Ghost blogging: who’s behind that byline?

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I distinctly remember the first time I learned that the quotes in press releases weren’t actually spoken by the people to whom they were attributed. I was a naïve college student, an English literature major entranced with Jane Austen and 20th century British comedic writing. I was doing an internship at a local PR firm in the summer to try to learn  skills that might help me in the ‘real world’ post-graduation.

They asked me to write a quote for the press release, and I was shocked. Shouldn’t I at least talk to the person being quoted, I asked? That’s when I learned that the PR shills are the ones doing the ‘talking’ in those quotes.

Fast forward many years. As a freelance marketing writer, I have ghost-written bylined articles for CEO and VPs on all kinds of topics. Once I wrote an interview for a major software company’s CEO. And I’ve written many, many quotes for press releases and customer stories, which people are usually quite happy to have attributed to them.

But the first time I was asked to ‘ghost-blog’ for someone (writing a blog attributed to someone else’s name), it seemed to push against another boundary. Surely the blogosphere is meant to be authentic? Is ghost blogging wrong? Does it work? Does it compromise trust?

The answer is, “it depends.”

Ghost blogging is becoming more mainstream.
Many bloggers wiser than myself have weighed in on this subject, including:

Jason Falls: http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com/social-media-marketing/the-ethics-of-ghost-blogging/

Joel Postman: http://www.socializedpr.com/corporate-ghost-blogging-raises-no-ethical-issues/

Dave Fleet: http://davefleet.com/2008/11/the-ethics-of-ghost-writing-in-social-media/

In addition to their input, I asked my LinkedIn community, and heard a range of responses.

For some, the ‘authenticity’ of the blogosphere was at stake. Others understood that not everyone has the time or ability to put their ideas into a blog. In fact, most were pretty comfortable with the concept of ghost blogging, as long as the opinions expressed in the blog were truly those of the bylined person.

Potential pitfalls of ghost blogging
I can see a number of ways that using ghost bloggers can be a problem:

  • Ongoing conversation: What if someone engages in comments on the blog? Do you actually carry on a conversation in comments as someone else, or is it up to the bylined person? This is something you’ll need nailed down before you start ghost-blogging.
  • Varying styles: If more than one person is ghost-blogging for someone else, then an astute reader is bound to notice, and might feel betrayed or duped.
  • Lack of authentic voice: The most entertaining blogs I read are clearly written by a distinct individual. Unless they have the full-time writing gig for the bylined person, few ghost bloggers will be able to take the same liberties when writing for someone else.

My own, personal guidelines for ghost blogging
I know that PR firms routinely ‘ghost-blog’ for their clients, and that some companies pitch themselves as corporate ghost-bloggers. So maybe I shouldn’t make a fuss. But one of the joys of being a freelance writer is that you can set your own rules for what work you will do.

Here’s where I’ve ended—so far—on my own personal ghost-blogging journey. I only want to blog for someone else if I really feel I can adequately represent their opinions. One of the following cases should be true:

  • I know the person well for whom I am ghost-blogging. When I know the personality and voice of the individual, as well as their overall opinions, writing an acceptable ghost blog isn’t difficult.
  • I have a conversation with the bylined person about the blog topic. One phone conversation can be enough for me to catch not just the big concepts but also the feelings behind them.
  • I watch or listen to a video or audio of the person talking about the topic, perhaps as part of a webinar or a recorded interview. This has worked for me very well in the past.

In addition, the bylined person should sign off on the blog posting before it goes live, and should be willing to handle comments.

Am I being too particular? Not particular enough? I’d welcome others’ thoughts on ghost-blogging, both from the perspective of a company trying to populate a blog, and as a reader of those blogs. Please let me know what you think.

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