally’ means – it’s either misleading or it’s not).

Let’s be clear on what we mean by ‘ghostwritten.’ Consider this definition from Wikipedia:

A ghostwriter is a writer who writes under someone else’s name, with their consent. Ghostwriters are often employed by celebrities to write autobiographies in situations in which the celebrities themselves may not be talented writers, or are too busy doing other work.

Other writers are also employed, with proper billing, by authors whose names alone will sell a book, such as Tom Clancy, many of whose recent works bear the names of two persons on their covers — Clancy’s name in larger print and the other author’s name in smaller print. Sometimes a professional writer will receive partial credit, signified by “with” or “as told to”. Credit may also appear as a “thanks” in a foreword or introduction. Strictly speaking, if the less famous writer’s role and name are clearly acknowledged in the work as published, this is not ghostwriting but collaboration.

Just because a book is ghostwritten does not necessarily mean that the credited author did not make a significant contribution to the work; a ghostwriter is often employed to polish and edit existing material, or to work directly with the credited author to shape the book from start to finish.

You can simply substitute ‘blog’ for ‘book.’

So with clear disclosure, I don’t see any problem at all with an organization having someone write a senior executive’s blog. I’m willing to hear any persuasive argument to the contrary, though.

Today, via Josh Hallett, I read Steve Warren’s article in which he talks about hiring bloggers to write the content for corporate blogs.

A trend, Steve says. I agree. I think the picture he paints is something we will see much more of.

8 thoughts on “So what’s wrong with ghostwriting an executive blog?

  1. I think the word marginally in Q3 is significant, and don’t agree that ‘misleading’ is binary. For example, it would be very hard indeed to say that a statement was either a truth or a lie; sometimes, yes, but by no means always. Truth is a very slippery concept indeed and my suggestion is that the reason so many respondents choose to to qualify their responses with the fuzzy word marginally is that they are uncertain as to exactly how honest it is to have a ghostwritten blog.
    I think it is quite likely that if you asked the subjects of 100 ghostwritten books you would get a similarly high number of ‘marginally misleadings’ – they are sufficiently comfortable with the outcome to sign-off the book but still aware that is slightly different from the truth as they would tell it. As I begin to argue in a Mediations post Ghost in the Blogging Machine, this vague discomfort in the use of ghost writers highlights a faultline in perceptions of what PR is and what it could and should do.

  2. Actually, Philip, I wonder whether repondents choosing to qualify their responses with the fuzzy word ‘marginally’ is more to do with the fuzziness of the question itself by offering that word as a choice.
    In the context of this topic, I really can’t see how anyone can use the phrase ‘marginally misleading.’ It either is or it isn’t.
    If the content of an executive’s blog is written by someone else, there is no deception as long as there is clear disclosure of that fact.
    Whether it’s ‘good PR’ or not is another matter.

  3. Let’s recall the core values of blogging. The 9 Core Values will answer most questions of this nature.
    Ghost Blogging is wrong because it violates user expectations of hearing directly from the blog author, of interacting via comments and email, with a real person who is who he says he is. This is also why Fictional Character blogs suck.
    Come on. Think. People are sick of anonymity. Telemarketing recorded message calls. Voice mail options menus.
    People wish to interact with a real person at a company.
    Most businesses will not blog, and I’m glad, because they don’t want to hear from consumers. They are arrogant and have only one thing to say: “Buy my product”. Only one thing they want to hear: “Love your product”.

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more, Steven, when you speak of people wishing to interact with a real person at a company. That’s an oft-said phrase in relation to the appeal of blogs.
    On ghostwriting and user expectations, isn’t this the key – setting the right expectations? So if your executive blog is written by a professional blog writer (such as Steve Warren talks about in his post) rather than the exec him or herself, isn’t that ok as long as that fact is crystal clear?
    Again, I’m not speaking about whether this is ‘good PR’ or not, purely looking at it from the transparency point of view.
    Interesting what you say about fictional character blogs. Do you think a ghostwritten executive blog might fall under this category?

  5. Ghostwriting blogs: views pro and con

    Last week’s “herding cats” roundup included a link to a post by Corante Network contributor Toby Bloomberg at Diva Marketing on ghostwritten executive blogs: “Some people might say what’s the big deal? Ghost writers draft executives speeches all the ti…

  6. Yes, the broad category of Pseudo Bloggery, as I define it, does include both Fictional Character and Ghost Blogs.
    I have focused my expertise and observation on usability, credibility, and practical value characteristics of business blogs and corporate web sites.
    A blog is a neutral void, a blank slate, a software application. So in one sense, you can do whatever the flip you want, immoral, ineffective, con artist, anti-blog, whatever. But in a values sense, you are limited in what you ought to do with a blog.
    For example, a blog generally must have comments enabled, or it’s not a true blog. It’s a legit link log, like Robot Wisdom, or it’s a unilateral old media preaching platform, a “shut up and passively absorb my propaganda” type device.
    The basics of an ideal blog are the 9 core values I’ve assembled: authenticity, passion, transparency, credibility, individualism, creativity, originality, relevance, and integrity.
    Now, I sympathize with any CEO who has no time or no writing skill for blogging. Blogs, and all web entities, require a very specialized writing and text format style, almost the opposite of print media. Short paragraphs, bulleted or numbered lists, boldface, heads and subheads, as necessary, per the individual stylistics of the blog author.
    I know some CEOs need help with blogging. As I ponder this problem, my theory is that you can teach a CEO how to create, write, and maintain a blog. You can even write a few sample blog posts, until the CEO approves of the content and style. Then once you have an ideal post model, it’s the CEOs job to master it and use it.
    CEOs and other highly educated and highly motivated women and men are not accustomed to being told they need to learn how to write better.
    Typical CEO will chuckle and say, “I’ll just give it to my creative department, they’ve got some beatnik Shakespeares in there, they can do it for me, and I’ll simply sign off on it.” WRONG.
    We, as consumers, do not wish to interact via comments and email, with a half-CEO/half-copywriter.
    I used to write copy for CEOs. PR, ads, newsletters, sales material, etc. Often I ghost wrote press releases or other things for CEOs. But first they told me what they wanted to say. I just polished it.
    I can’t recall ever “dreaming up” something for a CEO to say, what he “should” say. This is what’s sick and inauthentic, non-credible and anti-consumer.
    My fear?
    That if enough blogs go Ghost, the blogosphere will be populated by spooks, insubstants, spectres, shadows only.
    People will start saying:
    “Why check the blogosphere? It’s just ad writers and committees pretending to represent the head hauncho. And those teams will say anything to please the boss and hookwink the public.”
    When I go to Mark Cuban’s blog, or Richard Edelman, or Bob Lutz, or Vaspers the Grate aka Steven Streight, I expect to deal with the guy or gal him or herself. Not a ghost flunkie. Not a team. Not an advertising agency posing as the Voice of the Highest Up.
    Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and New Years, Nev. Cheers! You are a leading light of the blogosphere.

  7. I am a college student and new to the world of blogging. I may have the wrong idea, but I thought blogging was made for actual people to say what they think about work or life in general. If someone has a blog with their name on it, I think it logically follows that they fill the content in it. Actually, I would feel cheated if it wasn’t him or her.
    I know that there are other mediums that use this practice. Books, as you mentioned, can be ghostwritten. However, I think you must consider the medium when you consider the question of whether it is misleading. Philip Young had a good point when he said that “blogs are routinely framed as highly personal communication.” Ghostwriting seems as impersonal as the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Blogs should be utilized as a place to be honest and personal. That is what has appealed to me the most about them.
    So while 43% of the senior business execs think it is “Acceptable,” I find it absolutely misleading. If an executive cares enough to have a blog created, he can maintain it. The blog is there for them to communicate. If they are paying someone else to write it, they might as well leave it alone.

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