Is Ghost Blogging Unethical?
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You didn’t write that post, but you put your name on it. You hired a ghost blogger.
Ghost blogging: one person writes the blog posts, but another person gets the credit, with or without disclosure that the blog uses ghost written posts.
Does that seem wrong to you? Unethical?
Some say that’s an easy “yes”, but others, particularly in the public relations industry, say no.
It depends on how you see your content, and how comfortable you are with a lie.
1. Ghost Blogging Ruins The Relationship
Social media and blog content–it’s all about the relationship now, isn’t that right?
We’re talking, we’re conversing, we’re engaging. It’s all inbound marketing and in order for that to work, we have to be transparent and open and above all else, be concerned with connecting personally to our readers. In this strict definition, ghost blogging seems like a home-wrecker in our relationship with our audience.
Blogger Dave Fleet has written an article about the ethics of ghost writing in social media, stating outright that it is unethical if it is undisclosed because it harms the relationship.
Unlike ghost-written speeches, where the spokesperson lends their name and approval to the writing by actually saying the words, ghost-written blogs can be published without the named person ever seeing them.
Fleet later wrote an article addressing ghost blogging directly, stating that it was wrong. Writing blog posts was part of relationship-building.
Maybe the question isn’t whether ghost blogging is ethical or not, but instead, whether your blog is about relationships or information.
Not All Blogs Are Relationships
To play devil’s advocate, let me suggest that not all blogging is relationship building.
Some blogs are purely for information. Just as a writer publishes a book (paper or ebook), you buy it, you read it, you don’t assume the author wants to start a transparent relationship with you. The information was the thing.
Consider the many reasons people create blogs:
- Create and cultivate relationships.
- Develop their image and platform.
- Frame and speak on issues that affect them or their brand (self PR).
- Show themselves as thought leaders.
- Media catching (journalists contact them because of what they found on their blog) for attention.
- Communicate with the rest of the organization, or shareholders.
- A pure love of writing.
- Earning money from ads, sales, affiliates, etc.
- Attract search engines to their website where their business and products are found.
Do all of these reasons really have to be considered “relationships”? I know we are trained to think that way now, but is it the only route?
The trend and “best practices” you’ll hear now is that all content is framed in a relational and social approach. To be the devil’s advocate for a moment, I would suggest that it is also possible that you are only interested in relaying information and aren’t looking for a relationship (ask any seriously introverted writer about this). While you might see significantly different results than someone who views their content as relational, you are, at least, getting content on your site. If it’s good, you’ll still be found by search engines. Maybe that’s enough for you.
Informational Blogs Are About Getting The Job Done
If your content is informational instead of relational, your focus is on accurate and useful information, not on how your readers feel about you. And that’s why some informational blogs–such as those for corporations, executives, businesses, etc.–might turn to ghost blogging to get the information out.
Consider what the biggest blogging challenges are, according to a study on the ethics of ghost blogging:
- Having enough time.
- Finding enough to write about.
- Having writing skill.
- Responding to readers (if you have comments, which many informational blogs don’t).
- Industry constraints and regulations (some things you can’t talk about).
- Poor editing chain, where content gets out that is inaccurate.
When faced with these challenges, ghost blogging to get the information out seems acceptable because it addresses half of these.
If you have an idea for content, but do not have the skills or ability to carry it out, why is it wrong to use a ghost blogger? Would it not be similar to using a draftsman to bring the idea you have for your new house into something usable? Does the draftsman get the credit, or do you? Can a writer ever be considered a draftsman?
There are no World Blog Standards that dictate how you must handle your blog and your content. While there may be online cultural standards where audiences and other bloggers expect to be social, personal, and conversational, it doesn’t mean you have to do that.
All of this to say that the insistence that ghost blogging is unethical because it destroys the relationship may not be true if there is no relationship. When you contend that the problem with ghost blogging is that it damages a relationship, you dance around the real problem, failing to directly address the main (and ugly) issue: lying.
Discussion: ghost blogging vs. guest blogging.
Let’s say your blog is about the relationship between you and your reader. Just the two of you.
Does accepting guest posts, even if they name the author, do some damage to that relationship? Is the problem with ghost blogging merely about the naming of the author and letting the world know you didn’t write it, or is something larger, that you’ve let a third party into a formerly exclusive relationship?
2. A History Of Ghost Content
“People have been ghost writing content for centuries! There’s nothing wrong with ghost blogging.”
“But it’s still a lie!”
If everybody is doing it, and have been for a long time, does that make it OK? In a study for the Journal of Business Ethics, Linda A. Riley and Stuart C. Brown discuss the history and ethics of ghostwriting.
Ghostwriting is viewed by some as a necessary element for crafting an effective public image. Defenders of ghostwriting see no ethical dilemma in the practice because the audience knows the “speechgiver” is not necessarily the “speechwriter.”
Riley and Brown continue, presenting the opposing view.
…the audience does not recognize the employment of a speechwriter and thus the speechgiver relies on the words of another to fortify personal ethos.
Speeches, memoirs, autobiographies–there is a history of ghostwriting that goes back to ancient times, a history of someone else doing the writing with the writer not getting the credit. Blogger Jason Falls, who adheres to the idea that ghost blogging is deceptive, acknowledged this history:
There is a vast difference between a personal blog or journal and a business blog or company blogging program designed to drive business leads, search results and the like. Professional writers are and have been authoring pieces that are published under a company or executive byline for decades. The practice is generally accepted and understood by some.
Yet, despite the history of the practice, Falls is blunt about what he thinks of someone putting their name to someone else’s work. While he believes that is wrong, he can’t fault a writer for trying to earn a living in the system that’s available.
The principle is unethical by definition. The social acceptance of the principle makes the degree of severity insignificant enough for us to not consider the practice wrong.
Falls then tries to lay down a few guidelines when it comes to determining what is ghost blogging and what isn’t. According to Falls:
- If there’s no author byline for the final published product, you’re a copywriter, not a ghost writer. (ethical)
- If person whose byline appears on the piece is very active in the idea, content, dictation, and editing of the piece, you’re a copywriter, not a ghost writer. (ethical)
- If the person whose byline appears does little more than a read-through at the end, suggesting a few edits, you should have had a shared byline, and you’re a ghost writer. (not ethical)
- If the person whose byline appears never looks at or lifts a finger to assist in the post, you’re a ghost writer. (not ethical)
Falls makes an excellent, and obvious point, calling attention to the elephant in the room:
If you say you wrote something but actually didn’t, you are telling a lie.
Put any spin on it that you want. Call it a lack of transparency, call it a ruined relationship, call it the cost of doing business, but do call it a lie: if the bylined author doesn’t have a majority active role in creating the content, not including the name of the real writer is being dishonest.
Not illegal. Not without historical precedence. Not outside of the realms of accepted tradition. But a lie, nonetheless.
Why Do People Participate In Ghost Blogging?
There are lots of reasons give for why writers and blog owners participate in ghost blogging, but it really boils down to two:
1. Writers are trying to earn a living.
When you are trying to make a living with your writing, you will do what you have to do. Ghost bloggers don’t necessarily make much, but it is a reliable income once they are plugged in. Some are employees of the company, and ghost blogging is their job.
No writer really enjoys getting no credit, but they do enjoy being able to pay bills. As Falls said, this is the system we have.
2. Blog owners don’t have the ability.
Content marketing is the new big thing, the way to get traffic, the way to do your own PR, the way to communicate, the way to be a thought leader. But what if you can’t write?
Creating content is going to be tough if you can’t write. Some people have a great site, a great product, an audience, great ideas–the framework for a blog–but lack writing skill, technical skill, or time. Why not just be upfront about giving someone else the byline? Why not let readers know that you had help?
- They are ashamed of the situation.
- They have been convinced it’s bad PR to admit the intern is writing the posts.
- They think they’ll lose their audience if they know it’s not them.
- They are more concerned about appearances than anything. No name but their own on the blog.
So they hire a ghost.
If you can’t write your blog and don’t want people to know, simply don’t put any name on the posts, a common tactic for organizational or corporate blogs. This makes the blog more informational instead of a relationship. If you can’t write the posts yourself, please don’t put your name on them.
Discussion: do we really want transparency?
Do readers really want transparency? Do they want to know that it isn’t the CEO they are turning to for great advice? Is there validity in someone being ashamed that they don’t have the chops to write out the expertise they know their audience wants? Is it possible that the audience says they want the truth, but that they really just want to feel assured that they are getting knowledge from the top?
So, Is Ghost Blogging Unethical?
It’s not illegal. A lot of people do it.
A 2013 Public Relations Journal study (PDF) aimed to determine how people felt about ghost blogging in the PR industry. 76% believed that as long as the idea came from and was approved by the stated author, undisclosed ghost blogging was fine. 56% believed that ghost commenting was acceptable if the gist of the response came from and was approved by the stated author. When it came to ghost comments on outside blogs, and blog posts where the stated author provided little input, the response was more evenly split.
Inside the PR industry, perhaps, there is a more pragmatic view of what ghost blogging ultimately accomplishes, and as long as the stated author is somewhat involved, it soothes the conscience.
Yet, what effect does ghost blogging have on the quality of content you find online? Is the blogosphere filled with liars and cheats? Can you believe anything you read online?
The proliferation of unethical ghost blogging (using Falls’ definitions) has two effects on the quality of content you find online. I am personally familiar with these because I’ve written ghost blog posts to earn money with my own writing (yep).
1. A limited gene pool of actual information.
After my foray into ghost blogging, I grew to believe very little of what I read online, even less than before.
While researching for blog posts, I would find the same information (sometimes word for word) and the same errors and inaccuracies. I concluded that there are a lot of other ghost bloggers out there doing quick and dirty research to churn out the posts, and we were all feeding on each other. Very little of what was written was new (or even fact-checked) information, just a rehash.
A ghost blogger doesn’t care about the topic as much as the blog owner does; they want to hit their word count, package it up nice, and get paid. They aren’t going to dive into academic journals for fascinating research (unless the pay is pretty high, which it usually isn’t).
Low-paid ghost blogging contributes to the quantity of the content online, but not always the quality.
2. The experts are silent while the novices speak.
I’ve written about topics I have no understanding of at all.
I’d look at the headlines (all I had to go on), and wonder how in the world I’d pull this off. On some posts that I wrote, the site owner would then come in and add a paragraph or two that made me realize it would be so much better if they wrote it, or at least provided a crude outline of the key points they knew should be there so I knew what to research and include.
The experts aren’t writing the content when they should be. Their blog would be better if they were more actively involved. They know best the information that should be shared, not a random writer pecking away at a computer randomly researching on the web.
Summation: The question isn’t whether or not you should have someone writing for your blog. It’s whether you think you should take credit for their work.
We’re talking about big questions of craft, creation, idea, and credit. Frankly, if you are writing your own blog posts, you should disclose that. (For the record, we write our own posts here. Guest posts are noted, with author credit.) Let your reader know that what you write is really yours. Perhaps this reverse disclosure will force undisclosed ghost blogging to change.
We’ll save the topic of ghost tweeting for another day.
June 30, 2014