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November 26, 2007

Ghost blogging: A Moral Quandary

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[Just to prevent any confusion, this post was written on Saturday. I'm not still out of town. I do come to work sometimes. I have to; otherwise I'd lose that deep, deep bond I have with Susan.]

According to my JetBlue-supplied Google Map, I’m writing this while 36,517 miles over Nebraska. Since there’s nothing on my mini TV, Susan’s not here to poke, and I’m doing my best to ignore the foul-mouthed, has-a-staring-problem boy sitting next to me, I figure now is as good of a time as any to tackle that ghost blogging post that’s been circulating inside my brain for the past couple of weeks.

The issue of ghost blogging was raised during a panel on Corporate and CEO blogging held during this month’s BlogWorld. After discovering that there was a ghost writer in the room, moderator Debbie Weil questioned the panel, and ultimately the audience, on their feelings regarding the subject. Is ghost blogging ethical? Is it necessary? Why is it looked down upon in the blogging industry? Or is it looked down upon at all?

I’m not sure if the panelists were simply trying to be respectful of the individual in the room or if they didn’t have any real feelings toward it, but no one really tackled the issue. The only one willing to really take a stance was the admitted ghost writer himself. His main argument seemed to be that ghost blogging is the same as speech writing and that people shouldn’t throw things at him just because he makes money off pretending to be someone else. (Okay, that might have been my interpretation.) President Bush doesn’t write his own speeches, chances are your local representatives don’t either, so who cares if Bill Gates is using a ghost blogger when he turns to the Internets to get his point across and engage readers?

Well, to be honest, I do.

I’ve gotten into a bit of debate with my ghost blogging friends regarding the ethical nature of all this. The thing is, to me and to a lot of others, blogging wasn’t designed to be just another marketing channel. It’s not supposed to be the same as speech writing. Blogging was designed to be a new channel. One that wasn’t controlled by legal, tainted by public relations, or left smelling like "agenda". It’s supposed to knock down the invisible wall and open up a two-way dialogue between you and your audience. It’s about the conversation and when you change that and instead turn it into scripted dialogue, you lose what makes blogging impactful. It’s like going to a fancy restaurant, ordering an expensive, perfectly cooked steak, and then drowning it in ketchup. Dude, don’t make me hit you!

There’s an implied authenticity and transparency with blogging that isn’t there for speech writing. When George Bush looks at me and stumbles over his State of the Union, I realize that he hasn’t written it. That there’s a good chance he had some help formulating his words and crafting his message. That the grammar has been perfected and that someone was very careful to include certain buzz words and talking points for him to hit. And that’s fine for a speech. Speeches are old form communication. It’s okay if they sound like a press release. It’s not okay if your blog sounds like one.

Your blog is your chance to be genuine, why would you not take advantage of it? How can you have a conversation with someone if you’re not the one talking? It’s like on Saved by the Bell when Zack would be on a date with the Blond of the Week and Screech would be in the bushes feeding him his lines. That never ended well. Why? Well, because (a) it was a 90’s Saturday morning TV show and (b) because the interaction was fake. You can’t make people fall in love with you or your company when you’re not the one addressing them. Actually, you can’t make someone fall in love with you at all; they kind of have to do it on their own. And they can only do it after they’ve formed a connection with you, the real you. It goes back to the authenticity issue.

And fine, I understand that not all CEOs and marketing executives have time to sit there and write a blog entry. I also understand that not everyone is, um,qualified to blog, but then find a way and a conversation medium that works for you.

Cisco’s CEO does a monthly 3-5 minute video post that allows him to connect with readers. It’s a great strategy. If your CEO is a talker, hand him a tape recorder and let him record an audio post while he’s stuck in the airport waiting for Southwest to call his magic boarding number. Or create a company blog where the CEO only chimes in from time to time when his or her schedule permits. Or do what Bruce did and hire someone to blog.

If the success of people like Robert Scoble or Matt Cutts has shown us anything, it’s that it doesn’t have to be the CEO writing for the blog to be considered authentic. It’s not the fancy title that makes your blog successful; it’s the passion behind the author. If you want your customers to be excited by your blog, give the blow horn to the person in your company who is the most passionate. I don’t care if that person is the CEO, the marketing person, the IT guy or the guy who passes through the office on weekends to clean out the trash. He’s the person your readers want to hear from. He’s the one who will get them excited.

To me, that’s the biggest con in the ghost blogging fight, that it’s unnecessary. Why are you pretending it was your CEO hosting the conversation? If you have a team member who’s passionate and insightful and smart, let your customers meet that person. They’ll have more respect for you in the morning. People like companies that are secure enough to highlight more than one voice. It makes you appear more stable and well-rounded.
If you are going to hire a ghost blogger, I think you have to disclose that to your readers. As the great Billy Joel once said, it’s a matter of trust. If you found out that this "Lisa Barone" person doesn’t exist and that it was just a penname for someone on the Bruce Clay marketing team, wouldn’t you feel betrayed? Of course you would. Because if we’re lying about who’s writing the blog, what else are we lying about?





3 responses to “Ghost blogging: A Moral Quandary”

  1. Jason Falls writes:

    Bravo! Well freakin’ done, Ms. Barone.

    I was at the very session she spoke of and that’s how I remember it as well. Bully for you, Lisa, for taking a stance. I agree on all points and, while I certainly can see Mr. Ghost Blogger’s point of view and don’t necessarily disrespect him (or others like him), for me and my recommendations to my clients the name on the blog by-line means something.

    You should hang out above Nebraska more often. Oh, and just poke the kid in the eyes next time. He’ll leave you alone.

  2. handsome rob writes:

    A post full of valid arguments, however also a case where the validity of your points is the cause of the issue.
    The implied authenticity and transparency that is at the heart of blogging is exactly what makes it so attractive. It’s the same thing that gave rise to PR as an alternative to traditional advertising — the ability to manufacture value and control the spin.
    I understand the blog “purist” argument, and I too feel that ghost blogging does somewhat corrupt the medium. But the greatest thing about blogging has always been its ability to create opportunity: opportunity to share and to learn with minimal entry barriers.
    Record labels have been paying for tattoos to make bands seem more “punk” for a long time. This is the same thing… another case of manufactured “cool”.
    Fortunately, we met briefly once upon a time in NY, so you know I’m not ghost-commenting :)

  3. SEO Honolulu writes:

    Welcome back Lisa :)

    Ghostblogging definitely sends a wrong message to readers about the intentions of the entity responsible for the blog as far as how they want the public to view them along with what kind of respect they have for the very same public they’re catering to.

    Transparency goes farther with all of us rather than misleading us.

    And for the record, if I found out that you were a ghost blogger and didn’t actually exist, then technically I wouldn’t owe you any of those drinks I promised :p



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