Blogging requires personal participation

Yesterday I led a workshop on blogging in London for the CIPR during which the group spent a bit of time talking about ghost blogging.

Scott Adams’ perceptive Dilbert cartoon, first published two years ago, takes an extreme but comical look at a topic that is often discussed in the online PR community and which usually results in two schools of opinion – the “it’s ok to do it” group and the “over my dead body group.”

What, exactly, is “ghost blogging”? This Blogossary definition is as good as any I’ve seen:

A ghost blog is a blog run and managed by an anonymous author(s). A ghost blog can also be a blog written by a company or person on behalf of another company or person.

Example: person B is blogging on behalf of person A

A ghost blog may also be a blog about or dedicated to apparitions and poltergeists.

There has been much debate about whether ghost blogs should be taken seriously and whether they can hurt the blogger’s overall reputation in the blogosphere.

In yesterday’s CIPR workshop, we heard about an example of an organizational blog where the content ideas come from one individual, and the content itself is written by communicators, approved by the ideas-originator, and then published to the blog.

You might argue that there’s nothing wrong with that: this sort of thing happens all the time.

Communicators write the CEO’s speeches. We do press releases containing pithy words of wisdom by named people which they didn’t really say because we wrote those words. Prime Ministers and Presidents spout wondrous things in Parliament or Congress and yet we all know it’s the speechwriter who is the eloquent one.

So why should we be concerned about whether a blog post – and, bringing the topic right up to date, a tweet – is actually written by Executive A or written by the communicator, someone who often has a better way with words?

I found it encouraging that during the discussion yesterday, the majority of people argued a case as to why they felt ghost blogging is not a good idea, which is all to do with authenticity and trust.

To encapsulate the discussion, I can summarize it like this:

  1. You as a CEO or other executive write a blog, others read your content, perhaps leave comments or write their own posts linking to yours, and so a connection develops that over time may lead to an actual relationship.
  2. People will connect to you because it’s you they’re connecting to. It’s your commentary and opinion they read and form their own opinions about.
  3. Imagine how the deck of cards will come tumbling down if it turns out that your commentary and opinion isn’t actually you at all but someone who writes and publishes in your name and that fact wasn’t disclosed.

The bold text in 3 above is the key point.

Whether or not you think ghost blogging is a good idea – and, for the clear record, let me state my view: I think it’s a terrible idea (although I had a very different view in 2004 when I was still trying to figure out this business blogging malarkey) – you could argue it’s ok as long as there’s open disclosure.

So everyone would know that when you read Executive A’s blog posts, they’re really written by Flack B: The ideas may be A’s but the words are B’s.

And I’d agree – as long as you disclose, there’s no perception of pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes and your risks of reputation damage when you’re found out (there will be nothing for anyone to find out) are minimal.

Whether it’s an effective form of communication and relationship-building is another matter entirely.

Yet with social media like blogs and Twitter, things don’t really work like that. Don’t take my word for it, though – read what Michael Hyatt, a long-time and credible CEO blogger, has to say:

[…] social media only works well if the communication is personal, authentic, and near-immediate [… it] requires your personal participation. You can’t hire it done. You can’t fake it. If you’re not willing to make the personal investment, don’t bother. You won’t fool anyone.

Related post:

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Chris Norton

    This is a really interesting post Neville. I completely agree with you that it should be disclosed if someone is blogging on someone else’s behalf.
    A personal blog is just that, personal, and if its readers think they are reading an individual’s thoughts and opinions they begin to feel they are getting to know that person. This is your personal blog and I am commenting and speaking to you – it would be very odd if it was actually somebody else.

    A team blog is a different matter of course because then you have several different people posting under their own names. I always believe the about page should be clear as to who the authors are and what they will be writing about.

    It sounds like it was an interesting discussion.

  2. Paul Seaman

    Most professionals who blog – as opposed to professional bloggers – who work for big companies and write on work-related topics will have their copy vetted before publication. Few people are free to write exactly what they’d like to. In a sense, most (all) communication of any sort is mediated in some form – part ghost – or more precisely the result of collaboration of some sort; unless one is Robinson Crusoe on a desert island before he met Man Friday.

    Discuss: does Barack Obama have time to follow the hundreds of thousands of twitterers he follows on Twitter? Or does somebody do it for him? Does he really compose his own messages on Twitter; as opposed to approving them (sometime, always)? Is he an authentic communicator? Does the mediation of his messages and “personal touches” matter much?

    In my view, I think it matters not a jot from the point of view of Obama’s authenticity and very much so from the point of view of protecting his integrity and reputation (which is reality inverted to the way Neville positions it in his piece above).

    Therefore, I was amazed to read: “people argued a case as to why they felt ghost blogging is not a good idea, which is all to do with authenticity and trust.”

    But, surely, that (establishing authenticity and building trust) is what all communication in any media is or should be about?

    Good PR is not fraud, and it can be authentic. But it is always in the mediation game (that’s what we get paid for) whether it concerns Twitter or bloggers or all things – anything – digital or relating to communication.

    • neville

      Thanks for your comments, Paul.

      You make some extraordinary assertions. Let’s start with this one:

      Most professionals who blog – as opposed to professional bloggers – who work for big companies and write on work-related topics will have their copy vetted before publication.

      Really? Maybe your use of the word ‘most’ is the one I object to. On what facts are you basing your opinion? Love to see some credible evidence to support that opinion.

      In a sense, most (all) communication of any sort is mediated in some form – part ghost – or more precisely the result of collaboration of some sort.

      By ‘mediated,’ are you saying ‘written by someone else’? ‘Collaboration’ is a better word, meaning working together. Well, I’d expect that in any organization. Not the same thing as writing a blog post (say) that’s then published under a different name and which fact isn’t disclosed.

      Still, if you see little to be concerned about in the concept of ghost writing in the social communication sense, then good luck to you. It’s not something I’d recommend to anyone.

  3. Philip

    Paul makes some interesting points but rather clouds the issue, too. In a sense, Barack Obama is a brand, and as long as the tweets/ posts issued under that brand accurately reflect the values projected, fine. Do we believe Obama would say this? Does it resonate with his ideas in a way that infers authenticity? Most readers can accept that the president of the USA probably doesn’t spend too much of the day twittering.

    But at the same time, why bother to create the artifice? Let someone in the organisation who has something to say and has the skills to say it, say it in an engaging way, talk in their own voice. For fans of say, a pop singer to follow tweets written by a PR is about as satisfying as getting a autographed photo signed by an aide or photocopied by the thousand.

    At the North East CIPR conference (#necipr), Stephen Davies showed a video of, I think, a top motor manufacturer Twittering – except he had someone else actually doing the typing! Why?

    At the same conference Mark Payne of West Midlands Police spoke with candour and character. He is a real policeman who happens to head the comms team, but importantly he had a compelling voice.

    There’s is little to be gained from semantic dissection – let the person who can to do it, who has the trust of the organisation, and the skills to command a following, do the talking. If that person happens to be a PR, so be it – but insist that they have the courage to admit their role.

    I have no problem with a politician working with a team of advisors on a showpiece speech. But I would rapidly lose confidence if that same politician needed an advisor to sit next to him or her on Any Questions…

    Over the years I have done quite well from ghosting but I can’t see ever doing it again.

    • neville

      There’s is little to be gained from semantic dissection – let the person who can to do it, who has the trust of the organisation, and the skills to command a following, do the talking. If that person happens to be a PR, so be it – but insist that they have the courage to admit their role.

      Couldn’t agree more.

      Thanks for your thoughtful words, Philip.

  4. Jen Zingsheim

    My favorite answer: It depends.

    Why is the CEO blogging? What are the objectives? If it’s to add a personal feel to the company, I’d argue ghost blogging doesn’t fit the objective. What’s the CEO’s personality? If it matches up with blogging, great–it should be the CEO blogging.

    But, if the CEO is blogging to provide information–not unlike a speech–I can see how using a ghost writer might be more appropriate. And if the CEO either can’t write well, doesn’t have the time (or, like Ryan Air’s CEO, is prone to saying things that get the company in hot water and causing the PR department to work twice as hard to put out self-inflicted fires) then ghost blogging (to me) isn’t a problem.

    I do wonder why a company wouldn’t then just “find another voice” but sometimes there’s ego wrapped up in these decisions too.

    I do think that the employees who do the ghost-writing should be free to disclose that, just like speechwriters. The notion that any online communications should be pure and 100% self-written is one of those things that makes me shake my head…

    Nice post, good to challenge occasionally on this topic.

    Jen Z

    • neville

      Jen, thanks for your thoughtful views.

      Let me add a thought to this one:

      […] if the CEO is blogging to provide information–not unlike a speech–I can see how using a ghost writer might be more appropriate. And if the CEO either can’t write well, doesn’t have the time (or, like Ryan Air’s CEO, is prone to saying things that get the company in hot water and causing the PR department to work twice as hard to put out self-inflicted fires) then ghost blogging (to me) isn’t a problem.

      Nor a problem for me either, as I said in my post, as long as the fact is disclosed. There is the issue, though, because it’s never disclosed, is it?

      The bigger point is what you’ve highlighted:

      I do wonder why a company wouldn’t then just “find another voice”

      Or decide that, in this particular case, a blog is not the means to employ that would help achieve the measurable objective set out in the communication plan.

      Here’s how I see it: If the CEO, or whoever it might be, can’t write his or her own blog posts for whatever reason and can only articulate his or her thoughts via the medium of a ghost writer, then don’t do the blog.

  5. Paul Seaman

    Neville, there is much we disagree on. At the heart of it is our understanding of the word communication. You say:

    “Still, if you see little to be concerned about in the concept of ghost writing in the social communication sense,..”

    I say, all communication between people is social. But you use the word social as if the rules are somehow different – call it uber-social communication – when it becomes digital in cyberspace. But one cannot have unsocial communication on or off line (though the concept of anti-social aims and content is another matter).

    When it comes to winning trust and establishing empathy, machine-based communication will never trump fact to face contact. Moreover, old media were social, or they were never media (social media is an oxymoron).

    PRs (and other professional communicators) exist to professionalize communication. So, I find that your eagerness to remove our conscious counsel from our clients’ communication output worrying. It is my view that a person speaking in the name of an organisation, or who is deemed to be doing so, should vet what they say with others before they say it. I would apply that restriction to CEOs more strictly than to virtually anybody else.

    PRs are in the business of mediating thoughts, messages and narratives. The same rules regarding disclose, transparency, honesty and integrity should apply online as offline. None of that should detract from the authenticity, integrity, truthfulness of what’s said, regardless of which vehicle is chosen for the communication’s delivery.

    When I say all communication is mediated, I am implying that ideas and people do not exist in isolation. Of course, people must take responsibility for what goes out in their name, but ideas or thoughts are never the product of one person’s work; even if they become their property. That insight is surely of importance to this discussion (something about standing on the shoulders of giants springs to mind)?

    • neville

      I appreciate all you say, Paul. It seems to me, though, that you’re looking far more deeply into a topic that, while worthy of philosophical debate, rather muddies the water in terms of the simple point about ghost blogging.

      I don’t need, nor wish, to engage here in lengthy debate about machine-based communication vs face to face, etc.

      Philip nailed it rather well with this:

      There’s is little to be gained from semantic dissection – let the person who can to do it, who has the trust of the organisation, and the skills to command a following, do the talking. If that person happens to be a PR, so be it – but insist that they have the courage to admit their role.

  6. Paul Seaman

    Neville, the problem with corporate blogs, of course, is that they can never be as free as those produced by people who are free to say what they think. Hence, most corporate blogs appear contrived and seemingly lack authenticity as a result.

    Political parties face the same problem. Iain Dale, for instance, is free to say what he thinks; good or bad for the Tories, even though he supports them. It is no surprise, then, that his blog is more popular and robust than the Conservative Party’s official blog ever could be. But corporate employees would be sacked if they came close to being as critical of their employers as Iain Dale often is of the Tories.

    Perhaps, if we were to be absolutely honest, all communication from major organizations should come with a health warning that says: all communication from this company bears the stamp of the PR and marketing department’s input in some form, however minimal or substantial, depending on the circumstances.

    By the way, I started my PR career working for a trade union in the financial sector. We had a massive marketing budget in the 1980s, and one of my major roles was to vet all communication from members and officials to ensure it contained no political messages (left or right): the union’s credibility and reputation rested on it being strictly apolitical.

    • neville

      You do use sweeping statements, Paul, without evidence to support them. Eg:

      […] most corporate blogs appear contrived and seemingly lack authenticity as a result.

      Mind you, your ‘most’ is rescued somewhat when you say ‘seemingly.’

      I suppose ‘contrived’ must be a relative experience. I’ve also encountered a few that look like that, largely I’d argue through lack of understanding rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive.

      Still, in my experience, many corporate blogs appear genuine and exhibit the attributes of transparency and authenticity which might even lead to a sense of trust.

      Thus, they seem authentic.

  7. Paul Seaman

    Neville, commonsense should tell us that corporate blogging can never appear truly authentic. Employees are not free to say what they think. If what they think and write is negative it would mostly get them sacked.

    Here’s two examples from leading corporate PR executives, one mentions how he was muzzled when he sought clearance to say what he thinks, the other explains that he really does mind his language out of fear for his future:

    http://www.sixtysecondview.com/?p=615

    http://maydayblog.com/2008/10/09/reports-of-my-demise-have-been-exaggerated/

    Professional bloggers such Iain Dale face no such formal fears or restraints, beyond broad legal ones.

    That leads me back to corporate blogging and vetting. Everything that’s said by CEOs publicly should be cleared by (ghosts) legal, compliance, PR and perhaps even marketing. Such mediation does indeed prevent corporate blogs from becoming as effective as non-corporate blogs.

    Moreover, corporate blogs when they get touchy feely often appear creepy, which is not what was intended (this fate does not await non-corporate blogs to the same degree). Blogging is all about the personal, and corporate are, well, corporate. There’s no escaping it.

    So I have set out a number of reasons why blogging does not suit the corporate world’s purposes as well as more formal approaches to communication do. But that does not mean that blogging should not form part of the communication mix. But let’s keep our – and our clients’ – expectations realistic.

    As for sweeping statements, I have already questioned you on how you could write this in response to me:

    “Still, if you see little to be concerned about in the concept of ghost writing in the social communication sense,..”

    All communication between people is social. Or do you really think that is not so?

  8. neville

    Thanks for that, Paul. The post by David Brain is an odd example to use as your primary highlight, given it’s specific nature and focus on politics. Hardly the stuff for your average corporate blog.

    Clearly we have entirely different outlooks as evidenced by your comment here:

    Everything that’s said by CEOs publicly should be cleared by (ghosts) legal, compliance, PR and perhaps even marketing. Such mediation does indeed prevent corporate blogs from becoming as effective as non-corporate blogs.

    I simply couldn’t disagree with your view more strongly, as my post would indicate.

    And this:

    Blogging is all about the personal, and corporate are, well, corporate. There’s no escaping it.

    There is a compelling reason for escaping it, one that Michael Hyatt illustrates well as I mentioned in the post.

    Thanks for your views, though, appreciated.

  9. Paul Seaman

    We are not miles apart, Neville.

    I am saying that all corporate utterance is collegiate, not personal. We
    should not expect that a corporate voice is speaking personally. To that
    extent, one should steer corporate people away from the appearance of
    purely personal speech (ie, in blogs) because it’s a falsity. But if there is
    corporate blogging, then one has to accept that it has a corporate mindset
    and spin (unless it stays bland and covers nothing much). Corporate blogging isn’t personal and PRs might as well get involved, and probably should.

    I think your point is only a little different. You believe (and I rather
    agree) that a blog is a personal thing in a special way (it is – as it were
    – a hand-written note) which is different to a speech (which might – as it
    were – be a typewritten thing produced by a committee). Thus you insist that
    it is wrong for a CEO to have a blog but delegate it. But you think that a
    CEO, say, can speak with a personal voice and that his utterance is personal
    not corporate at that point. And I think you believe that the corporate and
    the personal can be aligned.

    The difference between us may be that I think that corporations (and
    institutions) should steer clear of pretending that they are people and have
    personalities that are free of corporate ties. They have qualities, and even aspirations, but these are group things. I resist their becoming too chummy, and so I resist their blogging and tweeting as if they are something they are not; I want to keep the corporate voice authentic. Corporates should be too formal to be capable of the mateyness involved in the ‘social media’ world – except as part of transparent marketing.

    The David Brain “I was muzzled” experience will be faced by any CEO as soon as the subject matter gets sensitive – political issues; product recalls; we’re sorry about this or that mess etc. The Brendan May “I watch more words because I fear for my future” remark is also one that will strike a chord with many bloggers.

    Moreover, these two men are leading PR professionals. I admire them for making transparent the constraints under which they work (they sending us a message) as a result of working for corporate bodies. Their way is the way to build trust because it is authentic, honest and transparent.

    Moreover, one of the things I’ve learnt from my experience is that the last thing any corporation needs is a loose cannon.

    • neville

      I appreciate your points of view, Paul. Very different to my own in every respect. We are kilometers if not miles apart in our approaches to the topic of social media and changing behaviours in an organizational context.

      My belief is firmly to do with freedom of expression with responsibility. I prefer to give people free rein for their expression with few yokes attached. Yes, even employees in organizations. After all, what are organizations but ‘collections’ of people.

      As for a ‘corporate voice,’ a purely legal construct, I abhor such a term. I prefer to talk about people.

      Part of what I do professionally is to persuade leaders within organizations of the value in trusting their employees and giving free rein to their developing connections with others in ways that are not controlled. That may include writing blog posts, depending on the measurable goals they want to achieve.

      As I said before, I appreciate your commenting here.

  10. Heather Yaxley

    To follow Paul’s view through, all corporate communications run the risk of being bland corporate or marketing speak – because if PR adds any personality or interest, whose personality would be reflected? Is the idea that PR can give personality to the CEO – but only in a safe corporate way (approved by legal, PR, marketing et al)?

    It is also naive to suggest that the personality of people within organisations is irrelevant – this is what creates the brand. I find the example above of PR sanitising Michael O’Leary at Ryanair hugely amusing. The point is that Mr O’L is the voice of Ryanair and sets the cultural tone. Like it or not, the job of PR there isn’t to hide his real personality – or tidy up the comments that in fact (to reflect Paul’s view perhaps), have been crafted to cause the controversy that results.

    At the same time, I don’t totally agree Neville that “ghosting” per se is wrong and that there always needs to be transparency over who crafted the words. Would you expect a speechwriter to get a name check? No – and if you’re working closely with a chief exec, why couldn’t you upload a blog post that you’ve discussed – provided they are engaged entirely in the process and in the follow up comments. Does everyone need to know who has typed the post/comment/tweet? Provided they are signed up to what is said and it reflects their views – is this disingenuous? I’m not 100% convinced.

    I certainly wouldn’t expect the top dogs in any company to run every utterance past PR – that would be rather bizarre. If the CEO, CFO, etc cannot be trusted to speak on behalf of the company, they shouldn’t be in their position.

    Will they self-moderate and often check what they are going to say is okay – of course. But don’t we all do that anyway? The brain must engage before the mouth – but readers aren’t stupid and expect a corporate sided viewpoint.

    I wouldn’t expect any CEO to be openly critical of their organisation – unless there is a particular reason for expressing such a view. But I’d like to think they can be real and not be spouting an approved vanilla corporate view either.

    The best CEOs that I’ve met are real people with rounded views that they express diplomatically and from an informed position. They don’t need a PR person sat on their shoulder like a parrot to do this.

    • neville

      Thanks Heather.

      I haven’t said ghosting per se is wrong. It becomes wrong when it’s not disclosed and others feel the wool’s been pulled over their eyes when they discover that fact.

      Whether it’s effective is a debatable point. My view, as I mentioned in the post, is that it isn’t.

      Your last point is spot on and I agree.

  11. Ghost blogging: Just don’t do it

    […] or not in a business context in particular.I have written about it before, most recently in July in a post that resulted in a terrific discussion in the comments.The topic came up again this week following the Dell B2B Social Media Huddle on […]

  12. Lance Winslow

    Great topic.

    I concur on many of your points and would like to make one more. In many securities industries it is actually against the law to have something on your website which you did not write and yet it has your name on it, or it would readily be assumed that you wrote it. For instance, financial planners, stockbrokers, insurance investment sellers, etc. SEC rules and regulations will not allow someone to put their name on an online article, blog, email newsletter article, eBook on investments, etc. or any communication to potential clients or current ones.

    Their thinking is that you are the expert and if someone else is writing your stuff, you are misrepresenting yourself. I agree. So, if someone has a small business blog, and they are a registered investment advisor or licensed by the SEC or in many cases state regulated securities, this sort of thing is NOT allowed, and you could use your license for it. Beware.

    As an online article author with 20,000 articles written (no PLR, ghostly, or derivative generated articles) I have often written content for others. Since, I’d hate to be party to a lawsuit or legal action by a regulator, even if I was hired by someone who is registered and didn’t know the law, I am personally concerned about this. The Ghosters, and the Bloggers should realize this. – Lance

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