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The Ghost-blogging Debate

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I’ve been pondering the “ghost-blogging” debate for some time, listening (via podcasts) and reading (via blogs) the growing chorus of voices that proclaims ghost-blogging an acceptable and legitimate practice. People I respect are among those who argue…

  • A good ghost writer can convey the intent and the personality of his or her subject.
  • The best analogy for good ghost blogging is signing for the deaf, which transmits the exact words and inflection of the speaker deaf members of the audience cannot hear.
  • Ghost writing is common in business and blogs are just another business communication tool; so what’s the beef with ghost blogging? It’s inevitable that a business communication tool will be used the same way other business communication tools are used.
  • Ghost blogging and authenticity are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Sallie Goetsch (rhymes with sketch) is one of the most articulate advocates of ghost blogging, but I have also heard from Topaz Partners via the firm’s blog (in response to a Bryan Person post), and from Mitch Joel through his blog (twice) and podcast, and from my FIR co-host Neville Hobson through the episode he hosted, in my absence, with Sallie. Adam Zand has weighed in, as have Dan York, Terry Fallis and David Jones (of the excellent Inside PR podcast), the list goes on.

The authenticity argument

While I consider myself the leading advocate of the “it depends” school of thought (which applies to just about anything), the instances of ghost blogging that I would find acceptable are vastly outweighed by those I don’t. With no disrespect to my colleagues, I generally don’t buy the argument.

My problem is simple: Blogs aren’t just another business communication channel. In fact, blogs were created and popularized by people who were fed up with traditional business communication channels. They had had enough of fabricated quotes in press releases and speeches read by executives but written by professional speech writers. These people wanted authentic conversations with real human beings. A ghost-written executive blog is the opposite of what blogs were created for; it is counterintuitive to the 10th tenet of Christopher Carfi’s Social Customer Manifesto: “I want to do business with companies that act in a transparent and ethical manner.”

I’ve heard the argument that a really good ghost writer can be authentic, that he or she can get into the CEO’s head and learn how he thinks as well as how he speaks, then convey that style when writing his blog post for him. That argument runs counter to the very definition (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) of “authentic,” however: “Having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship.” So, how can a ghost-written blog be authentic when it’s not authored by the person whose name appears on it? It can’t.

The “it depends” question, then, is whether a blog needs to be authentic at all. It depends on what the blog is being used for. Blogs can be defined as the content management software that produces web content. Do I care who writes McDonalds’ blog about corporate social responsibility? Not at all—it’s the voice of McDonalds that counts, not a specific author. The same is true of Cisco Systems’ blog about technology policy matters.

But a blog by an identified senior executive is different. By blogging, the executive is specifically saying, “This is me engaged in a conversation with you.” While everyone knows that the quotes in the press release are fabricated, and that the speech was penned by a speechwriter, there is an expectation when someone reads and comments on Jonathan Schwartz’s blog that he’s engaged directly with Sun Microsystem’s CEO, not some anonymous proxy. When people learn that somebody other than the CEO is the blog’s true author, it will serve only to deepen the distrust and cynicism that characterizes most peoples’ existing perceptions of business.

Rules vs. expectations

Much of the conversation about ghost-blogging has been about “rules” and the notion that rules change. It’s the wrong point. This isn’t about rules, because there are none. It’s about expectations. It’s about perceptions. Ultimately, then, it’s about reputation. It doesn’t matter how noble an executive’s intentions were or how brilliantly the ghost blogger captures the executive’s intent and personality. From the public’s point of view, the unmasking of an executive who isn’t writing the blog he claims he’s writing—the one with his by-line on it—would be no different than the revelation that a pro-WalMart blog was really penned by a public relations agency (regardless of how authentic that blog sounded thanks to brilliant writing).

It disturbs me that we can so easily dismiss the notion of blogging as genuine communication between real people by suggesting that rules change and blogs can be turned into business communication tools no different than the ghost-written CEO columns that appear on the inside front covers of employee magazines. If that’s what a business leader wants, why bother to present it through a blog unless there is an intent to deceive? Why not simply stick with a leader column?

What this argument is really about, ultimately, is opportunity. Business has the opportunity to engage in a real conversation, real collaboration—and win hugely (as the outstanding book “Wikinomics” suggests). Alternatively, business can blow the opportunity by reinventing blogs in the image of any other communication tool until we can’t tell the difference between a blog post and a press release.

Lost causes are the ones worth fighting for

The trend toward ghost blogging won’t stop, of course. I agree entirely with Dan York that many business leaders will turn their blogs over to others. Some may actually do a good job (I have no doubt that Sallie’s work is excellent). Most will not, though, because the world is full of people who look for a quick and easy answer, and the result will confirm Scott Adams’ bitingly cynical view of the issue (which Dan York also ran in his post):

 

Dilbert

 

 And thus, the ever-expanding blog-reading public will perceive that the business world has perverted a channel of communication that was created in order to foster genuine conversation. (Speeches, press releases, and annual reports were not.) The business world has the opportunity to employ blogs to create human touch points in their organizations. Like Dan, I hope the truly authentic blogs that fulfill this vision will rise to the top. But for most people, business is business, and the inauthentic blogs will taint the rest. If the CEO isn’t writing his own blog, how can I believe anybody else in the organization is?

In a (non-existent) ideal world, CEOs who want to engage in the conversation but who aren’t willing to put their own pen to paper will opt for alternatives; God knows there are enough of them. Marriott International CEO Bill Marriott, for example, records his blog posts into a digital recorder; someone on his staff transcribes and posts the entries, word-for-word—along with the audio file. An executive uncomfortable with writing can opt for a podcast; talking may come more naturally. He can participate in real-time chats. He can turn to subordinate executives to handle blogging chores (GM’s Rick Wagoner posts infrequently to the FYI blog; Vice Chairman Bob Lutz does most of the heavy lifting on the Fastlane blog). (Not all GM blog posts are by-lined, suggesting those that are were really written by the person whose name appears on the post.) Shell Oil’s CEO is participating in the conversation live and face-to-face on a lengthy road tour.

And if a business leader ultimately does opt to have someone else handle the writing of the blog, he should disclose it. What’s the harm in a statement like this on an executive blog: “Welcome to my blog. Several times each week, I articulate my thoughts to Mary Jones, who runs communications for the company, and she posts them here ensuring that I make the points I want to make. But rest assured, while Mary makes me sound better, the messages you read are mine; they come from my heart and I read all the comments myself.”

As for us communicators, we should advocate for blogging—as we should for any communication channel—that produces the best possible reputational outcomes for the organization. An undisclosed ghost-written blog doesn’t fit the bill.

I won’t win this one; mediocrity will. But I’ll keep fighting anyway.

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