We stood in the corner by a window. She turned slowly and looked around before leaning in toward me, admitting that yes, she was a ghost blogger. It felt like a moment from a spy movie. This was seven years ago.
Fast forward to this past summer in a busy convention center hallway, where I meet a different woman who within five seconds boasts loudly about her work as a ghost blogger and how she loves the work for its consistency and corporate paycheck. In fact, she recommends to all of her blogger friends that they give it a try.
As digital media evolved from plain Jane websites and email newsletters to sophisticated social content campaigns, the landscape quickly shifted. Today, executives and thought leaders are required to take their voices online in a consistent, coherent fashion in order to maintain or increase their reach. Communications teams and digital agencies now create content on top of strategy for these purposes, employing ghostwriters for blogs and other social media. Much like speech writing, ghost blogging has become commonplace, and it’s rare to find inhabitants of the C-Suite doing much of their own writing.
While some notable leaders like Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz and Adam Nash of Wealthfront still write posts themselves, many executives have involved ghostwriters to blog and post to social media on their behalf. For organizations with sophisticated marketing and PR teams, adding additional content hasn’t changed their roles much. In the case of organizations with smaller teams, bringing in agencies that provide extra content has become a necessity. Often it’s more efficient to take on outside help for content development on the variety of platforms that are expected for brands to have a consistent voice today.
How it Works
These ghostwriters routinely write content for social media accounts as well. While it’s always been expected that multiple silent contributors participate on corporate social media channels under the blanket name of the company, gradually some of those silent participants began writing in the voice of specific individuals. Now they tweet as one voice, generally as a part of detailed promotion campaigns for product announcements and now more often in “damage control” situations.
Given the “exhaustive nondisclosure agreements” required for this type of work, nearly every person I interviewed requested anonymity. Ghost bloggers generally cannot disclose what companies they work with or what they did in their work. The ghosts are usually not in the content room with the executives. They work remotely or with the PR/Comms team. They focus specifically on each individual project or campaign, honing the voice of the named leader or company, developing content pieces that are edited through a chain process before publication.
“So there will be three or four days of posts and tweets, all scripted ahead of time, and geared to coincide with an earned media effort that will result in a post or two of feedback loops citing the press earned from the posts. There’s daily analytics reports and usually a more in depth final report.” – Ghost Blogger
Sometimes the person whose name is attached to the post participates at length in the editing process; other times s/he skims and approves, without edits. Each leader has a different editorial style and comfort level with ghostwriters that is also part of the process for the writers to become acquainted.
“Personally I think that’s a mistake,” said Melanie Yunk, President of Roaring Pajamas, a social media agency that develops content for companies. While she has never written content for individuals at companies, her agency often writes under company names. She said she would do it, but only under the condition where the executive took an actively engaged role.
Ethics of Ghost Blogging
Others have asked the question: “is it ethical to use ghost bloggers?” Perhaps a more timely question would be: “when is it ethical to use ghost bloggers?” An experienced ghost blogger shared, “I think I’m lucky because I have enough of a reputation [within the contracting company] that I’m not even offered anything slimy. I get called when a corporation is doing something fabulous they want credit for or is in a scandal over something that wasn’t fair or accurate.”
“A company is a team. If a CEO enacts a good idea from their team and lacks the bandwidth to adequately and effectively explain it, then I have no problem helping out. But when it comes to claiming ownership of another’s big idea, I’ll pass on the contract. For example, I have no problems explaining a new corporate policy, but I wouldn’t ghost write a TED Talk.” – Ghost Blogger
In other words, it’s not always easy fluffy content. A good ghostwriter is skilled at triage and rapid response in a chaotic environment. And while the environment can change — from a tech company to a political campaign, for example — the strategies required and the tools applied are the same. One of the ghost writers put it this way: “when it comes to damage control, the public has an expectation that whatever is being said was written by lawyers (which is true).” In those situations, it’s usually about translating legalese for the Internet while retaining the strategic imperatives of counsel.” Trust is key for repeat client work.
From the Writer’s Perspective
While it sounds complicated (and possibly scary), ghost content writers do have some protection. First, their names aren’t on what they write, so they aren’t going to be the targets of nasty remarks — at least not personally. As a corollary to that, the burden of using the ghostwriter falls on the person signing his/her name. Second, the woman in the convention center didn’t lie: the pay for this type of work is fairly consistent and within market rates for corporate writers, which can be considerably more than what most bloggers make writing for digital media organizations. That’s the up side.
The down side for ghost bloggers: they can’t share their clips or cite most of their work, so using examples of previous work to gain future clients is virtually nonexistent. They can use vague terms to discuss the type of work they have done and the type of client, but that’s about it. That said, it depends on the client. In some cases, the corporate client makes it known that posts are being ghostwritten. At company events, the ghost blogger is known for her name and lauded for her work. Once she exits the building and goes to work on another client project, she can find herself in a much more locked down environment where confidentiality is paramount.
As readers, we want each post published by the public faces of our favorite brands to be written by him or her. It’s a treat when we can verify the authenticity, particularly of leaders who have uniquely authentic voices. It’s refreshing when CEOs like Nash write because their content is always detailed and well informed. Realistically, not every leader has the time, patience or skill to master writing long or short form digital content. For now, it remains reasonable to assume that the ghosts aren’t going away any time soon.
Sarah Granger is an award-winning digital media innovator and author of The Digital Mystique: How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life — Online and Off.