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Is it OK to ghostwrite a CEO blog?

18 September 2006 21 Comments

This is one of the questions I get asked most often. What I want to know, dear reader, is what you think?

A bit of context: Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun Microsystems and the only public Fortune 500 CEO blogger, says he writes his own blog. He told AP reporter Rachel Konrad:

“The blog has become for me the single most effective vehicle to
communicate to all of our constituencies – developers, media, analysts
and shareholders,” Schwartz said in an interview in his Silicon Valley
office. “When I go out and have dinner with a key analyst on Wall
Street or a key investor from Europe and ask them if they've read my
blog, they almost universally say yes.”

The quote is from her story titled Sun CEO among few chiefs who blog. It was widely distributed in dozens of newspapers over this past weekend. (I also got quoted in it, which was kinda fun.)

So is Jonathan an anomaly? Could or should CEOs of other Fortune 500 (or Fortune 50 or Fortune 1000) companies write their own blogs? If yes, why? (Authenticity? Efficient and powerful communication?)  If no, why not? (They don't have time; can't be transparent, enough, etc.) Jump in and add your thoughts below.

21 Comments »

  • Anonymous said:

    Debbie,
    I'm going to get clobbered here, but I don't see anything wrong with ghostwriting a blog.
    Order in the court, please.
    OK, here's why: If I write an ad or direct mail package or newsletter for an company, do I sign my own name to it? Of course not! Even the letters get sent under the name of the company spokesperson. And how about speeches? Anybody remember Spiro Agnew (or want to?). Well if you do remember him, it's probably because of his speeches–in particular the ones where he zinged it to the press: “nattering nabobs of negativism” and critics of the war in Vietnam: “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as 'intellectuals.'”
    Well Mr. Agnew said those words, but he did not write them. They were written by William Safire. (See http://www.answers.com/topic/nattering-nabobs-of-negativism.) Is that unethical? (I'm not talking about the former vice president, I'm talking about Mr. Safire.)
    I've written letters, articles, columns and newsletters that went under other names. Is that unethical? As long as they accurately reflect the thoughts of the signer, I don't see why I can't supply the words.
    OK, blogs are by definition (allegedly) “transparent”–open, honest, and candid. (Should I admit I edit my blog posts before posting them? Will I be drummed out of the blogosphere?)
    But blogs are not legal documents… or Holy Writ.

  • Anonymous said:

    Absolutely yes, as long as it still represents the *thoughts* of the CEO. It's no different from having a speechwriter help the CEO come across well behind the podium and it's quite the rare CEO who has risen to that point due to their writing prowess. :-)

  • Anonymous said:

    I still think it's in the spirit of the new, authentic conversation that you should be clear about WHO is the writer. It's ok to have a ghostwriter as long as he writes what the ceo would have written AND as long as it's clear that he hires someone to put it all down in the blog!

  • Anonymous said:

    Debbie,
    Thanks for coming out swinging on this discussion. I'm guessing that almost everyone will agree that ghostwriting a blog for a CEO is okay — no disorder here, Morty. Like Sanne, though, I'm curious as to whether ethics dictates disclosure? If it's not disclosed, a CEO can always claim “I never said that,” in any dispute over blog comments.
    Should CEOs blog? It's an economic decision, I think — and a dangerous one. Blogging reveals process. A lot of organizations are not comfortable having their production process exposed — only the end results. Personally, I don't have a real blog, but I post on 10 or 20 blogs a day, sometimes with the aid of a ghost blogger, and I do not disclose the ghost.
    Did I write this comment or did my ghost? Debbie, have you ever used a ghost blogger?
    STEVE O'KEEFE
    V.P., IAOC
    GhostMaster, http://AuthorViews.com/blog

  • Anonymous said:

    Steve,
    Is it ok for the President not to reveal who wrote his State of the Union Address?
    If he says it, it's his.
    If you blog it, it's yours.
    Otherwise, everybody could claim “I never wrote that letter.” (Some letters are even signed by rubber stamps.)
    I once got a letter (In reply) from David Ogilvy. On the bottom it said “Dictated but not signed.” Then again, Ogilvy was British…. Maybe soon we'll see blogs with disclaimers! OY!

  • Anonymous said:

    I'm surprised that the wrath of the blog Puritans has not yet come down on all this heresy. Perhaps it's a sign of a maturing medium. I went to my first blog seminar in January 2005–seems like a century ago in Internet time. In that pre-Business-Week-blog-cover-story era, the possibility of blog ghost writing was met with horror and shame.
    The sentiments proclaimed at the time really remind me of the www and email before widespread corporate adoption. Remember “netiquette”? One of its most cherished principles was that the Internet was to remain forever uncommercial. Remember how websites (especially the home page) had to be updated every day with new stuff to bring browsers back? Some 10 years ago, Steve O'Keefe was one of the first to point out to me, contrary to the experts of the day, that in the B2B world, there may not be enough news for a company to do daily or even monthly updates to their home page. *And that's OK.*
    As blogging matures, I have no doubt that writers for-hire will continue to emerge who can capture the tone and spirit of an company and present it in a blog. There are a lot of good CEOs out there who are tone deaf when it comes speaking or writing creatively. I think we all gain when speech writers or blog writers, whether coach or ghost, help organizations communicate more effectively through the CEO's “voice” or some other appropriate spokesperson. The caveat is *effectively,* and I give the coach/ghost writer a better a chance at turning corporate-speak into effective communication.
    Don Dunnington

  • Anonymous said:

    Jeesh. You guys make a great team! So here's where I stand:
    Yes, corporate blogging is another channel of communication for a company.
    But no, it's not “just another channel” — it's a *new kind* of channel. One that promises a more authentic, truthful, scars-laid-bare, warts-and-all, we're-real-people-here convenrsation. One that inspires readers to nod and say, “Oh so that's how it really is” or “So that's why they do it that way.”
    If you accept that premise – that blogs promise a new kind of communication (which includes interaction with readers, of course) – then it's a separate question as to who writes, shapes and edits what goes into the blog.
    I guess ultimately I come down on both sides of the fence on this one.
    If the CEO or other senior exec can write well, wants to write and has the tenacity and interest to keep at it — then let her do the blogging, for godssake.
    But… in a real world where every exec has multiple competing demands on his or her time, it may be more practical for someone else to write, edit or translate for the top dog.
    So the final question remains: if a CEO blog is in fact ghostwritten, or at least ghost edited, should that fact be disclosed?
    For now, I say yes! Why not disclose it? As to exactly how that should be gracefully worded on the blog, I don't have an exact prescription. I suspect that etiquette will evolve over time.
    And on a final PR note, a CEO blog that is indeed written by the CEO should probably trumpet that fact loud and clear.

  • Anonymous said:

    Hi, Debbie
    Thanks for starting this discussion here. I'll be the naysayer in this conversation, however.
    I'm just not drinking this particular glass of Kool-Aid. In my experience, ghostwritten blogs are generally a bad idea — as are CEO blogs at most companies.
    I'm not trying to be a “blog purist,” it's merely a matter of practicality as far as I'm concerned. Despite what many PR pros seem to believe, authenticity and tranparency are vital to the success of any business-related blog. That includes being honest about who's doing the writing.
    I explained why two recent blog posts:
    1. The Problem with Ghostwriting Blogs (at “Capture the Conversation,” a client's blog I contribute to)
    http://snipurl.com/wofs
    2. Why Most CEOs Shouldn't Blog (at “The Right Conversation,” my own blog on conversational media)
    http://snipurl.com/wmca
    I realize this view won't be popular here, but I felt it should be mentioned.
    Best,
    – Amy Gahran

  • Anonymous said:

    Now that I'm able to jump into the fire with the rest, I wanted distinguish the voice versus the message. I provide professional bloggers to those companies that cannot do a blog themselves. We prepare posts that are informative, on point and quality wiriting. We never blog “as the CEO” but if they wanted to post something for them we may rewrite it and post it in their name. Our policy is to disclose on our blogs that “Content provided by Bloggers For Hire”. We can use a Admin title or a name as long as it's clear that we are not Mr. CEO. Any message the CEO wants to publish is published by “her” as Debbie would say. We also monitor comments, trackbacks and do web or blog mining. Whe something is said about the company or the blog we are on top of it and are given an emergency contact, usually the top dog or C level employee to address the issue timely so as not to be engulfed in the controversy prior to making a blog post or statement.

  • Anonymous said:

    Let me declare an interest here as I already ghostwrite for a CEO. I thought long and hard before suggesting ghostwriting. I believe, as I think Dave Taylor said, that as long as the CEO is in agreement it's ok.
    I went slightly further and also encouraged the CEO to review and edit my postings and add his own.
    Jim

  • Anonymous said:

    I realize I'm coming to the party a bit late, but I would like to add my two hundred cents:
    As Debbie mentioned, blogs are indeed a whole new form of communication. When I speak to clients, I describe a blog as a “channel”, much like radio, TV or traditional print. Except it's fast as light and incredibly cost effective.
    Operating under that premise, I think it's fine to edit a CEO's blog for brevity, clarity or interest. I think it's not fine to completely ghost-write a CEO's blog because that's “pretending”. Would a CEO hire an actor to do a presentation or speak to the media on their behalf? Absurd!
    The whole point of blogs is opening up a direct, forthright avenue of communication. Anything else just adds to the noise and is of little or no value. If it's not really you doing the talking, you might as well issue a press release. Finally, I'll paraphrase Jonathan Schwartz by saying that “hiring someone to write your blog is like hiring someone to write your email”.
    If you can't, or don't want, to own the conversation – don't start it.

  • Anonymous said:

    Maggie,
    I've written emails for people too!
    A blog is the script. Not the performance…. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be having someone ghost-record a podcast. And even that would be more dumb than dishonest.
    Morty

  • Anonymous said:

    Then I guess the question becomes, “why do you have a blog?”

  • Anonymous said:

    Having a ghostwriter publish a post, respond to a comment or leave a comment on another blog on behalf of a CEO, without the CEO directly approving the content is unethical.
    It violates the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's principle of honesty of identity.
    The analogy of ghostwriting speeches is fine, but as one comment mentioned, it is the actual CEO who delivers the content, not an actor.
    A CEO blog is a powerful medium of communication, but there is a reason why so few CEOs have their own blog. A group blog, where the CEO chimes in once in a while is often a much better idea.

  • Anonymous said:

    “Why do you have a blog?” A good answer to that is that right now search engines such as Google are disproportionately favorable to blogs. Blog entries pop near the top of Google search results not because they are more useful or authentic than other content online but because they are updated frequently and contain lots of incoming and outbound links.
    Until Google stops rewarding blogs for their architecture — not their content — having a blog is an important marketing strategy, regardless of who writes it.
    STEVE O'KEEFE

  • Anonymous said:

    Absolutely – but your CEO does not have to write it. It can be created by Marketing, Communications, whoever. And it doesn't even have to be a “blog”, it can simply be content managed using blog software (which, frankly, is the way of the future).
    You just have to call it like it is. Authenticity is key in this new communications environment.

  • Anonymous said:

    Jeffrey,
    We all seem to agree there's an ethical line here, but disagree on when it's crossed. You say the CEO should directly approve of the content of posts or it's unethical. I would set the bar a little further out — that the CEO can authorize someone to blog on their behalf *and take responsibility for those posts* without directly approving any of them. One of the most important reasons for having a blog ghostwriter is to cover vacations and other absences when it is inconvenient for the CEO to pre-approve postings.
    Further to this discussion, a ghost blogger is not writing for himself or herself. They are “chanelling” for the CEO. Thus, ghostwritten entries should be in the CEO's name and the CEO should be held accountable for them. I see no substantive difference between a ghostwritten speech and a ghostwritten blog entry.
    Great discussion!
    STEVE O'KEEFE

  • Anonymous said:

    Amen, Steve!
    With all due respect to Doc Searls, we take the “All Markets are Conversations” metaphor too literally. Blog purists make ghostwriters sound like Cyrano de Bergerac. I think Steve got it exactly right.
    The Cluetrain left the station a long time ago. It's time to realize that blogs are a great tool, but not sacrosanct.
    Morty

  • Anonymous said:

    Steve and Morty,
    I understand your reasoning for a ghost writer (vacations, time, etc.), but again, then why not just have someone else write the blog? Or why not have a team of bloggers.
    I still hold firm on this issue of identity -authorizing someone to write on your behalf and standing by the comments after the fact is not enough.
    As for the blogosphere being sacrosanct, I agree that bloggers to often get up on their soapboxes and often prefer utopian ideals over business realities.
    However, perception is reality and if people perceive a ghostwriter as unethical (as most bloggers and many journalists probably will) than CEOs and executives should tread carefully.
    Again, my argument is that when looking at the risk-reward, a ghost writer just doesn’t make sense

  • Anonymous said:

    It seems to me that Jeffrey, Maggie and others (including Debbie, who started all this) make a strong case for some level of disclosure as to authorship when a CEO blogger gets more than a little editing help.
    There have been so many creative ways presented here for the CEO (and others in the organization) to join in the conversation that, as Jeffrey points out, it's hardly worth the risk to resort to ghostwriting . I'm persuaded that it's not just new media group think but good reasoning (and good advice) to keep authorship transparent.
    Don Dunnington

  • Anonymous said:

    Hi Debbie,
    Why would a CEO hire a ghostwriter ? Not enough time ? Not a good writer ?
    There are CEOs out there that take time to either write themselves or dictate their thoughts to an admin who types it out, and it works. So why would others hire a ghostwriter ?
    If someone is hired to write for a CEO it should be clearly indicated on the blogpost. Transparency is key and in some industries I guess it can even be required by law.
    But advising companies to hire a (PR) ghostwriter to write their corporate blogs as some PR agencies are doing is going way to far… Those are the kind of cases that end up in the list of “blogging disasters”…

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