A PR Dilemma: The Ethics of Ghost-Writing

An interesting note arrived in my email box earlier this month.  A former student had just finished reading the book Ghosting: A Double Life by Jennie Erdal which describes the author’s relationship with a British media mogul.  According to this tell-all tome, Erdal wrote everything from his novels and interviews to his love letters.  Her title was “editor.”  It seemed that my student was transported back to our ethics classes and she posed two potential dilemmas:

1.  What are the ethics of “ghosting” in the first place; and

2.  What are the ethics of revealing such a role?

Although we often don’t call it such, in public relations this activity takes up a significant amount of time in the work day of a PR writer.  So, indeed, what are its ethics?

 

  The Book that Begged the Questions 

First, let’s begin with a bit of background on the book that brought up all the questions.  (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book so I did some research on it to put our discussion into context). 

Ghosting is a memoir by writer Jennie Erdal who evidently spent some 20 years as the ghost writer for a flamboyant London publisher who wanted to be a published novelist, among other things.  According to the review in The New Yorker magazine, “…she is discerning about her motives for ghosting—money, a compulsion to please, and a cloistered Scottish Presbyterian childhood that made the ‘irony and absurdity’ of her job seem not just tolerable but glamorous.”  It seems clear then, that we ought to consider the absurdity of such an occupation as well as its irony. 

“Ghost writers don’t usually reveal themselves; invisibility is implicit in the bargains they make.”  So says author Joyce Johnson on the back cover of Erdals’ book.  Is this kind of revelation the crux of the ethical questions for those who write for hire?  Or is the ethical question implicit in the work itself? 

In the book, Erdal characterizes her work as expressing “what [her employer] was not capable of expressing on his own.”  And isn’t that what professional public relations writers do and are expected to do?  And are paid to do?  Is what we are doing unethical?  The short answer is no – and yes.

 

  The Ethical Issues 

Just as with many of the bedrock tools and tactics we use to help our clients and employers deal with their public relations issues, writing for others under someone else’s by-line is fraught with often undiscovered ethical traps.  Let’s look first at the ethical principles that we might consider before we examine instances of ghosting that are considered appropriate – as well as some which are not.

The primary ethical principle that we consider when trying to determine the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action is non-maleficence – to do no harm.  Any activity that potentially harms others needs to be justified based on other competing principles.  Ghostwriting in and of itself does no harm, but only to the extent that it might transgress other principles might it turn out to have ethical problems. 

One of the other principles we hold dear in the field of public relations and that it could transgress is truthtelling.  Codes of ethics for our profession as well as generally-held conventions about deception and truth in public communication direct us to always do our best to be truthful in our messaging – this includes both in content and in delivery which both have an impact on how our messages are perceived.  For example, if the way a message is delivered is truthful in its content but misleading in its delivery, then it can be considered to be deceptive.  Is ghosting deceptive?  Some occasions of ghostwriting are; others are not likely to be considered as lies. 

Maintaining the confidentiality of employers and clients is another aspect of ethical public relations that needs to be considered in judging the morality of this activity.  By its very definition, ghostwriting describes a confidential relationship between writer and employer, at least on the part of the writer.  The person buying the writing and whose actual name appears on it is also buying privacy and is the only party who has the right to disclose that the material is ghostwritten; the reasonable expectation of the employer is that the ghost will remain hidden from view.  Because of its very nature, the notion of transparency is not a part of the ghostwriting business. 

  Generally Acceptable Uses 

Whereas there are truly many controversies and opinions on the issues, there are a couple of places where ghostwriting is considered acceptable and even expected. 

The first, and an area where most of us will never tread, is the celebrity autobiography.  Many (perhaps even most) celebrities, and this includes everyone from the Hollywood star to a politician, hire ghost writers.  Perhaps it’s the smart ones who do.  These are the ones who recognize that they do not possess the writing skills necessary to communicate their ideas in this form.  That’s where expert ghost writers come in.  Is there deception here?  It is clear that the story told is the one coming from the one whose name will actually appear on the cover of the book.  That much is true and the readers usually don’t much care whether or not the actor or politician actually did the writing – in fact, many readers would say that they fully expected that the book would be written by someone else.  It’s accepted, conventional practice. 

Speeches are another area where ghosting is probably more the norm than the exception and it is an important area of PR writing.  Is writing a speech that will be delivered by someone else deceptive in any way?  Again this is one of those areas where most people don’t necessarily believe that the politician at the podium actually wrote the speech – but the audience does have a right to expect that it reflects the speaker’s true beliefs and that it was reviewed by him or her prior to its delivery. 

  Controversial Uses 

Public relations professionals often write opinion/editorial pieces for their CEO’s or others in their organizations whose by-lines will appear in the newspaper because they are the expert writers in the organization.  This is one area that is very controversial when it comes to the ethics of ghosting.

Now that sample op/ed pieces are available even on web sites that specialize in selling (or giving) pre-packaged articles and letters, the issue is of even more concern to editors.  In a Summer, 2003 editorial of The Masthead, Doug Floyd weighs in on this from his perspective as an editor receiving op/ed pieces:  “It doesn’t matter that deceitful contributors genuinely share the views expressed in the message, nor that the real author has offered it willingly… It’s simply that it’s dishonest.”  He goes on to define what putting your name on a piece of writing really means:  he suggests that it means “I wrote this,” rather than “I agree with this.”  This is an important differentiation and one that we, as PR writers ought to think about. 

Is it the case then, that to deal with this kind of controversial use of ghostwriting that we need to be more transparent?  Are we now going to have to put “written by” and “endorsed by” on the piece?  This approach is not likely to go over well in PR circles – nor with those who hire PR writers.  Another approach might be to educate editors and the public about the positive aspects of hiring wordsmiths and how the clearance process works. 

  Generally Unacceptable Uses 

One area where ghosting is considered completely unacceptable is in academic writing.  Scholars submitting papers to academic journals are expected to have written them themselves (even if there are eight such authors listed).  No ghost writers are welcome.

The medical profession refers to it as the “ethics of authorship.”  Academic medicine has been grappling with this issue perhaps even more than others because of their relationship with drug companies who do employ writers.  In 2004, the Word Association of Medical Editors came out with a set of guidelines, some of which dealt specifically with this issue of ghosting.  Their statement on authorship says: 

If writers are provided by the sponsoring or funding institution or corporation to draft or revise the article, the name of the writer and their sponsoring organization must be provided.  Their names and contributions will be provided with the acknowledgments. [www.thelancet.com Vol 364, August 7, 2004]

This kind of guideline makes the authorship very transparent.  Their approach provides some assistance to the rest of us who are looking for ways to be able to use professional writers while at the same time avoiding the possibility of deception. 

When it comes to things like love letters, though, as Erdal says she wrote for her employer, it seems that the receiver would expect that they would actually be written by the sender and that there would be some measure of privacy about them.  A third party’s input might not be welcome.  It is certainly not clear cut, although I’ll venture an opinion that this is an unacceptable form of ghosting!

Generally, passing off someone else’s work as your own is considered to be plagiarism at best.  However, when it comes to the work-for-hire issue, it is considered acceptable.  If you are hired to do a job, then the work you do belongs to the person who hired you (an important concept for PR people who write a great deal for employers — the work does not belong to you the employee unless you have a contract that stipulates such).  Whether or not the ideas communicated are those of the sender is another issue. 

The revelation of one’s role as a ghost writer later is another issue all together.  There is usually a reasonable expectation that a ghost writer will always stay in the background, but there may be circumstances that require such a revelation.  In the case of Jennie Erdal,  motivations are important here.  If her revelation was purely for her own gain, then I believe that she has breached a confidence and has made an ethical transgression.  This would be the same if her motive were to discredit the person for whom she wrote. 

 So, the bottom line is about a clear as mud – a hazard of the ethics business.

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