Ghost writing blogs: right or wrong?

On Monday I attended Dell’s excellent B2B Social Media Huddle. One of the hottest topics of debate, both at the event and on Twitter (#dellb2b), was the issue of ghost writing blogs. What I found most interesting was that not only were there legitimate differing opinions, but also there was perhaps even more misunderstanding and misinformation.

Some people thought that the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 outlawed ghost blogs. They don’t. They outlaw fake blogs, which are a totally different issue. Fake blogs are where a brand or agency create a blog that that appears to be independent or from a customer, when in fact it is being written by them.

A ghost blog is where a blog is transparently from the company or organisation, but where the posts have been written by someone other than the person identified as the author. Neville Hobson sparked the debate by stating that ghost writing a blog post was inherently wrong. Some in the audience thought it was OK and likened it to a speech being written for a politician and that people thought was was acceptable and therefore a blog post could also be ghosted. Neville’s argument (I paraphrase) was that a blog post was personal and therefore couldn’t be ghosted.

I’m a realist, not an absolutist. The politician’s speech analogy is a good one, because it actually helps to prove that ghosting can be acceptable. In reality the substance of most political speeches are actually written by the politicians. A good politician will brief a trusted staffer to write the actual words of the speech, but the ideas, tone of voice, emotion and meaning are all the politician’s very own. Step one is the politician, step two is the writer, step three is the politician polishing the writer’s work.

You can quite legitimately create a blog post in exactly the same way. The reality in many companies and organisations is that there are lots of people who only half want to blog. They want to do it, but won’t/don’t because of barriers such as a lack of time, insecurity about their writing ability, worries they can’t think of enough topics etc. That’s where the in-house public relations team or external PR consultancy can help. They can work with an author to create a post that the by-lined author is happy with. That might mean dictating the copy and the PR person typing it and polishing the prose. This doesn’t mean changing the meaning of the post, but can mean turning it into plain English by reducing jargon. Usually, as long as the blog makes it clear that the author had assistance then that’s totally acceptable.

There isn’t just one right way to write a blog. There are hundreds of different approaches that all work, there are also hundreds that don’t. That’s why appropriately experienced public relations people can help an employer or clients to get it right. Unfortunately you too often get the problem of PR people who don’t have the appropriate experience or expertise and then provide bad advice.

Matt Bamford-Bowes, head of social media at MediaCom Beyond Advertising tweeted ‘it isn’t surprising that companies pay PR teams to maintain blogs. It gives aligned tone of voice and point of view.’ I disagree that the role of public relations should be to ensure an ‘aligned tone of voice and point of view’ as that sounds far too much to me like turning it in to corporate or brand speak and the type of thing that marketing people who are used to controlling the message would want to do. If that was the role of the ghostwriter then I’d be opposed to it.

Vikki Chowney was faster off the mark than me and has already blogged about it. In the comments Benjamin Ellis makes a sensible reference to the divide between social media natives and traditional PR/corporate folks:

‘It will be a 50:50 split in the big wide world :- social media natives will say ‘bad bad bad’ traditional PR/corporate folks will say ‘fair game’.

Lots of mature businesses are stuck with ‘can’t blog won’t blog’ senior execs – the temptation for PR folks to ghost blog for them is almost irresistible. That doesn’t make it right of course. The biggest down fall is when the CEO meets a customer and the customer starts to talk to them about what they said in the blog post – big #fail / embarrassment, or if a customer posts a comment and someone else responds as the CEO #biggerfail.’

His example ideally illustrates how PR people shouldn’t crudely simply ghost write a blog, but there are so many other ways we can help clients to blog which legitimately do involve helping to write posts.

Stuart Bruce

International Public Relations Adviser | Trainer | Author | Media Commentator | Conference Speaker | University Lecturer | Online PR | Digital Corporate Communications | Crisis Communications | Digital Public Affairs