Ghost Writing: An Ethical Dilemma for Public Relations

by Tess Burke

[This is the sixth article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of  their graduate programs.]

ghostThe practice of writing material for another person, without a byline attributed to the actual author for that work, in exchange for profit, is known as ghost writing.   One common form of ghost writing is the practice of hiring a ghost writer to write an autobiography or memoir on behalf of a celebrity.  Speech writing is also another popular form of ghost writing regularly employed by politicians and CEOs.  For example, former US president Jimmy Carter estimated that he delivered some 2,100 speeches during his 1976 presidential campaign[i].  Time constraints clearly contributed the need to employ a ghostwriter in this case, but ghost writing is a common practice that has been in existence for a long time.  In the case of the autobiography or speech, the public is usually aware that someone else is scripting this material and it is accepted in practice by the audience, but in other instances it is not so clear. [Editor’s note: For an earlier take on the ethics of ghosting see A PR Dilemma: The Ethics of Ghost-Writing]

Most public relation practitioners will be expected at some point in their careers to undertake ghost writing, whether it is to produce a speech, a blog or an opinion piece for public consumption.  In some cases however it raises ethical questions about the legitimacy of the practice for both the writer and the audience.   Depending on how the piece is created and delivered, this can result in an ethical dilemma.

Communication ethicists, James Jaska and Michael Pritchard, state in their book Communication Ethics, “that ethically acceptable modes of persuasion do not rely on deceptive manipulative tactics.”[ii]  Not revealing who the actual author is can be seen as deceptive, and how transparent a company or blogger is will determine whether they appear manipulative.  It is commonly believed that people understand that the presidential speech or the athlete’s memoir has been scripted by a ghost writer, but there are other areas where transparency is not so clear.

Transparency is essential when determining whether ghost writing is acceptable or not.  If the audience or reader clearly understands that the piece has been written by someone other than the byline name, but that consultation and sign off was provided by the actual writer before the piece is made public, then ghost writing can be acceptable, as in the case of speech writing.  Public relations ethics author Patricia Parsons writes that…

“…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 – both in content and delivery”[iii].

As previously stated, there are areas where ghost writing is acceptable to the public, but there are other areas where it is never acceptable.  The world of academia is one place where ghost writing is completely unacceptable.

Scientific research has come under scrutiny, and in particular the pharmaceutical industry has been criticized for influencing findings through ghost writing to sway public opinion. The World Association of Medical Editors state:

“The scientific record is distorted if the primary purpose of an article is to persuade readers in favor of a special interest, rather than to inform and educate, and this purpose is concealed.”[iv]

The British Medical Journal revealed that 20 percent of articles that were published under the names of academic authors  in leading medical journals employed ghost writers. . The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report indicating that “corporations corrupt the integrity of scientific journals by planting ghostwriters”[v]  which compromises the integrity of everyone in the industry.

With the emergence of the internet, communications have become more prolific, and corporate websites, blogs, and other social media have driven the need for companies to increase their presence online, reaching as many people as possible.  The blog is one of the most popular online forums; however ghost blogging and flogging have resulted in the blog losing some of its credibility.  When blogs started, people assumed the named writer was behind the piece; they could trust the writer to be speaking for him or herself.  When corporations, interest groups, critics and sponsors entered the mix and began to use ghost writers, this was no longer clear, and the reader could no longer be sure who was behind the blog or what their purpose was in writing the blog.

This was a case with Samsung who paid for false negative posts online about competitors and had fake posts praise their product. In this case the Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission (FTC) fined the company for using hired writers and designated employees to post as someone other than themselves.

It would be helpful for those in the PR industry to have guidelines around the use of ghost writing. The Drug Industry code proposes outlines for those who lack the ability to write but have gathered research findings and need professional help to publish them. Sherry Baker and David Martinson in their report[vi] designed a code of ethics around blogging for PR professionals that are based on five principles of truthfulness, authenticity, respect, equity and social responsibility that is commonly referred to as TARES.

Clearly, ghost blogging raises ethical controversies.  Guidelines and education about the issue can assist public relations practitioners to achieve an acceptable ethical balance.

Tess Burke is a Communications Manager by day and Public Relations student by night.


[i] Carter, J. (1977) A Government as Good as Its People. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 7.

[ii] Jaska, J. A., & Pritchard, M. S. (1994). Communication ethics: Methods of analysis. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

[iii] Parsons, P. (2008). Ethics in public relations: A guide to best practice.2nd ed.  London: Kogan Page.

[iv] WAME. (June 20, 2005). Policy Statements: Ghost Writing Initiated by Commercial Companies, Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://www.wame.org/resources/policies#ghost

[v] Union of Concerned Scientists. (2012) Heads They Win, Tails We Lose. UCS Publications, Retrieved November 21, 2013, from http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/how-corporations-corrupt-science.pdf

[vi] Baker, S., & Martinson, D. L. (January 01, 2001). The TARES Test: Five Principles for Ethical Persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16, 2, 148-175.

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