S = situation definition
Monica: I have this dilemma. A new client of mine – a start-up – wants to add a blog section to their infant website. The aim is to provide useful content to readers, draw search traffic and make the site look lively and updated. They’ve given me free rein to handle the content, as long as I post under their names. But I read this article by Jason Falls, which suggests that blogging under another person’s name is unethical. What do you think?
Sally: It depends what your principles and values are, Monica. You’ll need to think about honesty, authenticity and integrity, about telling the truth, about professionalism and your duty to abide by industry codes of ethics. And you can’t look at this dilemma in isolation. You’ll have to think about the history and practice of ghost writing – and at whether ghost blogging is any different from this.
Monica: Yes, you’re right. So my dilemma is: while my conscience let me sleep if I start blogging under another person’s name?
A = analysis of the situation
Sally: You know, ghost writing is a big industry. It’s accepted that not everyone writes their own books and articles. Do you think George W. Bush wrote his own autobiography? Or that busy CEOs have time and ability to write their own stories? No. There are numerous ghost-written books and articles on the market – it’s an accepted practice.
Monica: So ghost blogging is just a 21st-century version of ghost writing. And if we accept ghost writing as ethical, it follows that ghost blogging is okay too. So Jason Falls just needs to loosen his collar.
Sally: But blogging is about authenticity, right? That’s what Joe Pine and James Gilmore argue in their book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want. I believe them. Blogging is about your personal voice, views and opinions. You’re supposed to be honest with your readers.
Monica: Really? I thought blogging was purely a marketing strategy. I thought it was about providing interesting insights and information about a given topic. I thought blogs helped bring search traffic to a website, making it look lively and offering regular readers a useful resource. I don’t think it matters whose name is on the byline if the content is good quality.
Sally: It looks like this dilemma isn’t really about your internal code of ethics. It’s more about semantics – what blogging means, not just technically but socially.
Monica: It’s such a new concept. The meaning’s always evolving. The web changes, merges, transforms… the lack of clarity over the meaning of the word “blog” really confuses the issue of the ethics involved.
Sally: But even if there is disagreement about the meaning of the word blog, there are standards which mention blogging. For instance, according to the article by Jason Falls that you mentioned, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the U.K. specifically “discourages the practice of ghosting a blog.”
Monica: I don’t think I have a duty to abide by any particular standard. I’m not a public relations professional, just a struggling freelancer…
Sally: Okay, but you do have some duties. Duties to the various parties involved. On the one hand, you have a duty to your client to do all you can to enhance their business and their reputation. But you also have a duty to your audience to be honest.
Monica: Do you think my audience would think it dishonest if they found out my boss wasn’t writing his own articles? I’d say I have more of a duty to the audience to provide well-written, thoroughly researched and useful content.
Sally: So why not use your name?
Monica: We use my boss’s name because he’s the one who owns the business, and he’s the one who needs his reputation enhanced through these sorts of articles. But the “duty to the audience” is about providing quality content, not about using one name or the other. There are no bad consequences resulting from ghost blogging.
Sally: Apart from undermining trust in blogs generally…
Monica: Which is a good thing. Nobody should trust what they read on the internet.
Sally: That may be so. But it comes down to honesty. It’s plain wrong to claim authorship of an article of which you are not the author. It’s just not true. And most codes of ethics say that the duty to tell the truth is universal.
D = decision
Monica: That’s fine in theory, but gray areas such as this dilemma make “universal” principles impossible to live by in practice. So I’ll go with the consequentialist code of ethics that most of my audience in the West accept, and that’s a utilitarian code. Whichever action leads to the greatest happiness or usefulness to the greatest number of people is the most ethical action.
And that’s what ghost blogging achieves. My client gets nice, frequently updated, search-friendly content on his or her website. The audience gets a lively read and useful, reliable information. Everybody’s happy.
Sally: Only not everyone is happy. I’m not happy that your boss is forcing you to be dishonest, and that he’s being dishonest to his audience. It’s like claiming a gold medal when you’ve paid someone else to run the race.
Monica: So here’s a compromise. I’ll suggest to my boss that it’s more effective if he drafts the outline of the article and suggests the direction, and that my job is simply to put his ideas into smart prose. And I’ll suggest that both of our names appear on the blog.