Is undisclosed ghost blogging ethical even in cases in which the stated executive author concurs with the content and approves the posting of the blog in her or his name?

What’s the problem? Barack Obama doesn’t write his speeches? Everyone knows this.

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More than 70 percent agree that ghost writing an executive blog is no big deal.

And yet there is a sizeable minority with qualms.

Isn’t blogging the development of personal relationships by means of digital two-way symmetrical conversation?

You can ghost write speeches. Ditto for op-eds and commentaries. But can you effectively “outsource” your conversations?

Isn’t undisclosed ghost blogging the antithesis of the public relations industry movement toward “radical transparency?”

Maybe this question isn’t so easy?

Arriving on the University of Oregon campus in fall 2010 after my nearly four-year tenure at Edelman Public Relations, I remember discussing the Edelman/Wal-Mart debacle with School of Journalism and Communication Assistant Professor Tiffany Gallicano.

edelman

The 2006 Wal-Mart/Edelman controversy revolved around the use of non-Wal-Mart employees “Jim and Laura” to blog about the pleasant working conditions at the retail giant. This “astroturfing” deception resulted in banner headlines and embarrassment for both Edelman Public Relations and its client Wal-Mart.

Essentially, Edelman hired “ringers,” one a Washington Post photographer and the other a U.S. Department of Treasury employee, to play for the Wal-Mart management team and everything was fine until they were caught. What made this caper all the more embarrassing is that Edelman participated in the formulation of disclosure standards for the blogging industry Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

To Richard Edelman’s credit, he visited virtually all Edelman offices to apologize and all Edelman employees were mandated to take training in online disclosure. Richard is a major proponent of “radical transparency” and one can surmise the Wal-Mart experience plays into his evangelizing on this issue.

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Similar headlines and rebukes were directed in 2007 against Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, who blogged incessantly under the alias “Rahodeb” (an anagram on his wife’s name, Deborah). His posts found a litany of faults with rival Wild Oats, a company that Whole Foods was trying to acquire. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was none-too-pleased.

As Tiffany and I discussed the Edelman/Wal-Mart and Whole Foods cases, we realized that while the issue of undisclosed ghost blogging was not new, it was far from settled. The question: Is there a consensus among the public relations community about the ethics of this issue? We quickly became indebted to Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) for allowing us to circulate a quantitative survey of its membership on this subject. Nearly 300 (agency, corporate, public sector and NGO) practitioners responded.

PRSA has adopted an ethics code that all of its members should be “honest and accurate in all communications” and to “avoid deceptive practices.” The trade organization makes no distinction between communications that are traditional in nature, such as newspapers, or digital, such as blogging and podcasting.

Soon it was time to analyze the results and we were glad to have the assistance of quantitative Wunderkind and Ph.D candidate, Toby Hopp, to assist us. The study was declared valid, but the results were not clean-cut. This point was magnified when Tiffany and yours truly presented our results at the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) in Miami in spring of 2012.

We made several presentations, each starting first with the professorial types nodding their heads, but quickly arguing with each other. Tastes great! Less filling! No Disclosure! Disclosure? It was a sight to behold.

First, the easy part. Is it okay for an organization to list executives as blog authors even though they were written by others (e.g., PR types) as long as the ideas come from the listed executives and they approve the message: 71.1 percent, agreed; 20.7 percent disagreed.

Seems easy.

Next we asked is it okay for an organization to NOT disclose a PR agency’s assistance in writing blog posts under a client’s name? This is where the Radical Transparency movement first exhibited its influence: 44.7 percent concurred; 37.9 percent did not. Interesting.

The third question: “As a standard practice any ghostwriting of employer executive or client executive blogs should be publicly disclosed?” 37.1 percent, affirmative; 40.9 percent, negative. This was getting too close for comfort.

When it comes to staffers writing executive responses to reader comments (provided the ideas come from the executive and she or he gives approval), 56.3 percent believed this practice was acceptable, while 35.4 percent disagreed.

Finally, there is the question of a PR staffer writing an executive’s comment on subjects posted on some other blog, even with the ideas coming from that exec and she or he giving approval. The results revealed a reversal in sentiments: 42.6 percent approved; 44.0 percent disapproved.

We were pleased to receive the Jackson-Sharpe Award from the IPRRC in March 2012, and our research was published earlier this month by the PRSA’s Public Relations Journal. The Institute for Public Relations has created a Social Science of Social Media Research Center (SSSMRC). Our study will be available there as well.

Looking back at our research, a strong majority of industry practitioners see ghost blogging as essentially the equivalent of ghost writing a speech or op-ed. Everyone knows that Obama tinkers with his speeches, approves them but does not have the time to write them. That is largely true for CEOs as their time is precious.

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Isn’t it the job of PR practitioners (e.g., in-house corporate, agency) to assist executives in telling an organization’s story? Sure.

But is a blog the same as a speech or an op-ed/commentary? Speeches are two-way asymmetrical. Blogs are two-way symmetrical. Blogs invite conversation. Blogs benefit from comments.

Can you effectively outsource your digital conversations and still lead torch-light parades behind the banner of Radical Transparency?

The question of undisclosed ghost blogging does not lend itself to easy answers or quick consensus. Let the arguments continue into the night.

http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/PRJournal/

http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/PRJournal/Documents/2013_Gallicano.pdf

http://www.instituteforpr.org/scienceofsocialmedia/

http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-10-17/wal-mart-vs-dot-the-blogospherebusinessweek-business-news-stock-market-and-financial-advice

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/12/business/12foods.html?_r=0