The Ethics of Ghost Writing

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Posted At: September 18, 2013 2:45 P.M.
by Christi Rich

On Sept. 11, 2013, Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, authored an op-ed in The New York Times. Many public relations professionals, students and educators likely had the same thought I did: There’s no way he actually wrote that himself.

According to CBS News, Putin and his inner circle worked to write the article under Putin’s name, but Ketchum helped to place it.

This one example brings to light the ever-present ethical question: Is ghost writing ethical?

Typically, ghost writing entails writing an opinion piece on behalf of a prominent person (CEO, politician, celebrity, etc.) for placement in a news publication. But with the rising popularity of Twitter and blogs, there are new questions relating to ethics and ghost writing.

A professional, an educator and a student shared some unique thoughts on ghost writing for news publications, blogs and social media.

I spoke with Randy DeCleene, the senior vice president of strategic communications at kglobal, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.; Ellie Boggs, a public relations student at the University of Oregon; and Dr. Tiffany Gallicano, assistant professor of public relations at the University of Oregon.

Ghost writing for news publications

CEOs, celebrities and politicians regularly publish op-ed pieces in various news publications, and, often, public relations professionals are enlisted to write these pieces. While this practice is nothing new, is it ethical?

DeCleene has written articles under his own name in Politico, as well as articles on behalf of clients for various publications, including USA Today (a fact he is very proud of, regardless of the byline).

He asserted that “at the end of the day, someone is putting their name on it, and they agree with it,” and this is the important factor. DeCleene also emphasized repeatedly throughout our talk that transparency is key for deciding the ethics of ghost writing, no matter the medium.

Ghost writing for blogs

Gallicano has spent several years researching ghost writing for blogs and the perception of this practice for both the public relations industry and the readers.

Her first study with Kevin Brett and Toby Hopp won the Jackson-Sharpe award at the International Public Relations Research Conference in 2012 and was just published this month in PRSA’s PR Journal. They researched the views of public relations professionals on ghost blogging in the most ethical form, specifically that the content came from the stated author who gave the final approval.

Gallicano said that “71 percent [of 291 PRSA members in the U.S.], which is pretty strong, thought that the practice was permissible, as long as the ideas come from the stated author and the author gives final consent.” Her research indicates that this practice appears to be common.

Gallicano’s second study, with Tom Bivins and Yoon Cho, focused on what the readership of blogs think about this practice. At the 2012 conference for the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication, they explained that more than half of the readers who answered the survey agreed or strongly agreed that it’s common for a blog in a corporate or political setting to be written by someone besides the CEO or politician, even if he or she is the stated author. However, the findings of this study indicate that readers of a nonprofit blog are much more likely to expect that the blog is actually written by the stated author.

She summed up her findings: While it may be ethically permissible to ghost blog in the corporate or political world due to audience expectations, it may not be the best business practice due to readers’ disapproval of the practice. Alternatively, her study indicates that it is not ethically permissible without a disclosure statement in the nonprofit world due to the likelihood of deception.

For Gallicano, the key takeaway in deciding the ethics of ghost blogging is identifying whether deception is occurring based on audience expectations and ensuring the “integrity of the process.”

Ghost writing for social media

Boggs believes that the general assumption, at least in the public relations world, is that CEOs, politicians and celebrities likely do not create their own social media content and speeches. But, she also “believe[s] that on social media it may be misleading for those with large followings to have someone else tweeting.”

DeCleene brought up the example of President Barack Obama’s Twitter account. His profile clearly states, “This account is run by Organizing for Action staff. Tweets from the President are signed –bo.” DeCleene believes that complete and total transparency is the key to ethical ghost writing, but he also emphasized “it’s better if it’s real.”

What does this mean for student job-seekers?

DeCleene said if entry-level professionals have a problem with ghost writing for publications, they should think twice about what career field they are entering. “People are paying you to be a consultant for your skills, not to get hung up on who gets the credit,” he noted.

Boggs thinks “it’s very possible that entry-level PR professionals could be asked to ghost blog, but … there are ways to make ghost writing a blog post a more transparent practice. It could be something as simple as a sidebar noting that not all posts are written by the executive, but that he or she sponsors and endorses all content.”

In conclusion …

DeCleene emphasized complete transparency on all accounts. Gallicano emphasized identifying audiences’ expectations and maintaining the integrity during the process by consulting the stated author for the content and getting their final approval before publication. Boggs also believes that ghost writing should be a transparent practice.

DeCleene, Gallicano and Boggs identified different ways to achieve an ethical ghost writing practice, but all believe that ethical practices are fundamental to maintaining relationships. In the end, that is the key to good public relations.

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