Social media and the dark side of doing PR

There’s a, well…. how can I put it… rather depressing post by former Friendly Ghost aka Brendan Cooper on the issue of ghost-blogging. It’s quite timely given my post on the subject the other week, although Brendan comes at the issue with a very different perspective.

The post begins:

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

And it continues with the theme that, like it or not, the internet will evolve to match the current world of traditional media and PR.

Rather than clients appointing us to help them create sustainable, long-term relationships based on trust and respect using the social web, it will be business as usual where spin, ghost writing and paid advertorials are not only common place online but expected.

If that sounds a little bleak, Brendan tells us to quit our bleating and hammers home his point:

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.

I find this alarming both in the sense that Brendan thinks these thoughts but is also prepared to share them with others – although perhaps I *would* think that given that Edelman takes very much the opposite stance to Porter Novelli. In fact we’ve just launched a group blog about PR and the drive for transparency appropriately called Authenticities.

In a way, Brendan’s view kind of makes sense. He is a former copywriter and now social media planner – which suggests to me (and is alluded to in by Brendan his post) a strong tradition with top-down, command and control communications.

Arising from Brendan’s post are a number of interesting things.
Firstly, I personally believe Brendan is missing the entire challenge to traditional media and PR created by the internet. People don’t trust advertising, PR and marketing. That’s the power of social media – it is connecting real people with real people. That’s why it works. Faking blogs or social networks etc will similarly shut down genuine relationships built on trust.

Secondly, Brendan’s post is timely because if offers a startling counterpoint to the idea raised by Dave Winer and now picked up on by Doc Searls that maybe it’s time to get out of blogging. Blogging is becoming flogging, suggests Searls. Brendan seems to reinforce this idea – or at least confirm its growth.

Thirdly, I was blown away by the Cluetrain manifesto when I first read it. Brendan suggests in a comment that the Cluetrain Manifesto is “pretty naïve”. Um. Woah. I’m not even going to get into that one.

Technorati tags: ghost blogging, blogging, flogging, command and control, Cluetrain


  1. Simon, I totally agree. This isn’t using social media as part of a public relations programme this is just plain old fabrication. The social media arena is all about transparency and if people start ghost writing their client’s personal blog posts, in my opinion they will lose credibility immediately.

  2. I’m torn on this one. I actually do blog for several of my clients, but as an extension of that team and not under a different name. The only time any of the stuff i’ve written has been used under a different name is when it’s a rewrite of a client’s post (one client has no writing abilities).
    I’m not too sure the public is entirely against ghost-writing either. It’s a thriving industry. The public know most biographies of celebrities are ghost-written, but buy them anyway.

  3. Good discussion.
    We should accept that there’s a ghostwriting role in public relations. We write those quotations that appear in news releases; we write speeches for others to deliver.
    Is blog ghostwriting any different? At first glance it isn’t. So let’s look again:
    A news release is a technical document primarily written for the media, who understand the rules of the game (including the minor deceit of the ghostwritten quotation). They’re free to use it (for free); they’re free to ignore it; they’re free to seek a better quotation. Everyone understands this.
    With a speech, the problem vanishes when the speech is delivered. Gordon Brown now has ownership of those words, even if they were drafted by a member of the 10 Downing Street communications team.
    Blogging’s different. The audience is now wider, and this audience doesn’t have a journalist’s understanding of PR. If the words appear in the chief executive’s name, then the public is entitled to believe that they’re his or her words and opinions.
    Imagine the same CEO is giving a live speech. Someone in the audience is blogging and notices a blog comment from the very same CEO, posted at that moment. The credibility of a ghostwritten blog is that easily blown open.
    I’m with Edelman on this: trust is even more important online.

  4. I’ll second Richard B, this is a good discussion. I’m with your (Simon’s) view on this, you can’t just ‘wholesale’ ghostwrite a social media presence (mainy because it’s about more than just content). But, that doesn’t mean to say that everything, everywhere has to be 100% your own work.
    That isn’t how the world works. I don’t have a problem with someone ‘helping’ someone else to craft a blog post. It might be giving them an idea what to say and then they write it in their own words. It might be them writing something and you helping them to make it read better.

  5. Hi Simon,
    My point is that ghost blogging is likely to become more prevalent because, as social media’s influence continues to grow, so will the influence of money upon it. Companies will want to harness it. It’s inevitable.
    We can try to stop this – to use a ‘top-down’ model if you like – but, as Stuart Bruce says above, “that isn’t how the world works.”
    So, while good PR companies that build relationships based on trust will continue to do so, other companies that chase the dollar may not. The delineation between what is ghost blogging, and what is not, will be less clear-cut.
    And eventually, what we once thought of as taboo, is no longer.
    At the end of the day the truth lies somewhere in between totally ‘pure’ personal blogging, and totally ghost blogging. All I’m saying is that I can see the needle moving between those two extremes towards the ghost blogging as everyone chases the money.
    If you find that depressing then I would say the flipside is that audiences will become more savvy. That’s what I referring to in the Garden of Eden analogy. It’s all process and dynamics, not stasis and event.

  6. Online PR is a written format about the details, concept, vision and prospects of your company. Quality press release with valid information can sustain in the market.

  7. Hi Brendan. Thanks for adding to the debate. At a basic level we both agree – except perhaps I’m an optomist while your a pragmatist! There’s a great David Weinberger essay on the issue somewhere).
    I don;t disagree that there are shades of grey in social media but my PoV is we should be striving for transparecny at all costs. To me you agree re. the greyness but opt for the inevitability that money will corrupt everything.
    I disagree that everyone will chase the money – and the eg.s of Doc Searls and Dave Winer looking to move to next social web stage which isn’t being corrupted by money is evidence of this.
    I also think that to build successful relationships with stakeholders etc we need to move away from the PR/marketing model we use now. These are still trying to reconcile social media into tried and tested top-down models. This will not work in the future.
    Finally, I find it all depressing because audiences – hang on, in fact… people are savvy, it’s just marketing/PR types have treated them as sheep up till now.
    I see social media tools from a communicatons perspective as ways of improving the customers’/stakeholders position, not being able to sell them stuff better. That comes later…

  8. @Henry134 – Er… I would suggest that what you mention is just good ol’ one-way marketing done on the internet. What you offer wouldn’t really build trust-based relationshionships IMHO.

  9. On comments and conversations

    So, you’ve started a blog. Why not manage expectations by establishing your house rules (here’s an example from Wolfstar Consultancy)? One of the most important considerations is how to handle, and encourage, comments. Karen Russell offers a useful pri…

  10. My thoughts as posted on Brendan Cooper’s blog:
    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.

  11. Being a pragmatist there is no way of controlling – or even knowing – whether a blog is truly the actual words of the supposed writer. We don’t advocate writing them on behalf of clients but regularly suggest topics, highlight interesting posts to comment on, amend, edit and re-work clients’ blogs as part of our role in delivering the recognition they are seeking.
    Often clients appreciate and can see the value their blog brings but may not necessarily understand how it works and it’s our role to guide them.
    Ghost-writing the occasional post by understanding what they would want to say on a topic then asking the client to approve it doesn’t seem so far away from regular media relations. Pure it may not be but sadly the PR industry has removed the pure element of journalism and may do something similar to social media. I suppose we’ll all keep finding new ways of reacting to that and forging more genuine communication methods…maybe even going back to good old chatting over a coffee.

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