Ghost blogging? It’s going to happen. Get over it already.

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The blogosphere is no garden of Eden. We can try to self-regulate, but in so doing we’re only exposing our own naïveté

In the beginning, there was the web.  It was beautiful. It was perceived – and conceived – as a nirvana, a democracy of thought, in which money held no sway.

Then, money woke up. Banner ads became commonplace. So much, in fact, that people stopped clicking them. Our reaction at Sharepages? Flip everything around. Put the banner ads at the bottom, then people won’t realise that’s what they are.

On the day of relaunch, our stats skyrocketed, and stayed up. We even had someone call us telling we’d ‘got our web page the wrong way up’.

That was some time ago. Sharepages has since changed back to a more traditional layout, under more traditional advertising thinking.

Fast forward to today. It’s not about sites and surfing: it’s blogs and browsing, or social sites and, well, socialising. And so it’s natural that, given we expect the people – yes, people – we interact with, we have certain expectations of them. We want to believe them.

Who do you believe? What do you believe? Do you really think that the columns in trade magazines are really written by CEOs? Do you really think that documentaries are made by the people who appear in them? Do you think Kathy Sykes had an overwhelming need to understand alternative medicine?

No. That CEO had his or her thoughts organised and rationalised by a copywriter. Those people in documentaries were sourced because they fitted the demographic. Someone somewhere had an idea for a documentary that would appeal. They had a list of candidates that would be good to front it. Kathy Sykes was perfect. A sexy physicist with a fairly open mind.

Media is built around demographics. The web and now the social-media-sphere will follow suit. So the nirvana – the belief, the expectation – that we have of social media is about to change. Everyone is chasing the big advertising dollar.

When you read so-called ‘soft’ news, you’re probably reading something ghost-written. That is, something interpreted and publicised and syndicated through an agent, or agency. Virtually everything in Metro, for example. So it follows that, more and more, what you read online will follow suit.

There will be a time, a year or two or three hence, in which we look back at the arguments against ghost blogging, and laugh. It lacks transparency. It lacks integrity. It lacks authenticity. Gimme a break.

In a year or two or three hence, the big money will be savvy. It will be pushing messages out in every digital channel available. The people you think are saying things, will not be saying them. Other people will.

The beautiful thing, in a way, is that consumers will become more sophisticated in their consumption. And the dynamic therefore follows that the ghosts – the PR people – will have to up their game in putting across their message.

I used to argue against ghost blogging. I used to think it was heinous. But that belief is changing. I’m coming to realise that the blogosphere – the beliefosphere – needs to step out from the garden. Big bucks are on their way, and we all need to understand and recognise this.

Is this a bad thing? No, not really. The web is a massive force for good. Advertising and PR are massive forces for communication. Is communication good? Comments please.

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22 thoughts on “Ghost blogging? It’s going to happen. Get over it already.

  1. Walk towards the light Brendan, not the darkness. Guesting at an IABC event in Canberra last week, I flamed the concept of ghost blogging…has everyone totally forgot the Cluetrain Manifesto already?? Authenticity’s where we need to head, not more synthetic comms. G

  2. True, but what *is* authenticity? This isn’t a black/white issue. Or, to take your metaphor, a light/dark issue.

    As a PR copywriter, I would often surprise friends and family when I told them into whose mouths I was putting words. They just assumed that the people flagged at the start of the article were the authors.

    I mean, *we* consider this acceptable because we’re ‘in the industry’. To us, it’s still authentic for the many reasons ghost writing is acceptable (messages need to be consistent, CEOs don’t have time, may not be the best articulators etc). I’m not sure they did. And I’m not convinced that, pre the era of ‘professional communications’, anyone would have.

    So, I think this is just something that will change, and we’ll adjust our moral compasses accordingly. When I look back at the idealism of the early web, I smile a wry smile. I remember the case of the paid-for ad – one of the first, for a law firm as I recall – which was flamed because they had the audacity to – shock horror – want to make money out of the web. Funny.

  3. I get what you’re saying, but blogging purists will point out that the whole point of blogging is to enable direct conversations. Just using a platform like WordPress or whatever to publish web content is a slightly different thing to deciding to engage in social media.
    I think that if you’re going to have your name on a post you a) should be aware of the content b) have gone some way to generating the thoughts included. Ghost blogging where someone just pretends to be you, while you get the kudos, is pretty pointless. In that case why not just create a generic company blog and allow multiple people to contribute?
    PS That image you used for the post would look nice painted on velvet and hung on the wall

  4. The Cluetrain Manifesto seems to me pretty naive. I used to think there were big, faceless corporations until I actually got employed and realised there were real people working for them. I agree that there needs to be more openness and personality, but I *still* can’t see that the divide between ghost -blogging and ghost-written articles is that great. I’ve written articles in the past for clients, in which I’ve used Lost as a metaphor for monolithic systems that have become intractably difficult to understand. Is that characterless? No. Did I put across what the client wanted me to say? Yes. Did the client get to approve it? Of course.

    We won’t suddenly leap towards ghost-blogging, and have a situation where we really don’t know who or what to believe. But I just think we’ll slowly boil, like the frog in the water (however apocryphal that analogy might be) until, next thing you know it, we look back on our arguments against ghost-blogging and laugh. Ha ha.

  5. It’ll come down to what the public expects and demands from the space. If they are happy to be sheep and go along to get along, they’ll get what they deserve. If they demand open, honest dialogue, debate and discussion, then that’ll be served up.

    Ultimately business will undertake whatever the market demands if it means getting them separated from their hard-earned wages.

  6. ‘The public’ inhabiting the web/blogosphere will, before very long, be exactly that. Not people like you or I who are probably not even early adopters. ‘The public’. That is, people from all walks of life, most of whom are probably not that demanding or that discerning. People who are receptive to messages of whatever kind. They’ll all be using the web every day, maybe even sometimes without even realising.

    Do you think they’re going to demand or discern the difference between open, honest dialogue and message promotion?

    And really, what is the difference? This is what I’m trying to get across. There can still be integrity with ghost blogging. It can still be someone’s thoughts. Just expressed by someone else, who can express them better.

    In other words, if you’re going to condemn that, then you condemn the entire communications industry, advertising, PR et al. And the web/blogosphere is just another way of communicating.

    And I still don’t buy this ‘business’ vs ‘hard-earned wages’ ‘big faceless corporates’ argument. Businesses are staffed by people. Do you look at your MD or CEO and think “You’re big business. You stink.”? Human beings still push the message, human beings still consume the message. Let’s move away from Manifestos, purleeease.

  7. It’s worth pointing out that “ghost blogging” and copywriting have been preceded, often outside of the public eye, by the subordinate who writes memos for his or her boss. I’m sure there are a few CEOs who write their own stuff, but at the same time most of them delegate that task to someone with more talent. The same is likely true for any busy executive who is publishing in any public forum.
    In the end, if the CEO in question is reviewing and approving the material, it’s just another form of delegation to them.

    I haven’t read much more than the introductory statements of “Cluetrain”, so I really can’t say for sure whether or not it’s crap. I’d like to believe in it, but I suspect that it’s more appropriate for small and medium sized businesses than it is for publically-traded behemoths, if it holds water at all.

  8. I must admit Brendan I am pretty amazed by your post. However, I can see where you’re coming from – even if I think too that you’re heading towards the darkness, as per Gerry McCusker’s comment.

    You seem to articulate the counter-point to Dave Winer and Doc Searls (one of the Cluetrain authors) recent assertions that blogging has become flogging: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2008/04/06/what-comes-after-blogging/

    That maybe the case (and seems to be what you’re talking about here) but IMHO it is not the direction the web should be taking us and vice versa.

  9. I think whether or not what you’ve described becomes accepted practice depends on our ability to step up and be genuine consultants to our clients.

    If we believe the success of an idea depends on the direct involvement of the CXO, then we need to lobby for that to happen and if it proves impossible explore a different approach. All too often comms professionals fail to command the respect our expertise deserves, leaving us to be pushed into weak compromises that deliver mediocre results.

    A bold approach isn’t easy to take, but it’s what differentiates a great campaign from a depressingly average one.

  10. The ideal approach would be direct involvement, but then again I would say that sometimes the CEO would be happier if his/her post is given a very quick review by an editor simply to make sure it’s, well, coherent.

    As for Cluetrain and being amazed, well the point I’m making is that there is a great wailing and gnashing of teeth about *change*. I personally find it amazing that the people who made worthwhile contributions to online etiquette/policy/conduct don’t see this as a process. It’s as if the blogosphere came to be in one cataclysmic event and remained static ever since.

    Is this a religion? No! It’s a process, it changes, it morphs. It’s being used by different means, for different ends.

    Perhaps I’ve been sitting on the fence. I don’t think at any point I said ghost blogging is a good thing and we should embrace it. I’m just pointing out that it’s not sacrosanct and I can see a day when we accept ghost blogging as part of the mix.

    I do agree that it’s not ideal. Yes, I do think that a blog is, by definition, written by the blogger, not mediated. But again, I would say, definitions change and they also become blurred the more closely you examine them.

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  12. Ghost blogging!? I was doing it two years ago. Simply because the client could not be arsed to do it – so what do you do? The client loved the blog and the feedback but never wrote a thing. Should I, who was passionate about the client’s business, have stopped blogging for them.
    Brendan – you have have made manifest what everyone else has been ignoring or hiding.

  13. This all reminds me of the great philosopher George Burns, who said “Honesty is the best policy. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    What’s truly naive is to imagine that “pushing messages,” much less out of “every orifice” will survive in a world where customers can advertise their real wants and needs — in secure ways the protect their privacy — at least as well as sellers can push the guesswork we call advertising. This will happen, and when it does, the speculative money river that comprises far too much of the advertising boom will surely bust. Count on it.

    Brendan’s right that things keep changing. But that doesn’t mean they’re getting better.

    It should be plain that ghost blogging is BS no matter how well you rationalize it, how “savvy” its purveyors may be, or how much money is wasted on it.

  14. I’m not sure I did say they’re getting any better! To continue the Garden of Eden analogy, I expect Adam and Eve were fairly fed up that they couldn’t just kick back and watch the grass grow any more.

    I still haven’t seen anyone give a convincing reason why ghost blogging is different from ghost writing, other than that ‘it’s just not the done thing old chap.’ Which is why I suspect we’re getting quite an opinion divide here.

    I’ll restate my position: I do agree that blogging should be, by definition, a person’s opinions and beliefs stated by that person, which enables engagement and exchange. I do agree that, if this were to change, it would not necessarily be a good thing. But, when I look back at how the web was initially considered a ‘pure’, unmonetised space and how it is used by big business now, I naturally extrapolate and predict that the same will happen with, for example, the blogosphere, and, specifically, ghost blogging.

    Put it another way. I just returned from a web copywriting stint in Madrid. I used to live there, about 15 years ago. Funny thing is, 15 years ago the web was nascent. Now it has changed the world, and entire industries have sprung around it.

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  16. I’m with the Doc on BS and Simon on the difference between blogging and flogging; from my perspective B you’re totally confusing consistency and authenticity; For me, the object of blogging is not some slick marcomms/PR channel (talking to you Ian); if the CEO ain’t a wordsmith let him say that, and delegate bloggin’ to someone who’s a bit more lucid and real; but more PR simulation… Nah, not what this PR counsels.

  17. As one of many journalists now earning a living from PR, I think the ‘ghost blogging’ debate is missing the point. Surely, it’s all about whether the information or opinion being communicated has any value to the recipient.

    I would concede that many a statement from a CEO or corporate entity is worthless when a ‘content value’ test is applied. When drafting such statements – and certainly blogs – on behalf of such people you have to ask: would that person ever have uttered those words? Do they sound as if they came from a human being? If not, why bother?

    Bland, uninformative communication is a waste of blogspace and will instantly be seen as such by customers or anyone else who happens upon it.

    Good PR people understand the mindset of their clients and can often articulate their thoughts and the ‘vision thing’ better than they can themselves.

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