The Ethics of Writing: Ghost blogging 4

ghosts behind the blog

Copywriters are the ghosts behind the blog

Today, I was privy to a debate on the ethics,(or as some assert, the lack thereof) of ghost blogging. The person who prompted the debate, often gives talks on ethics in social media and from a, “the world is strictly black and white,” view, may have a point or two. But as with anything in this uncharted land of the grid (yes, I did just see Tron: Legacy), nothing is black and white.

Portland Ghostwriter for hire

Ghostwriter gal for hire

The Ghost’s Perspective

As a professional freelance writer, I write for newspapers and magazines as well provide online content. This includes website content (Home, About pages etc.) and ghost blogging. It also includes e-books, white papers and traditional marketing materials, whatever a client needs written. Because of the changing economics of print media and traditional publishing (making room for new technologies and new reader habits) many freelancers have had to be increasingly flexible, expanding our repertoire to include writing for social media, blogs, integrated marketing campaigns etc. in order to survive in this shifting paradigm.

As my brethren bemoaned the death of their institutions (traditional publishing and print media) I quickly realized that writing (and reading for that matter) were not dying arts but rather being re-imagined in a new realm, one to fit the needs of this generation. I got my certification in SEO and hit the ground running in the brave new world of social media (quickly becoming a go-to-gal for advice.) I didn’t do this to change my career track from writer to Web 2.0 Guru, but rather to make my writing more valuable, better serving the emerging needs of this new medium.

I want to write. People want to read and learn and share — online, in real-time. As a writer there is nothing more exciting than researching and learning something new, digesting it and reformulating it for an audience in a way that is entertaining and informative. By ghostwriting, I get to explore different voices, tones and topics. I get to learn something fresh everyday and I get to share my words (and what I learned) with the world. Hopefully, in a way that helps someone else pursue their goals.

For me, the question of ethics here is a funny one. Every layman nowadays knows the term social media marketing and most understand that this realm includes blogging. Now, there are firms all over the country that are providing, not only copywriting services (such as ghost blogging) but integrated marketing campaigns that include status updates, discussions and yes, even ghost tweets.

Furthermore, most blogs do not have a byline. Those that do are making specific claims as to authorship, much like a byline in a newspaper.  Those blogs that boast no byline,  may not necessarily be written by the blog owner, but instead represent the overall voice or opinion of the company or owner, much like a newspaper’s editorial column. Therefore, for those that employ the use of a byline would be best served by disclosing the use of ghosts or by removing the byline.

The magical land of Web 2.0

The magical land of Web 2.0

Web 2.0: The Land of Hybrids

This is a world that has merged creatives, marketers, computer nerds, PR pros and even journalists into a hybrid of bionic wordsmiths, emboldened with the super powers of casual engagement, info-tainment and peek-behind-the-curtain marketing techniques.

No one expects that the CEO of Old Spice was penning the words tumbling out of Isaiah Mustafa‘s mouth, nor did they believe that Isaiah, himself was responding to those tweets (via Youtube), unscripted. That’s because we all understand the world of marketing. Not everyone is creative enough to come up with these types of entertaining concepts. This is why companies hire marketing firms to come up with compelling campaigns to advertise their brand.

Blogging, itself, has become a hybrid. No longer are blogs just a place to share your opinions or insights, they have become a strong marketing tool – increasing your Google juice, establishing expertise and creating a pulpit from which to preach your brand’s message.

branded storytelling

Building your brand with words

So You’re Not a Writer


But what if you’re not a great writer? What if you’re the kind of person who is better at doing your business, than

talking (or writing) about it? What if you just plain hate writing? You outsource it to someone like me.

And it would serve you well to do so.

Because the clients I work for, fully control their message. They send me topics and links and I get to know their voice and opinions and what sites they find to be credible. Their message goes out – and it IS their message  but it is the best version of their message – a polished, well-researched, engaging, keyword-peppered, linked, optimized and typo-free message.

My clients hire me because they may be experts in their chosen field but they are not experts in writing, blogging, SEO or social media — that’s what they need me for.

bottom line is readBottom Line

Just because you’re not a plumber doesn’t mean you have to skip fixing that overflowing toilet. You can outsource it to someone who is qualified to fix it on your behalf and you’re not required to post a sign in your yard saying that someone else fixed your toilet. Because no one will call your ethics into question for not being an expert on everything.

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Writing: Ghost blogging

  • Dave Fleet

    As the person who apparently gives these “the world is strictly black and white” talks, I thought I’d chime in here (by the way, I take it from that description that you must have been to one of my talks to know what I say, so thank you for travelling all that way).

    We need to be careful to avoid comparing apples to oranges. Even though someone else may have scripted Isaiah Mustafa’s words, he still said them. Similarly, the tweets came from @oldspice. No-one there was pretending to be him. Furthermore, this is clearly advertising as opposed to corporate social media, which I discussed (and I would argue that there’s a different set of expectations there, for now at least).

    Contrary to your assertation, I do see the shades of grey within the topic. In fact, the Mustafa example is one. However, I think we’re more to one side of the debate when someone is pretending to be someone else.

    If I were to come to this site and to become a fan of yours thanks to your writing, but then found out that it wasn’t you writing after all, then I would feel cheated. I would feel angry. I would lose my trust in you.

    There are lots of people out there who want the easy way out but part of my job is to manage risk for clients. One of the ways we do that is to offer alternative solutions so that they avoid the risk of alienating or offending their customers.

    There are lots of alternatives, as you rightly point out, to ghost blogging – removing the byline, launching a group blog, using other forms of media and so on. Even drafting something and handing it over for the named person to review, edit so they stand behind it and post. These are all alternatives that lower risk for companies and maintain the efficacy of their digital efforts.

    • Vanessa Nix Anthony

      Thanks for dropping by the site to flesh out your perspective, Mr. Fleet. Glad to have you. As I mentioned (in the beginning of the piece) you may have a valid point or two.

      I do acknowledge that there are definitely arenas in which the ethics of using a ghost should or could be challenged (especially when using a byline)and I understand your perspective, which comes from the standpoint of minimizing embarrassment and protecting your client’s credibility.

      But I do think that (1) most users are savvy enough not to have that expectation when it comes to business entities (vs. individuals)and (2) that marketing models today leave many small businesses with no other option in order to remain competitive in search. (These folks are short on resources- both time and money.)

      My point was this: Ghostwriting is not strictly taboo. Like anything, I think there is an ethical way in which to use the service and (for the ghost) to perform the task. A true ghost, in the original sense of the term (used for memoirs etc.) is one who does not pretend to be the person they are writing for but rather helps their client to communicate more clearly with their audience. We do this by being chameleons of sorts, inhabiting their skins a bit (much like we writers do when writing a manuscript, we inhabit the skin of our characters.) This is why the term ghost. It’s as if we shed our skins to enter their worlds and try them on for awhile. The distinction is this: I don’t write in my voice or style or even my opinion, when working for a client. I write always, with them and their values, experience and beliefs in mind. This includes their direction and approval of any and all content. So that in the end, it really is their message or opinion and not mine.

      I hope this makes my view a little clearer. I don’t think we are diametrically opposed, here, but rather separated by our end goals — both of which, seem to me, to be honorable.

      Thank you for the parry, Mr. Fleet. I enjoyed the discourse.

  • Véronique

    I don’t have a problem with it. But then, I’m a (tech) writer, and some day I’m going to need a job. 🙂

    Seriously, it’s like doing a work for hire. Nothing I do for my current company has my name on it. They own what I produce, and they brand it the way they wish. And I get paid!

    Of course, we both like blogging under our own names as well, right?

  • niceshorts

    I agree. Nobody expects blogs for companies, ghost-written or not, to be earnest, unbiased views on anything by one particular person. It’s commercial, and the creation of a brand involves a lot of people. I don’t even really consider it “ghostwriting.” A blog is the voice of the brand/company, and as a contractor, the writer is part of that company and that brand for the moment.

    I think the issue might be more about how blogs started out as earnest, not-for-profit storytelling and evolved into a brand vehicle, and some people might take issue of this use of blogging on a more essential level. But scribes-for-hire are not exactly new, and people will always want stories and there will always be storytellers. I think about this sort of thing a lot.