Ghost blogging

I guess I probably still qualify as social media virgin. Lots of frantic petting as I try to make up for lost time, but the truth is I’ve only been blogging for 5 months, active on Twitter for just over a year and still cannot really be arsed with Facebook.

Like all virgins, I am therefore somewhat by definition a touch naive. I like to believe that when I follow someone on Twitter or subscribe to a blog, I get to connect with the actual individual I’m interested in.

For example, I enjoy following Duncan Bannatyne on Twitter. I have enjoyed reading his books; he has a very interesting life story, which in many respects he lives out on Twitter, and I enjoy the opportunity to feel part of it. Now if I ever had an inkling that he was not responsible for his own tweets and that he employed a ghost writer or even shared the job out with his PA, I’d be off like a shot.

I’d feel cheated. It’s as bad as a doting fan paying big bucks to watch a mega recording artist perform live, only to discover half way through the show she was lip-synching. It’s probably as bad as removing ones wedding ring before entering a singles bar….

I only found out recently that there is a massive ongoing debate on this very issue. It’s been raging for years.

In the red corner you have the PRs, the seasoned command & control communications veterans and the ghost bloggers themselves. These guys think ghost blogging is an honourable and essential profession, given that their clients are far too busy and important to actually write for themselves.

And if they didn’t do it for them the world would be an emptier place because we’d all be missing out from their nuggets of wisdom, and sparkling wit & repartee.

Of course their clients don’t like them to disclose who they write for – that would be embarrassing right? That could lead to reputational damage right? So it’s OK to do it provided no one finds out. Oh dear. So where is the integrity and honesty in that?

So the red corner argues that professional communicators have always supported CEOs, celebrities and politicians by writing their speeches, their books and their letters since time immemorial. It’s true, and I have no issue with that. But these media are not social. They are not blogs; which have fundamentally changed the rule book.

Needless to say, I am in the blue corner. If I want to read facts about a company, I will read its annual report and check out its website. If I want to understand what makes a company tick I’ll subscribe to its employee blogs and follow its staff on Twitter, where I can connect with them directly. And part of what makes the experience so interesting and the connection so compelling is the blend of work and play; the immediacy; the shared pleasure in sharing; and the free-flow of consciousness.

Actually this blog post was triggered off by a comment I read a few days ago in a piece on www.ragan.com called It’s just ridiculous to argue about ghost-blogging

Try the link, it may work for you. I cannot access it now unless I pay a rather chunky subscription fee.

An anonymous contributor added this in a comment in his or her anonymous defence of ghost blogging (spot the irony): “a highly polished, marcom speak-laden entry, is highly preferable to undisciplined, poorly constructed, rambling from a great CEO who is not a writer”.

I’m sorry I don’t buy this. I don’t read blogs to be entertained by brilliant writing. I read blogs because I am interested in listening to that person. I want to feel connected to the author. I can’t do either if I know the blog is ghost written. If you don’t have time to blog, don’t do it. That’s fine. I won’t think any less of you! But if you are going to blog, be genuine and be real.

I like the advice that Kodak give on the subjectin their Kodak Social Media Tips: “Always be transparent. When you are communicating in social media say who you are and who you work for. Don’t try to be sneaky and plant comments, don’t hire people to go out and say nice things about you and stay away from ghost writing. Be genuine and be real.”

I’m going to leave the last word to an old pro who knows what he is talking about. If I’m a social media virgin, I guess Robert Scoble, is the Casanova. In his 2003 blogging manifesto he wrote: “Use a human voice. Don’t get corporate lawyers and PR professionals to cleanse your speech. We can tell, believe me.”  Scobleizer – The corporate weblog manifesto

Wise words indeed from the undisputed heavyweight champion of the blogging world!

5 thoughts on “Ghost blogging

  1. Nice post Jon and good points. What do you think about ghost-written blog posts that are instructed by and then vetted/edited/changed by the person in question?

    I think there’s a difference to be made between types of blogs. On the one hand you’ve got personal blogs (or Twitter accounts, as in the case of Duncan Bannatyne above) but then you’ve got corporate blogs that are associated with a particular person.

    You would rightly expect Willie Walsh blogging about the life of Willie Walsh to be written by himself or not at all, but you might not expect Willie Walsh blogging about British Airways and their latest attempt the end the scourge of the unions to necessarily be written, at least in full, by him.

    I think there’s a clear distinction between the two and that’s something readers should be aware of. Agree with the main point you make though – honesty is vital.

  2. Thanks for the comments Mike. I think that if you have the time to instruct, vet, edit, change and approve then you have the time to write it in the first place. That said, you’re spot on in drawing a distinction between a corporate blog and a personal blog.

    I have absolutely no problem with corporate blogs that seek to raise awareness around business and industry issues provided they align themselves with the corporate brand and not with a single figurehead. So, for example, Virgin Media may have a series of blogs to create awareness and discussion around its products and services, but they wouldn’t claim that it is Richard Branson’s blog. For me this kind of blog is not really a blog, but a pretty bog standard and age old communications approach using blogging software as opposed to letters to newspaper editors, newsletters and circulars etc.

    The essence of a blog is personal – virtually every definition you read says so. I don’t believe if you are using a ghost writer you are being personal, and for me personally, it is the personal element which makes me read them.

  3. Lawrence Roberts says:

    Hi Jon,

    I agree with you, honesty and integrity has to be core. I think your answer rests with the reason why we’re choosing in our own minds to follow that person or identity. For instance, if you’re following your favourite celeb or CEO, chances are, they are someone you admire and respect. There is probably something apparitional about them. Therefore you subconsciously want to get inside their mind and know how it ticks. How else can you hope you emulate their success? So you want access to the individuals mind. Hence the thought of ghost writers is an absolute betrayal.

    There are a lot of social media mediums, where celbs and CEOs alike have taken an altogether different stance. They are not writing to tell you about their personal thoughts and emotions. In truth they are writing to improve their brand. You’re not getting the real them, you’re getting their public persona. You’re getting what they want they want you to think about them. If they are a celb or a CEO what they care about is you thinking their brand is great. Let’s face it, you at work and you at home may be very different people. There is nothing altogether wrong with this, as long as it is transparent in their writing style and how they position their content. I think it is this distinction that all too often we are missing. There is always going to be ghost writers or communications experts who will write blogs on behalf of others. Spelling and time I feel is often used as an excuse. In truth, being a great person or a great leader does not necessarily mean you can make a blog sound interesting or you can get your personality across in words. That requires a different skill.

    We need to ask ourselves when we follow a social media; do we want the relationship with the individual or the brand/public image? And if so what type of relationship has the author of the social media granted its followers? What perspective are they writing from? If these aren’t aligned, we’re going to be disappointed.

  4. Thanks for your comments Lawrence and for presenting a wholly different viewpoint than I had previously considered. The brand issue is very interesting and in my mind not perhaps so clear as you seem to be suggesting. I accept that any celebrity, public figure or CEO is likely to always be on their best behaviour when blogging. I’m not sure this means there will be a significant difference between their public and private persona. If your public persona is not in tune with your private one you’re in trouble. Personal brand still needs integrity and authenticity.

    Corporate brand does not – top brands rely on their positioning and relevance to stand out among the crowd, and very few rely on celebrity to reinforce their values (Stelios and Richard Branson are the only real exceptions that spring to mind). Nike, Adidas, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Stella Artois, Budweiser, Starbucks, Costa etc are all brands that people will follow but their CEOs are not household names – and they don’t need to blog on behalf of their brands.

    Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos has over 1.7m followers on Twitter because people know that when he tweets, it is the man himself not a staffer writing on his behalf. He is not a great writer but this doesn’t matter to his legions of followers, because it is him, and they hang on every word because of it.

    An interesting case is where a personality is wholly manufactured by the brand. For example, Aleksandr Orlov (otherwise known as the meerkat from http://www.comparethemarket.com) has 40,000 followers on Twitter (me included), where a meerkat speaking in broken English has an engaging and very amusing dialogue with thousands of fans who obviously suspend reality every time they tune in to the banter.

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