In Defense of Ghostblogging: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas

GhostThe last post in our Social Media Ethics Series essentially explored ghost-tweeting.  Now let’s talk about a far more widespread issue: ghostblogging.

For the uninitiated, ghostblogging is simply ghostwriting for someone else’s blog. It’s generally frowned upon.

Is it ethical for a PR agency to write an unattributed post for a client’s blog?

First, we need to define what type of blog we’re talking about.

Corporate blogs tend to take two paths:

—There are personal blogs that happen to align themselves with an organization (as in the case of PR-Squared, which is my personal blog but which also serves as the primary blog of SHIFT Communications).

—And, there are more corporate-style blogs in which the posts are more officious, a la a corporate newsletter run on a blogging engine (in this latter case, sometimes the author is known, sometimes not).

Next, we need to make an acknowledgement: blogging is a tyrannical activity.

A quarterly newsletter is a breeze – heck, even a weekly newsletter feels infinitely achievable — compared to a blog.  In my deepest baritone, I am fond of telling clients, “If you are posting less than 2 – 3x a week, what you’re publishing is not a blog but a newsletter.” Blogging evangelists expect a busy executive to scratch out some reasonably compelling content 2 – 3x a week …  It is an incredibly difficult pace to maintain.

For the personal blogger, the fact that one’s failures are one’s own, and that the blog can suit their changing tastes (and schedules), relieves some of that pressure.

For the successful corporate blogger, however, their content becomes part-and-parcel of an overarching communications strategy.  It impacts inbound lead flow, thought leadership, SEO.  There can be no retreat!

Because of the increasingly must-have nature of official corporate blogs, in-house marketers will insist that the content flow must.not.stop.  And since these in-house marketers tend to have limited control over the executive blogger, there needs to be a fall-back strategy.

More and more, that fall-back strategy is going to include supplemental ghostblogging.

Angeldevil-smallYou can rail against it as a black mark against authenticity, but, it is happening and it is a trend that will only grow.  Not enough people see this as a bright line separating “good” from “bad” to forestall the rise of ghostblogging.

After long deliberation, SHIFT execs agreed:

Ghostblogging for a corporate-aligned but PERSONAL blog (like this one) is not ethical.

However, ghostblogging for a CORPORATE blog is no more unethical than drafting a piece for the company newsletter, especially since the final draft would need to be approved by a client representative.

(It did not go unremarked that, in these latter cases, PR agency pros often hold as much knowledge as our client contacts.  We sit in on analyst briefings, pore over and/or draft many official client materials, etc.  Our knowledge is not false, even if it is not our name on the byline.)

So … “Ghostblogging is an approved activity?!”

Now that you’ve read my rationale, what are your thoughts?

Posted on: January 28, 2010 at 7:41 am By Todd Defren
62 Responses to “In Defense of Ghostblogging: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas”


  • Horace Bryan says:

    I am a newbie, so forgive me if I am missing the point here, but I poored through each comment without finding one comment that address what I believe should be the crux of the discussion; the “dam” CONTENT.

    Who frowns upon “ghost blogging”, the reader, or some uber purest?
    What do we need: true authors, or GOOD CONTENT?

    Frankly as the reader, I would not CARE LESS, who or what wrote content if it is relavant and good…If you found that Shakespeare did not write Hamlet, would you now reject it?

  • jan says:

    Everything goes then it comes to getting a new blog going.

  • Paul Clarke says:

    I think the post, and comments so far, overlook the other critical function of blog – one that differentiates it from a newsletter to many eyes. The facility to post visible comments. Notwithstanding all the other issues that relate to comment posting, visibility and response, there is a question over the act of responding to ghost blogs. It is in response, and openness, that any form of “inauthentic voice” will be most likely to be drawn into view.

  • Shel Holtz says:

    If a corporate blog is by-lined, and it’s not written by the person whose name appears on it, it’s not ethical. Blogs are different than newsletters, speeches and annual reports. We make a mistake when we assume it’s just one more form of corporate media. One of the reason people like blogs in the first place is that they know they’re engaged with the person whose name is on the blog. One of the reasons corporate blogs aren’t trusted (per Forrester research) is that organizations treat them like any other communications channel.

    That said, disclosure makes up for a lot. A simple statement can make a ghost-written corporate blog just fine, something like, “I get help with this blog from my communications staff, but I personally approve everything that appears here.”

  • Even if public relations practitioners rationalize ghost blogging based on other practices, another test is whether your audience would feel betrayed or misled to find out what is really going on.

    I think it’s fine to have someone *edit* a CEO’s blog post, but I see no justification for the information to be framed as coming from the CEO when it’s coming from someone else. Do people really care that much about what someone’s title is in the organization? Isn’t it more important to be authentic and transparent? I think so.

  • Kevin sime says:

    Ghost-blogging should include up-front input and final approval from the officially listed author. I think you’re within ethical bounds in that circumstance but you’ve missed an opportunity unique to blogs. Blogs are meant to be an authentic conversation between author and reader vs. the statement-response format of standard corporate communications. If the posting isn’t actually from that author the piece moves closer to a press release in direct proportion to the writing/editing someone did on the listed author’s behalf. I would, though, quibble with the assertion that blogs less than 2-3 times a week are a newsletter. Content and audience are the keys in determining what type of communication a piece is far more than frequency. Overall, though, an engaging piece on a real-world topic!

  • Mark Clayson says:

    ghost-blogging – I think that having someone ghost-blog for you is misleading and wrong.I do think that writing the posts is a part of the relationship building process.

  • Jamie Gorman says:

    What about heavy “editing”? I have a client who is an economist – great ideas and thoughts, but he has trouble getting the thoughts across clearly to the non-economist. Where do I stand if I take his basic thoughts and re-write them to be more readable. Is this considered ghost blogging or quaility improvement?

  • Kirk Hazlett, APR says:

    As always, Todd Defren posts an excellent discussion of the pitfalls of “Ghost Blogging.” I particularly like the “newsletter” analogy…if I had a dollar for every gallon of ink and hour of time I devoted to writing op-eds, CEO letters, etc., I would be sipping mai tais in Hong Kong right now instead of down at Curry College introducing your future PR professionals to our wonderful world.

    The take-away is this, I believe: You must be crystal-clear with yourself and your client/boss from the get-go what and how you will communicate on his/her behalf. Once those parameters have been established, you can do that which you have been hired to…and do…best…COMMUNICATE!

  • I’ve gone back and forth with clients on the idea of ghost-writing/blogging (many feel it’s okay & I don’t feel it’s ethical or transparent enough). What I’ve come up with is to have genuine posts go under the “Mrs. CEO” author identity and ghost-written entries go under “Mrs. CEO’s Team” author profile. This helps the team get information and ideas out that perhaps the CEO has requested, outlined or drafted but handed off to others to finish the legwork. It also frees up the CEO from having to produce content every day while still getting their ideas and knowledge across. It also takes a bit (but not all) of the burden off the CEO should the team publish information under her name that may have issues (re:FCC).

  • Dan Greenberg says:

    There’s one thing you touch on that I think should be amplified. Consider the attribution of quotes in a press release. It’s infrequent that the executive ever said that; rather, it’s typical for the internal PR machinery… or the external agency… to have written it. The key to authenticity is that the executives will insist on approving the wording before it goes out. (Those that don’t are running serious risks, both legally and ethically.)

    The same is true of “personal” blogs in many cases. Just as executives frequently have quote writers and speech writers, they now often have blog drafters too. I have no ethical problem as long as the purported author (the executive) has _actually_ read and approved the final draft before it posts, even if all of the rewrites were done by a ghost. Pure ghost-blogging — where things post without the executive’s approval — are still a no-no though.

    • Paul newport says:

      I have to agree with Dan. Execs have had speechwriters for years and its never been considered unethical. I think the key issue is accountability and responsibility for what is blogged. So long as the blogging identity sees and approves the post, I see no issue.

  • It’s great to see these issues tackled from a real-world agency perspective and not the ivory tower pov that so many purists tend to espouse.

    I agree with your take on ghostblogging 100% – if it’s not being misrepresentative, why not? It’s always preferable to have an exec or other employee in-house doing this type of content creation, but there are also a plethora of reasons why that doesn’t pan out reliably.

  • Todd,

    I am in wholehearted agreement with you that hiring “Ghost Bloggers” is a reasonable, sound business decision for any company to make.

    I’ve always struggled with this issue, thinking, “what’s the big deal?” A copy writer / PR professional better be authentic, otherwise what is the retainer for? The end product better align with the company’s message, if not the customer is going to go find another PR firm that can be its “authentic” voice. Like you said, the customer has final say whether or not to hit publish. Through a long term relationship and cycles of posts, the blogger will learn the message and the appropriate branding to convey.

    To win, if we believe a business should focus its efforts on it’s “hedgehog concept” or core competency, what’s wrong with them recognizing that but also understanding that marketing is going through a transformation. If they need help with that, they should be applauded for not trying to do it on their own, not stoned.

    Content and inbound marketing services will be offered through existing PR agencies and new media marketing agencies now and well into the future. And there will be nothing wrong with it.

  • Joe Boughner says:

    I generally agree with your approach but the whole thing is sort of predicated on the assumption that there should be a blog in place. If the organization can’t support the tool, should they be using it at all?

    I can see needing to supplement the internal capacity in the early stages, I suppose, but if the medium- to long-term organizational culture can’t support regular posting by someone on the team, maybe a blog is the wrong tool.

  • For a personally identified blog, even if it’s “StraightTalk from the CEO”‘s very business blog, then yeah ghost blogging is a no-no. Now, where the line is on ghost editing (not everyone is a writer, researcher), that’s another question.

    For a corporate blog, the “unattributed post” part of the question is what matters. This blog is going out with the corporate seal of approval, with input and direction from TPTB.

    That typed, I’d still like to see some disclosure: A blogroll list on the side naming all possible corporate bloggers, or a catchall “produced by XYZ marketing team” would let readers know it’s a group project. FWIW.

  • davefleet says:

    Back to the “grey areas,” I think. I think the dark side of ghost blogging rears its head when you pretend to be something or someone you’re not. So, I agree 100% with your take on personal blogs.

    I’m open to discussion on the corporate blog side, although I think there’s still room for other options – a group blog, for example, means that the site doesn’t need to suffer if one author is away. Similarly, guest posts could cover for an absence.

    I still don’t feel easy about completely unattributed posts on corporate blogs, but the black/white divide isn’t so clear there for me. I think it comes down to who the posts are attributed to – is there a named author on the corporate blog? If so, I’d veer away from it. If it’s more generic, there’s more wiggle room.

    My two cents…

    • I’m glad you raised the question of unattributed posts on corporate blogs, Dave. I’m not a fan of unattributed anything. I realize it happens, but I think the dangers outweigh the merits.

      In the case of a corporate blog, though, unattributed blog posts seem particularly egregious. Where’s the accountability? Sure, for 99.99% of posts, there’s no need for accountability. But for that 0.01%, there needs to be accountability.

      If a blog post has no attributed author, is it fair to assign responsibility to the CEO if the post creates a problem?

      And if there’s no consequences, what good is assigning/assuming responsibility, anyway?

  • Todd:

    This is my favorite series of posts you’ve done. I’m grateful for your leadership on these discussions.

    We’re facing this same path with three or four different clients at the moment. I think you have a fair compromise here…though I’m sure you’ll get some arrows. The chief sticking point – How different is it from drafting byliners in the eyes of the client? Answer: not very.

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