Why it’s ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging

It seems like “ghost blogging” — the practice of penning posts for others —  is always under attack.

Jon Buscall wrote a fine piece about it recently as did Mitch Joel.

Philosophically I agree with them.  In a pure and perfect world executives should write their own copy.

But practically speaking I don’t agree.

Here’s why.

  • It’s not a pure and perfect world. Ghost writing is going to happen and it always has.  Wishing and pontificating will not make it different.  So why not at least do it well?
  • Most executives don’t have the time or ability to blog consistently and effectively. So if they don’t get help, it just won’t happen. Isn’t it a good idea to help bring their ideas to life?
  • Personal connection and “community” is probably less important to somebody at the “rockstar” level of chairman.  I know this will get hollers from the crowd that community is “everybody’s business” — and to some extent that is true, but again, I’m being practical. Most CEO’s are not being compensated to build community through a blog.
  • The chairman does not pen his own speech, yet nobody questions that they own it. They don’t write the shareholder’s letter in the annual report, yet this is deemed as authentic. Do you think Former GE Chairman Jack Welch sat there and pecked out his own book? And yet it is seen as his.

So why do so many people seem to want to put blogs in a different class of writing?  In the world of corporate communications it could be argued that blogs are even less important and critical than a major speech or a document being submitted to the SEC.   Why are people on a quixotic mission to fight against reality?

Here’s a better solution. Establish guidelines to have an effective ghost blog in an effective and ethical way.  A few months ago there was a debate on this topic on {grow} that resulted in some guidelines for ghost blogging:

  • The host executive should provide general ideas for a ghosted blog post and a few bullet points expressing key thoughts for the writer to work from. Obviously the writer needs to spend as much time as possible with the host to get a feel for their language and opinions.
  • The executive should approve every blog post before publishing under their name.
  • Content aimed at a personalized connection – such as responses in a blog comment section – ideally should be authored by the executive, not the ghost writer.
  • Be sure there is an approval process in place that can handle the need for flexibility, responsiveness and the opportunistic tendencies of the social web.
  • Guidelines of the corporate blog process and a list of blog contributors could be contained in an “about” section.

Do these make sense?

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  • It makes total sense to me – Amen! Thank you.

  • Kathy Snavely

    I’m with Jeremy. It’s very clear from some blogs that multiple people are writing it, because the writing styles are different (under the same “pen name.” A question about an alternative -what do you guys think about not ghosting – just having the writer say, “Kathy Snavely for Jeremy Victor,” like we used to do in correspondence?

  • An excellent piece and some great guidelines.

    All of the heat generated from this topic come, I believe, from people that don’t have any experience with professional communications. They don’t realize that virtually every autobiography is ghostwritten and as you mention, virtually every speech, presentation, piece of corporate or political communication.

    Business owners, managers, and leaders aren’t necessarily great writers and communicators. But when they work with a great writer, they can produce work that is authentically the leaders, not some anonymous hack’s (and I’m one of those anonymous hacks myself).

  • Mark

    @Kathy — Honestly I don’t think egos would allow it. The CEO has a “brand” too. It’s a viable idea though. Thanks!

    @Randy — Thanks for characterizing my sentiments in an even better way! Well done!

    @Jeremy — Thanks for taking the time to comment today.

  • From your post to the CEO’s ears, Mark.

    People who have not worked in mid- to large-size for-profits do not understand how little time CEOs have for anything. Virtually everything has to be delegated (or partially delegated).

    Randy is right; just as a CEO may not be a born accountant, she may not be a great writer either. A strong writer can convey the message better and a great write can even channel the CEO’s tone. Long Live the Ghost.

  • And let’s not forget to give the ghost writers some ‘props,’ too.
    I write for a variety of C-level execs, and I work hard to capture the voice, preferences and style of each one. That’s what makes my job so challenging . . . and so enjoyable.

  • Mark

    @Lisa — I think many social media advocates are reluctant to see this channel become “corporate-ized” yet this is inevitable. As Mitch stated in his fine post, he does not want the social web to become another mass media outlet. Yet, that is inevitable. In fact, it’s already happened and there’s no going back.

    @Kathryn — A LOT of props. It can be a very demanding and thankless job! Thanks for the contribution today.

  • Sorry, I don’t agree (I know, big shock 😉

    It’s like putting a TV commercial on YouTube and saying there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s not… but there is. It misses/lacks what makes YouTube… YouTube-y.

    I think the big gap in thinking is the application of old strategies in a new media, and that’s the rub I have with ghost-blogging.

    Blogging is about transparency, openness, speed to publish and a direct line to the content creator. Can ghost-blogs work? Sure, but it seems tired and bored (to me).

    Why have a ghost-written Blog? What’s the point? If the content doesn’t live within the context of the platform, why bother? If you’re publishing content as a ghost-writer and are using a Blog platform to publish it, no one is going to stop you ( but that doesn’t make it a Blog… or interesting).

    What you wind up having is corporate content, written in a human way that has a ghost-writer behind it. Sounds like boring, old marketing malarky to me… and that was the exact reason why Blogs became interesting in the first place… to move marketing away from that.

  • Mark

    @Mitch — First, welcome to {grow}!

    I don’t think our views are necessarily mutually exclusive. We both want and expect excellent, interesting, entertaining content. I’m only saying that a professional writer might be able to deliver that even more effectively than a CEO who lacks charisma and writing skills.

  • …then in the context of Blogging and New Media why not let that professional writer be the human voice of the company instead of hiding it and attempting to pass it off as a CEO?

  • Wow. I didn’t know there was such a heated argument about ghost blogging.

    I ghost blog for several people and like Kathryn, I do work with them to capture the voice and opinion, the kind of things they want to talk about on their blogs – it’s just a matter of their not having the time to write or confidence in their own writing.

  • @Mitch – I think you’re loading to much into “what blogging is supposed to be about.” Blogging is just another form of publishing. I see this kind of talk about social media, and yes, it is naive.

    Ghostblogging doesn’t have to mean disconnected, it just means that you get help with the writing. I’d agree that having someone write for a business leader without that leader being involved is bound to fail. But I see no reason why working with a professional to help a business person communicate and connect can’t be a good thing.

    There are a lot of blogs out there that are fresh, insightful, connected, and yes, ghostwritten. If a company has the option of having their CEO, who might have a lot to say, to work with a professional writer and blogger or have no blog at all, why would they decide not to?

  • I have to say this is a very metaphysical conversation.

    On one hand, I see the impracticalities of CEO blogging that Mark points out. The logistics are impossible. Plus, even if a CEO did find the time to blog, what if they couldn’t spell? Couldn’t determine when their participles were dangling? What negative externalities would that have on the entire business just because the CEO isn’t a professional blogger?

    On the other hand, I see Mitch’s point as well. Blogging is about personal conversation, authenticity and transparency, which seem to fly in the face of ghost writing.

    But on a deeper level, at what point is the content actually created? As a blog consumer, I’m interested in the thoughts and opinions of people, not necessarily the text and HTML that goes into it. As long as the thoughts and opinions are actually FROM the CEO, I’m not sure I’m against having someone who is a professional writer come in and put the finishing touches.

    Just as a good speech writer can cater the speech to the qualities of the speaker, a good blog ghost writer should be able to do the same, shouldn’t they?

    This also can’t be a black-and-white answer, can it?

  • Mark

    @Mitch — In some cases, that will absolutely work. In fact in many companies today the blogger is a bigger brand than the CEO (which presents an entirely different problem).

    However I would suggest that there are often valid, strategic reason that it makes sense for the CEO to be the voice and face of the company on a blog, just as they would be with shareholders, investors, customers, or in a crisis. I think it would be rare to find C-level executives to develop blog content, a YouTube video or even a PowerPoint presentation for that matter. And as a shareholder, I would not want them to! Leave it to the pros.

    If I were consulting with a C-level client who said they wanted to do a blog but wanted help with it, I would consider myself lucky from a marketing standpoint!

  • I’ve been a writer for 30 years and have ghost-written several trade pub articles, executive presentations, fundraising letters, and one blog. I’ve always used their topics, their own thoughts, and even their own written material, and they review and edit the copy. I think it’s better to have their thinking available to the public than to have their contributions blocked by busy schedules.

  • Mark

    @Shirley – Simply and effectively stated. Thank you!

    @Randy — That’s been my experience too. Appreciate your contribution today.

    @Josh. Cool. My first metaphysical conversation. Thanks for being part of it!

    @Claire. Glad to have your voice of experience on hand today. Much appreciated!

  • All I’m really saying is: just because we have old tactics and strategies why do we have to use them in New Media? Can’t we be more creative? Also, if your CEO is not good at this stuff, why do it? Text, images, audio, video, instant publishing, etc… so many ways to express and contribute… just a thought here… just a thought…

  • Mark

    @Mitch — I think the intriguing aspect of what you suggest is the competitive advantage that could be established if you DID have a CEO who mastered the new media.

    Thanks for being sporting today and pushing us to think in new ways with your well-articulated dissent! Well done.

  • Wow, you’re right, it turns out it IS ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging 😉

  • @Mark, Thanks for reigniting this debate !
    I still stick with my initial opinion and I’m pretty much with Mitch on this one. Business blogging is about authenticity and as such I want the identity of the blogger to be identifiable. As Mitch says:
    “Why not let that professional writer be the human voice of the company instead of hiding it and attempting to pass it off as a CEO?”

    I came to this realization myself after ghostblogging for the Vice Chancellor of a major Nordic university. It kind of left me feeling rather sordid, to be honest, so I decided that any paid work from now on would have to be in my name.

    Would I help someone with a speech and not take any credit? Probably. And I do edit a few blog posts for clients here and there. But when it comes to building community in the guise of someone else I just don’t want to do it.

    I think that as a content provider you just have to draw the line at what you’re prepared to do. And that’s nobody’s business but your own.

  • Mark

    @Jon — It is amazing to have some of my favorite bloggers hanging out on {grow} today. Plus you Jon. Kidding!!! Couldn’t resist. If you’re new to the blog, that was “humor.” Jon and I are friends.

    I completely respect your position and how you have drawn the line based on principles. However, I am a corporate pig-dog capitalist who would gladly learn Norwegian and dust off my parka for a few euros or krones from the vice chancellor.

    Seriously, the work is going to be done by somebody. Ghost blogging is, and will continue to be, an enormous business opportunity for talented writers. We just have to do it with appropriate guidelines. Besides, we have to find jobs for all the displaced journalists, right?

  • @Mark, I love that “conquer all” mentality of yours! And, yup, you’re right: someone is going to do it. I just wish businesses would let professional writers “blog” under their own name. At least as a journalist you get a byline.

    Be interesting to get “Dr Journalism” Jeff Jarvis’s take on all this.

  • This is a great debate and one I think @Josh summed up nicely (“this can’t be a black and white debate).

    I am very much in favor of organizations and companies getting into the social sphere and building relationships with the audiences they claim to care about. I also could care less about the meanderings of a CEO that could care less about social media and is blogging because he thinks he “has to.” I would much prefer someone with passion within the organization or a ghostblogger who can authentically convey emotions and make me think about issues (like this post did).

    Like it has been stated, ghostblogging isn’t going away and I think it is important to have guidelines in place to have the CEO involved as much as humanly possible. When it comes right down to it, quality content is still king and whomever can bring the best content to the table should be the one writing the blog. It all boils down to how it’s cited and labeled.

    (written on behalf of Joey Strawn by his mother)

  • Wow, so glad I stopped by here today!

    First, @Josh Braaten – bestill my heart. There is NOTHING that shatters the illusion of credibility faster than a dangling participle! I almost swooned seeing that in writing. Thank you.

    Second, @Mark ~ so, how long will you be feeling tender over the whole ‘It Was Written In Jest, I Don’t REALLY Think He’s the Devil’ debacle? Clarity’s a good thing, I loved the ‘that was humour’ (we spell it with a ‘u’ here in Canada)notation.

    My approach to this conversation may be too simplistic. I ghostwrite speeches, internal communications, etc. for senior executives. I have a real gift for getting in behind the eyes of whomever has a message that needs to be shared and I can be that person for the duration of the assignment. I have never felt a need to be known or recognized for this – and I understand that ‘personal recognition’ was not the point being stressed regarding ghost blogging.

    What I have accomplished is a united sense of purpose and determination amongst an organization’s employees to meaningfully engage themselves towards significant behaviours and goals, or even understanding ~ on behalf of the individual responsible for achieving said goals.

    A few things come to mind while reading varying perspectives of this conversation – and for me, it tends to boil down to clarity of purpose, alignment of implementation and the definition of key terms.

    It seems to me that Corporate Blogging would be more about the message and the conversation that may result than anything else. Regardless of who writes the message or facilitates the conversation – its Authenticity would be best measured against how it lines up with the organization’s Vision, Mission and Values ~ and its ability to walk the talk in every day operations.

    Knowing the value assigned to CEOs and the salaries they earn, how many would feel comfortable knowing that these leaders and visionaries devoted time to writing blogs that could have been spent in more meaningful and significant ways?

    Reading this post, the posts you linked as reference and the comment stream ~ I couldn’t help but notice that I’m feeling similarly about the increasing number of Affiliate Marketing blog posts, vlogs, tweets and emails. With everyone stating emphatically that they don’t just endorse ANY program/product/service ~ the value in those words has diminished. To me, anyway. That is no longer enough to persuade or lure me deeper in potential purchase. It’s at risk of being over-done.

    Perhaps Corporate Blogging is on a similar path. The value in the words expressing the message is tarnished with the realization that CEOs can be one, two, or more steps removed from the published content – rendering its intent, for some, ineffective.

    I like your guidelines, Mark. I respect that we all view life from a myriad of perspectives ~ and I toss my thoughts into the ring with the summation that, for me, the CEO is one of many individuals employed by a Corporation ~ and that Corporation’s Integrity will not be defined in my mind by who sits down to write blog posts on the platform of that Company’s values, mission, vision ~ but how well the Company lives and breathes what has been written.

    And being a Gemini, I may post again later with a completely different opinion. (That was humour. ‘Humor’, in American.)

  • Maybe blogging isn’t the best format, but I do agree that we shouldn’t pass up on some great content just because a higher-level executive doesn’t have enough time to share. I’m definitely in for any kind of great content that can make me think and grow, but, like Mitch said up above, blogging may not be the best or appropriate tool for those execs to use. As long as we still get the great content!

  • I have to say, I do not follow the “the CEOs time is too important to be spent Blogging” bit. If that’s the case, fine, don’t do it, but to put their name on it and act as if it is? I’d also add that what makes Blogging a different/unique type of content is the comments. So are people asking the CEO a question and getting answers from a ghost-blogger who has a gift for getting behind the eyes of a CEO? Yeesh, this whole thing seems icky to me. Sorry.

  • Mark

    Can’t. Keep. Up … I need a ghost answerer.

    Kind of an interesting dynamic. A lot of people already ghost-blog and seem to be OK with it as a profession. Naturally.

    I’ve kind of said my thing on this topic so I won’t repeat myself other than to thank you for the really meaningful and passionate discussion.

    @Mitch — Clarification — I recommended above that comments and other communication meant as a personal connection should be answered by the executive. I feel the same way about Twitter, which is another whole can of worms. Should be personal.

  • Considering your blog post above does not mention your byline or your name anywhere above or below the post content, is that a ghost-written blog post?

  • Mark, I love how you always call it like you see it, regardless of where the majority might stand.

    Over the years, I have done some ghost writing. In every instance, I have made it a point to study the person I would be writing for extremely well. I never wrote in a vacumn. I came to know the “speaker” or “writer” extremely well and simply gave voice to his or her concerns and vision.

    Ghost blogging? Have done a little bit of that, too, but, likewise, only after gaining an intimate understanding of the person whose name would appear on the blog post and a keen understanding of the points he or she wanted to make.

    In every instance I’ve done any “ghost writing,” the named authors or bloggers remained the true authors of the ideas, while I merely helped articulate the ideas.

    Those who don’t question to the source of the words uttered by their favorite speakers should extend a similar indulgence to “bloggers” who have the sense to be in a space where their voice should be heard, if even when it is with the modest assistance of another.

  • Wow Mark, you sure know how to stir the pot, again! Although I tend to agree with the “Purist” attitude, the reality is Ghost Writing (blogs, twitter, business proposals, articles, letters, emails whatever) are always going to have components written by some and distributed under different “signatures”. That’s the way business operates. The key is that if the person who’s name is being used approves the content and it is in the best interest of the company for the delivery to be made by a higher authority, does the author really matter? Have you ever read a letter from the “CEO” in an annual report to shareholders? Do you really (come on now) really think he/she wrote it? Why is this any different?

  • Mike Cee

    Can anyone point to some popular Blogs that are done by a ghost-blogger? It would be interesting to see some real-life examples.

  • Mark

    @Ari — Yes, this post was ghost-written by Mitch Joel. It’s all been a dream.

    @Glen — Elegantly said. Thank you.

    @Steve — Thanks for your comment. You know at heart I believe in the purist principles too. But I’m also a realist about the world we live in so let’s make the best of it, eh?

    @Mike — Good question. We’ve had 3-4 real-live ghosters weigh-in. Any recommendations gang?

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  • As so often, Mark, you’ve done a brilliant job of provoking a spirited discussion here. My comment grew lengthy enough that I’ve posted it on my own blog instead (http://www.b2bmemes.com/2010/06/22/the-great-ghost-blogging-debate/). Not the first time you’ve inspired one of my posts!

    A couple of minor but I hope relevant points I’ll add at this late hour have to do with authenticity and CEO writing. Most annual report letters sound anything but authentic, and are rarely worth reading. The huge exception, of course, are Warren Buffett’s letters. He’s not a great writer, but he is certainly an authentic one. And I doubt that he uses a ghost writer.

    The second point regards Jack Welch’s books. In book publishing, ghost writers are often given credit, and his titles are no exception. Such transparency doesn’t, as you indicate, lessen our feeling that his books are “by” him. So why not use the same transparency in ghost-written blog bylines?

  • Mark

    Thanks for the passionate and thorough response, John.

  • You’re right, Mark, it’s a ridiculous argument. I’m the CEO of a small SEO and copywriting agency. Not only do we ghost write for others, but also I have used my editor to ghost blog for me; it’s part of our every day routine. Granted, it’s my reputation out there and I always respond to any comments made on the content, good or bad, but at the end of the day and for the sake of transparency, if we didn’t ghost write we wouldn’t eat. On occasion, I send her information I think our readers will enjoy and she writes a blogs post or article that befits my opinion.

    The bottom line is, I’m not an English Major and when I write, I have to rush the words because of time. In an effort to make sure our content is excellent – to make sure we put our best foot forward – I use ghostwriters. Now, it isn’t their own writing; what comes out is based on the outline I’ve given them, but they did the final work. For those that think ghostwriting is wrong or unethical, you’d probably have a heart attack at the client list. Due to the all mighty non-disclosure I can’t name names, but it’s safe to say that a few are definitely well known.

    I would also add that I have to agree with @Shirley: we capture their tone, voice and, ultimately their message, so why should you care? I also have to agree with Randy Murray, “Ghost blogging doesn’t have to mean being disconnected…”

    Other than a list of blog contributors, we already follow the “ghost blogging guidelines”, but really – do you read a blog because of the information or because it was written by X Y Z CEO? Make up your mind which is more important, what’s in it or who wrote it.

  • Mark

    @Gabriella — Thank you SO MUCH for weighing in on this. It sounds like you are a “best practice” in establishing your voice and using a ghost writer effectively.

  • Mike Cee

    …so we’re all for this “ghost-blogging” thing but no one can provide any links, cases studies, etc.. of popular Blogs that are ghost-written? I don’t know sounds like a lot of generic, marketing babble that Mitch was rallying against… and it also sounds like he’s right.

  • @Mike – I can’t point you to blogs that are ghostwritten because that’s the point of the “ghost”! I can’t disclose the names of my customers and neither can other writers.

    I can tell you the Guy Kawasaki openly talks about using ghosts.http://davefleet.com/2009/03/guy-kawasaki-discloses-ghost-writers-defuses-issue/

  • Nic Wirtz

    If the executive agrees to the guidelines you suggest, they might as well write the blog themselves.

  • Hey Mark,

    Although it seems like we recorded this audio debate years ago, I am finally getting around to publishing it. So, for those still interested about Ghost Blogging and Ghost Tweeting, Mark and I had at it over Skype and it’s been published as episode #214 of my Podcast, Six Pixels of Separation. As always, the conversation can continue here in the comments:

    http://www.twistimage.com/podcast/archives/spos-214—the-ghost-blogging-debate-with-mark-w-schaefer/

    Mark – a personal note of thanks for recording with me. It really was a pleasure.

  • US Presidents have speechwriters, everyone knows it, and yet those words go down in history as their own. Blogs serve the same purpose for a corporation as “fireside chats” did for FDR. If guidelines like yours are followed, I don’t see the problem with using a more eloquent voice to convey the CEO’s message.

  • Mark

    Thanks CZ.

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  • Shelly Lucas

    I heartily agree with your post, Mark. I’ve been a ghostwriter for years, and it’s puzzling to me that corporate leaders suddenly have an issue with ghostwritten blogs. It’s almost as if writers who have written behind the curtain for so long are now barred from the social forum (as a corporate voice) because their title isn’t big enough to lend “authenticity” to blogged content. My skills (and imitative rhetoric) were good enough when I wrote speeches and byline articles for the CEO of Fortune 200 company; they’re still good enough to write byline articles for executives. Now it feels like a completely different world.

  • Shelly Lucas

    Disclosure: I run corporate Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, but haven’t blogged for business (even though I’d like to). So far, the door has been closed on ghostblogging–for many of the reasons mentioned in this thread of blog commentary.

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  • Shouldn’t a CEO make the time to write their own blog posts? Perhaps they could identify that they will only be posting a certain number of times a month?

    If the CEO isn’t writing a blog post…can it really be a CEO engaging the audience?

    And…

    I think this spawns a “bad” habit for CEO’s… “Eh, I’ll just hire a ghostwriter, and it’ll be like I’m writing and using this social media thing.”

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  • Aline

    Essential part of ghost writing ‘successfully’ is to build a connection with the person you are writing for. That’s why ghost writing gets a bad wrap, because there are some writers who write on behalf of a leader based on subject titles without fully understanding the leader’s pov. To successfully ghost write is in its simplest form putting words together in a most appealing and grammatically correct way. Clearly I would want to enhance the angle and add analogies but I am essentially writing the leader’s story. Not your own. For my clients, I insist on having a 45 mins discussion 1 week before publishing date to collect information, have it fresh in your mind, write and have it reviewed. Any other model won’t work in my opinion.

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