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By letterhead | December 26, 2007
Why do people need ghost writers? (It must not be obvious, or people would not be so shocked over the practice.) The answer is:
Ghost writers are necessary because most people suck at writing.
That’s a no-brainer. The bigger issue is this: sophisticated PR programs deliver their messages through surrogates, whose affiliations are deliberately disguised in order to mislead as to their ultimate loyalties and intentions.
Superficially people seem to have issues with “ghost writing,” but their real issue is most often honesty in public debate – particularly in a realm as anonymous as the Internet. The biggest fish-fry over such an issue was Edelman PR’s use of fake blogs to promote the ethical integrity of its client WalMart. The stench from that one still hangs in the air… and will likely be as much a textbook example of bad PR2.0 as J&J’s handling of the Tylenol crisis is a textbook example of the best in crisis response. (History and good list of links here.)
Despite months of hoots and howls over the Edelman/WalMart fiasco, another doozie of an uproar – this time in Traverse-City, MI – proves that the anonymity/surrogate issue is alive and well. The local paper, the Record-Eagle, is positively on fire with indignation over a PR firm being hired to ghost write some op-ed articles, letters to the editor, and web/blog comments. (For now, we will leave aside the other issue-in-the-craw: the PR firm’s “secret research” on the editor and publisher – something we in the biz call “media targeting.”)
With respect to ghost writing, there are two problems here.
PROBLEM # 1 – Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing
The first “problem” is really a non-issue; it shouldn’t be a problem at all. Protests over the use of ghost writers is driven by a total lack of knowledge about how PR works. As a PR practitioner and professional ghost writer for more than a decade, I have to admit to certain amusement when the public gets totally outraged at something that we spinners see as a completely uncontroversial bread-and-butter activity… e.g., writing for our clients.
Ghost writing per se, is a pretty dull affair, but it pays well because so few people are any good at writing, and because the need for clear, effective, authoritative communication far outstrips the supply of those who can provide it.
Effective business writing is honed through years and years of practice, and even for long-time writing pros, good writing takes time. Most people, especially busy executives with operational responsibility, simply can’t spend years learning this skill, never mind spending many hours laboring over individual internal memos and the like – as important as those communications might be. Division of labor, in this case, is essential to a good work product. It’s why “communications” even exists as a profession.
PR pros use ghost writing all the time; it fills an entire spectrum, from:
- making up quotes for press releases (usually bad quotes that sound nothing like the way people actually talk)
- to writing bylined magazine articles for busy executives (usually for industry trade mags)
- to writing op-eds & letters to the editor on breaking news topics for said executives
- to writing internal company-wide memos to employees
- to writing canned sound bites that executives drop into media interviews
- you could even consider speech writing a form of ghost writing
Note to non-PR folks: go to PR Newswire and just scan a few press releases. Most have quotes in them. But guess what, the person quoted never actually said those things. Those quotes are made up by PR people and approved by the purported speaker.
Next time you fly, read the CEO’s letter in the front of the magazine in the seat pocket. Think he wrote it? Nope. He no doubt read and approved it before publication, but write it? Hell no.
When you read a corporate annual report, do you think the CEO actually wrote the “Letter to Shareholders?” Certainly not. A story that illustrates how acceptable this practice is: It’s fairly common knowledge among PR old-timers that Fortune reporter Carol Loomis has on occasion been known to pen Warren Buffet’s annual “Letter to Shareholders” in the Berkshire Hathaway annual report.
Why? Because even if they had time (which they don’t), CEOs can’t write well. They know what they want to say, and they are ultimately responsible for what goes into it, but they don’t actually write the damn thing. Getting the appropriate message across in the right way (i.e., with the right tone) is an art-form that few non-professional writers can deliver. And when the stakes are this high, you want to hire the best. Don’t you?
Finally, what reader wants to spend time trying to digest a rambling, muddled mess of a piece anyway? It’s in the best interest of all involved to get a professional writer to handle the job.
PROBLEM #2 – Wolves In Herringbone Worsted Wool
The real problem here is that the Michigan-based PR firm seems to have been unethical in its use of attribution – either by attributing quotes to made-up people, or by hiding the affiliation of their surrogates in order to confuse the public.
At first blush, it’s Edelman/WalMart all over again, but this incident is more serious in that it concerned the recall of elected officials – a recall funded by business interests who would benefit from a successful recall outcome.
What’s different about this kind of lying is the intended public policy outcome. It would affect more than just one company’s reputation and the consumers who could CHOOSE to shop there or not. This incident would have resulted in a public policy shift, directly affecting hundreds of thousands of voters who could not opt-out. It is a debased exercise in surreptitious social and economic control.
This fraud-with-policy-aspirations, harkens back to a mini-incident by the US military in Iraq. They made up pro-American quotes from an “unidentified Iraqi,” who purportedly witnessed and then criticized an insurgent attack.
Military press officers put the quote into several different press releases… the EXACT SAME QUOTE appeared in two different releases, related to two separate incidents, several days apart, both quotes attributed to some “unidentified Iraqi”
Clearly, not only was the quote inauthentic, the “unidentified Iraqi” was a non-existent, made-up witness.
Big public policy debates, like the one about re-apportioning California’s electoral college votes, brings out the advocates and surrogates en masse. You can bet that pretty much all of the speeches, op-eds, letters to the editor, direct mailers, etc., will continue be written by professionals – no matter whose name is on the byline, or signed to the bottom.
But even in the blandest of debates, professional communicators are used to get the point across. Read any random op-ed page and you’ll no doubt find a prime example – like this spat between the Sacramento Bee and the California Chiropractic Association (CCA); the op-ed article bears Mr. Updyke’s name as president of the CCA, but the odds that he actually wrote it are slim to none.
CAN’T WE ALL JUST BE PRACTICAL…?
As a practical matter, ghost writing is not going to go away. Nor should it. Op-ed pages everywhere would be blank within a week. And the world of business could very well stop turning altogether.
Nevertheless, we do need some basic rules in order to bring the PR profession back from the brink of perpetrating wholesale fiction against an under-informed public. Brendan Cooper raises some interesting and thorny questions specifically about ghost blogging, here. (My pet peeves with professional blogs, many of which are ghost written, are the lack of quality insight and their self-promotional nature — made worse by fawning, empty-headed ghost writers trying to please the boss… as I covered in this earlier post about Howard Rubenstein.)
From where I sit, as someone who makes a living doing this kind of work, I would suggest the following approach to ghost writing (for the PR firm, the writer and the “author). These questions can help gage the legitimacy of a professional ghost writing project, including comments and blog posts; a legitimate piece of ghost writing will get “yes” answers to all of the following:
- Does the purported author/speaker actually exist?
- Are all the attributions truthful – i.e., profession, company/organization, executive level, experience, geographic location, etc.?
- Does this person know his/her name is being used?
- Has this person had input into the content of the document, and does it accurately reflect his/her opinions?
- Has this person given explicit approval to publish the piece with his/her name on it?
- Is this person willing to speak to reporters or other audiences and defend the piece, if requested to do so?
- Is the PR firm willing to be identified as the “agency of record” in managing publication of the piece?
- Are all affiliations and objectives on the table for discussion, if outside audiences make inquiries?
If all of these get a “yes,” then the ghost writer is just doing something the “author” can’t: putting his or her ideas/opinions into readable and engaging prose. That is a legitimate use of a “ghost.”
On the other hand, if anything about a writing project makes you squeamish, or gives you pause, then STOP.
Living with Shame 2.0 is a helluvalot worse than Shame 1.0… it lasts forever and is available for anyone in the world to see at the click of a button.