Yesterday, after hearing that there was a discussion around ghostwriting up at the recent PodCamp Toronto, I decided to share a post on Twitter that I had written for MarketingProfs’ Daily Fix on Ghostwriting, Social Media and Ethics.
From the MarketingProfs Daily Fix post:
In Richard Johannesen’s book “Ethics in Human Communication,” he analyzes the ethics of ghostwriting with a series of questions**:
- What is the communicator’s intent and what is the audience’s degree of awareness?
- Does the communicator use ghostwriters to make herself/himself appear to possess personal qualities that she/he does not have?
- What are the surrounding circumstances of the communicator’s job that make ghostwriting a necessity?
- To what extent does the communicator actively participate in the writing of her/his own writing?
- Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message she/he presents?
Those questions and the ethics surrounding them are easily answered in the traditional marketing and/or public relations arena. But what happens when you add social media into the mix? How do the ethics around ghostwriting change when companies are supposed to be authentic and transparent?
(To read the examples of how social media ghostwriting can potentially harm a companies’ reputation while they are trying to engage in social media, head on over to the Daily Fix…besides, there are a lot of great questions, comments and conversation! )
**Source: Public Relations Writing: The Essentials of Style & Format by Thomas H. Bivins
Traditional Media vs. Social Media
From an ethics perspective, most people know that marketers and public relations professionals write (or it’s outsource to an agency) the information they receive on a daily basis…whether it be a radio commercial, a TV ad, a magazine article, etc. And from a PR perspective, if someone takes credit for a byline they didn’t write (thinking about the co-worker who struts around with his/her article in hand), that’s unethical (see #2). But, most people aren’t stupid…when they know someone well enough, they can tell who really wrote it and that just makes the person making the claim look like a dishonest idiot among other things.
The issue here is that you cannot take that same marketing/PR team and say “okay, now go do social media.”
Why? The transference doesn’t work well. Let’s remember that social media tools were around long before the term social media even existed. People, yes people, not companies, used weblogs (blogs) as personal diaries, to communicate with their friends, to share information, etc. And people (there’s that word again!) used social networks like forums, Yahoo! Groups, chat rooms, etc. to be social with…people. Social media’s history lies with individuals who used these tools to communicate, solve problems, debate, etc. If you haven’t read The Cluetrain Manifesto, I highly suggest it. Within its pages you’ll find the history of the online world that I am talking about. That said, with today’s social media comes an inherent trust, authenticity and transparency that companies, marketers and PR professionals need to learn to embrace. This new form of communication is messy and it’s not your mother’s marketing or PR!
I have witness first-hand and have untangled myself from, and you probably have too if you were involved in social networks pre-2008/2009, social network attacks on people who appear to be sharing fake information or using these places for underhanded reasons. These situations (people-on-people) are typically quite vocal and verbally violent…and it’s not pretty. Typically when these situations happen, some of the people are banned from the forum or group.
Now transfer that to today’s social media situations and consumers or the media uncovering that a company, its brand or its CEO has been less than authentic and transparent and their blog or network communications were fake (i.e. ghostwritten)?
Would you want to be the agency or consultant advising them on how to survive an attack?
Or worse yet, do you want to be the agency or consultant that put them in that delicate situation to begin with?
Yes, it seems extreme, I know…but what can I say, people are people and it is human nature to act out when you feel betrayed, used, carpetbagged, etc. And in today’s social media world, that can happen in a nanosecond! And ultimately the “ghostwriting” disconnect occurs when marketers/PR folks try to force traditional media ‘norms’ onto social media, which is anything but the norm.
The Twitter Ghostwriting Debate
After I shared the MarketingProfs Daily Fix post, an interesting little debate between me and Heather Whaling (@PRtini) took place***. Heather is a traditional PR person and a new blogger. I got the sense that part of our debate disconnect lies within our different backgrounds. I admit it, I am a purist. Having spent the past 5 years of my life spent in online social networks & blogging (no, there weren’t any companies networking & no, THoM is not my first blog), I can’t disconnect from my belief that today’s social media/social networking needs to be from a “people” perspective, not a “business” perspective.
As a point of debate, I pointed out the Edelman/Wal-Mart debacle to Heather as an example of why ghostwriting is a potentially bad path for companies engaging in social media to go down and her first reaction was “but that was a fake blog.” Yep, it was…but consumers didn’t know that at first, did they? When professionals who monitor/analyze Wal-Mart started seeing a disconnect between Wal-Mart’s typical business stance and the rosy posts showing up on the blog they knew something was up. Some of the words used were: misleading, deceptive, skepticism, and questionable practices. In retrospect not very rosy, at all.
Here’s the point: If you are going to ghostwrite, you better know that company inside and out and know their negatives and positives—as viewed by the market/community—not the CEO or the company. Because if you just listen to what the company’s marketers tell you (which is always an inherently skewed view) and you don’t do your own homework, your writing will shine a spotlight on any inconsistencies that might exist and that customers, analysts, investors, etc. might find once that ghostwritten content is public. I mean, after all, you’re just writing as the CEO. Really, what’s the harm for them or you/your agency, right?
“Social media forces ethics upon people. There’s little mercy once things get exposed.”
Convinced yet? What do you think? Is this a valid argument against ghostwriting?
Added 2/24/09: Dave Fleet (@davefleet) has a great post on “Why Ghostwriting is Wrong” on his blog. Check out the debate going on over there too!
Note: I am not opposed to helping a company with social media consulting, providing a guiding hand when they want to blog, etc. Heck, that’s what I do for a living! But what I am opposed to is writing blog content from scratch (i.e ghostwriting). I didn’t develop the ethics around public relations, I am just a great believer in following them. And yes, I believe we are talking about the public when it comes to social media.
*I say “Marketing/PR” because that’s who is trying to transfer the idea of ghostwriting into social media. Folks who have been engaged in social networks/media as “people” for 2-10 years know that there isn’t a debate…they tend to side that ghostwriting is not acceptable.
***Others included in the debate/conversation included: Mack Collier (@mackcollier), Mandy Vavrinak (@mvavrinak), Josh Sternberg (@josh_sternberg), Amber Watson Tardiff (@jerseymomma), Justin Goldsborough (@JGoldsborough), 30Lines (@30Lines), Marita Roebkes (@MaritaR). I hope I didn’t miss anyone…