Collaboration is key to ghostwriting ethics.
Storytelling Communications

“Ghost” Content Marketing: Respectable Writing Jobs or Unethical Territory?

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I remember the first time I put someone else’s name on my work. I wrote an industry-specific column for a business magazine, and the editor wanted to include an article from a high-profile expert who had been a good resource for the editorial team. This expert had submitted a couple drafts, but his writing wasn’t very strong. So, rather than going back and forth with him to create a publishable article, the editor wanted to give him the byline for a piece I’d already written.

I was appalled by the request. This was one of my early writing jobs, and although I’d published dozens of articles for several business magazines, I still coveted my bylines and didn’t want to share.

The editor wasn’t asking me to do anything highly unethical. Even though I had written the article, this expert’s fingerprints were all over it. He had provided plenty of background information, industry insights, and relevant quotes. The content was probably more his than mine, but I had written it. And I wanted the credit.

After some career advice from my editor about the importance of being a “team player,” I finally agreed. But I wasn’t happy about it.

I didn’t yet understand the concept of ghostwriting. Since then, I have ghostwritten blog posts and eBooks for a number of business leaders and industry experts. And for the most part, I feel good about the work I’ve done.

If approached correctly, ghostwriting is a lot like editing. A good ghostwriter helps other people communicate their insights, experiences, and stories in a clearer, more effective way than they have the time or skill to do on their own. But there’s a difference between these types of writing jobs and putting someone else’s name on work that is all your own.

The former feels like a partnership; the latter feels like lying.

Close up of a woman hands typing

To Ghostwrite or Not to Ghostwrite: An Ethical Dilemma?

In today’s content-driven business environment, the pressure is on executives to be thought leaders—to share their expertise, experiences, and insights with the world. The problem: Many of them aren’t great writers or don’t have the time to create regular blogs and social media posts. So, companies are increasingly hiring freelance writers to crank out content under executives’ names.

Ghostwriting isn’t a new concept. Everyone knows presidents don’t write their own speeches. And many bestselling books by politicians, celebrities, and busy business leaders are created with help from ghostwriters. For example, Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir, Hard Choices, briefly mentions a three-person “book team.” John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage was mostly penned by his long-time speechwriter and advisor, Ted Sorenson. And Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In, credits journalist Nell Scovell, her “writing partner,” on the title page.

In content marketing, however, ghostwriters almost always remain anonymous. For many writers, particularly those from journalism backgrounds, this can feel deceitful and wrong. But is it?

This has been a hot topic for debate in recent years, and opinions vary widely. But the general consensus seems to be that outside of a few particularly sensitive professions—medical researchers, lawyers, academics—ghostwriting is acceptable as long as the stated author participated in the content creation.

According to a study by the University of Oregon, 53.7 percent of PR practitioners who had organizational blogs admitted these posts weren’t always written by the credited authors. And 71.1 percent felt this was OK, as long as the ideas for the content came from the stated authors.

Richard L. Johannesen, a journalism professor and leading expert in the field of communication ethics, included ghostwriting guidelines in his often-cited book, Ethics in Human Communication.

How do these guidelines hold up in the context of ghost blogging and other types of content marketing?

  1. “What is the communicator’s intent and what is the audience’s degree of awareness?” (Unlike with political speechwriters, the general public probably isn’t aware just how common ghostwriting has become in content marketing.)

  2. “Does the communicator use ghostwriters to make himself or herself appear to possess personal qualities that he or she does not really have?” (A good ghostwriter tries to sound as much as possible like the stated author, and does not add humor, wit, or other personality traits the communicator doesn’t possess.)

  3. “What are the surrounding circumstances of the communicator’s job that make ghostwriting a necessity?” (Johannesen allows leniency for individuals with demanding roles, including politicians and business leaders.)

  4. “To what extent do the communicators actively participate in the writing of their own messages?” (This goes back to my original point: Collaboration is essential.)

  5. “Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message he or she presents?” (As long as the stated author is participating in content creation and approving the final draft, then yes.)

Transparency in GhostwritingOutside of Johannesen’s first criteria, ghost content marketers seem to be in the clear. Of course, transparency is a big deal in marketing. Perhaps this is why most business leaders don’t admit to using ghostwriters.

I spent a couple hours looking for quotes from well-known business leaders about why they use ghostwriting services and came up mostly empty-handed. When a public figure does come clean, readers aren’t always accepting. Both Guy Kawasaki and George Takei learned this the hard way.

For content marketing professionals, the question of whether ghostwriting is ethical depends on who you ask.

Steve Farnsworth, a high-profile content marketing strategist, believes it is an ethical practice, provided it’s a collaborative process the client can be truthful about if asked. He writes:

I have used one of several scenarios when I have had to write something on behalf of a client. The one I used was based on what they were the most comfortable with.

1) Interviewed them to get their thoughts, then wrote it, and then have them review and give feedback.

2) Have them write a first draft, I would then edit or rewrite as needed, and then have them review and give feedback.

3) Have them bullet point or outline their thoughts, I would write it, and then have them review and give feedback.

It was always their ideas, often their words, and they always read, gave feedback, and approved the final copy.

Ghostwriter Joe Bunting agrees. He writes:

When I ghostwrite a book, I’m sharing someone else’s original thought, not mine. They came up with the content. Also, most of my clients are fantastic public speakers, people who have been talking about their ideas for ten years or more. My job is just to take their life message and put it into book form. Honestly, it’s a great job, because for each book I write, I feel like I get to sit at the feet of a world class expert and soak up their knowledge.

Yet, other talented ghostwriters have quit the biz because of ethical concerns. Amy Westervelt, a journalist-turned-content marketer-turned journalist again, blames ghostwriting for her hard feelings towards brand journalism. In her Medium article, “Content Used to be King. Now It’s the Joker,” she explains:

I’m selling my best ideas for bargain prices. Yes, companies mostly pay more than media outlets, but you know what? I only come up with about ten really great story ideas a year and if I attribute six of them to someone else—even at, say, $1,000 each—I’m not left with much. [And] I’m tired of making rich, white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are…Every bit of content I agree to produce feels like a tacit agreement that the only value journalism has any more is to make CEOs and companies look good.

Trust and integrity aren’t the only reasons collaboration is key for ghostwriting. Content quality is also at stake. Aimee Millwood, who has ghostwritten content for such respected publications as Forbes and Inc., talks about this issue in her article, “The Army of Ghostwriters Behind King Content.” She explains:

I was writing nearly 50,000 words a month, and it’s nearly impossible for anyone to write such a high volume of content across so many subjects with no time for proper research or copyediting…I can say firsthand that working as a content cow, I churned out plenty of articles that were loosely researched and poorly written. More often than once I was put in a position where I was asked to write as an authoritative expert on a subject I had no knowledge in and given barely any time to understand before producing a post … The result was I turned to other articles and posts published online, but as we all know, creating content built from recycled opinions and inauthentic ideas kills originality and innovation and replaces it with poorly repurposed (and often terribly written) work.

This is ghostwriting at its worst. I’ve had a gig or two like this, and I understand just how frustrating and demoralizing it can be.

On the other hand, I’ve also helped some very insightful leaders put their powerful messages into clear, concise, and compelling blog posts and books. I worked closely with these individuals and felt like a trusted partner, not a ghost. And that was work I felt good about.

Developing a Ghostwriting Relationship6 Ways to Be a Collaborative Ghostwriter

How can you approach ghostwriting in a way that doesn’t feel sketchy or dishonest?

1. Choose the right clients. Ghostwriting should be a partnership, which means you need clients who are willing to put in the time and effort, to really think about the topics and provide their own insights and ideas. Put simply: You might be writing for them, but you shouldn’t be thinking for them.

2. Conduct frequent interviews. Schedule regular meetings or phone calls to get to know clients and discuss content topics. Remember these people are busy multitaskers whose attention and brainpower is usually being pulled in multiple directions at once. Help them prepare for a focused conversation by sending questions in advance. Then record and transcribe conversations. Incorporating direct quotes will help you inject their voice and personality into written content.

3. Ask for relevant stories. Not everyone realizes the value of their personal experiences. Along with insights, get them to share anecdotes that illustrate their points. This will make content more compelling to readers and add a personal touch that helps the content feel more like theirs and less like yours.

4. Tell them to stay in touch. Keep the lines of communication open between formal interviews. Ask clients to send you articles they like, and to share interesting ideas or anecdotes before they have time to forget. Even a brief note—i.e., “Remind me to tell you about the conversation I had with a new client about his biggest leadership challenge”—will help you craft relevant questions for your next interview.

5. Follow them on social media. Knowing what they read, comment on and share will help you understand what’s on their radars and on their minds. These articles might contain data or quotes you can incorporate into future blog posts. Just as importantly, reading their informal social media content will give you a better feel for their unique voice and style.

6. Get their feedback on the content. Working with executives’ marketing teams is a great way to ensure your content is on point and on brand. So by all means, send drafts to them for review first. But once marketing has signed off, be sure the authors have a chance to review and provide feedback. Ask them to tweak anything that doesn’t “sound like them.”

Done right, ghostwriting can be rewarding work, both emotionally and financially. But a final piece of career advice for content marketers: Also find writing jobs that give you the byline for your work and enable you to use (and strengthen) your own voice. Otherwise, your ego and resume take a big hit. After all, if you can’t take credit for any of your work, you have no way of proving to future clients or employers that you have the skills and talent for brand storytelling.

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