Where Does 'Transparency' Fit In The New Social Media Marketing Model?

02/01/2010

Gray_Scale_1280x1024  Unlike most business strategies, social media is built on a culture that is developed by the people who are involved in digital communities. The concepts of transparency, authenticity, honesty and passion for the topic/brand have evolved as 'society norms' for communicating and forming relationships in the world of the social web.

In an environment where your changing avatar is accepted as your image to the world, where people exchange ideas that frequently lead to business opportunities and where 'real' friendships are formed it was important to have a few boundaries that could help establish trust. 

As marketers began to use social media platforms like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., to communicate with their customers and stakeholders it didn't take long to realize that to sustain and grow interest in our brands we had to provide unique content. Agencies, consultants and freelance copywriters seized an opportunity to provide that all important Content. 

My friend John Cass, PR Communications, and I had an interesting discussion about where the concept of transparency fits into the new social media marketing model - content developed by people outside of the enterprise. We decided to collaborate on a cross-post and did what any good social media citizen would do .. we opened it up to the community to discuss on our blogs, on Twitter and in a few emails. 

  • Bloggers have long discussed the importance of transparency when writing content on a blog. With the growth in the adoption of social media marketing, many marketers now wonder how would they develop enough content for all of their new social media channels. 
  • When a client hires an agency to write content for their blog, twitter account, Facebook page, we are wondering about the level of transparency by an agency writer on a client's social media channel.  
  • We would like to ask you: What are the practices that you think should be followed? Feel free to tell us if you have differences of opinions across social media channels. 

39 people, active in social media, shared their insights with us. Their views ranged from total transparency to not necessary. As Jeremy Pepper indicated this is a complex situation that is "fraught in grays." Yvonne DiVita reminds us, " .. in the end it isn't the bloggers, the company or the agency that will dictate the success ..it's the customers." What are your thoughts?

Degrees Of Transparency Quotations

Jim Alexander (No link given) - As long as the client is willing to own the consequences of engagement by proxy I don't think the identity of the content authors need be an issue. Jump to Jim's content

Ellie Brown - I don’t think it matters who is doing the responding, as long as they are responding.  The goal of social media is to facilitate discussion and generate attention through tweets and posts by real people.  The company name on that person’s business card doesn’t matter.  The agency is an extension of the client, and as long as the agency is well-informed, genuinely interested, authentic and responsive –  everything should be good. Jump to Ellie's blog post

Bob Cargill - I think it’s perfectly acceptable for an external resource to write and post social media content under the aegis of a brand. The client representative just needs to be mindful to speak in the first person plural, “we,” as he or she is communicating on behalf of the brand as a whole, not as an individual. Jump to Bob's content

Susan Cartier Liebel - 'Personal' in my opinion isn't about a 'particular' person ... it's about personalized service through social media that ends with a happy customer and a positive impression which builds the company's brand. Jump to Susan's content

Jeff Cutler - The other matter is using a ghost blogger to put up content that supposedly comes from an executive. I think this is OK if the writing is merely rewriting or editing. Jump to Jeff's content

Susan Getgood - Bottom line, the more personal the expression, the more important it is to know *who* is speaking. When the social media channel, or the brand’s use of it, more closely resembles broadcast, it isn’t nearly so critical. Jump to Susan's content

Brendan Hurley- In reality who is writing the content isn't nearly as important as who is 'approving' the content. Strict policies and procedures should be drafted by the client, so the agency knows what it can and cannot do or say, while giving the writing enough freedom to be creative, passionate and opinionated when necessary. Jump to Brendan's content

Trish Grier - If a company is outsourcing its social media to a consultant, who is then creating copy for them via a social media platform of some kind, then it should be clearly disclosed that the
person is an outside representative of, and not an employee of, said company. Jump to Trish's blog post

Max Kalehoff - The fact is that everyone has an agenda, and therefore is an agent of some kind. It builds trust when one is forthcoming with his agenda, and even better for all to simply anticipate agenda and not be surprised. Jump to Max's content

Rick Liebling - My current thinking is that the upside for trying to hide agency involvement is almost nil, but the downside can be high, at least from a consumer perception stand point. Jump to Rick's content

Jim Matorin- The agency people are jumping in because we are alphas that understanding social media is a platform to deliver messages/content, to open conversations with consumers. Dinosaurs need agency folks to jump start their new marketing initiatives at this point. Jump to Jim's content

Marc Meyer - At the end of the day, agencies see an opportunity and until businesses find the time and staff to learn to do this on their own, there continue to be this need coupled with the void supplemented by a lack or transparency. The better question may be, Who owns the mistakes and customer service miscues that may arise? Jump to Marc's content

Lynn Anne Miller It is quite common now for blog posts to be ghostwritten and then edited and approved by executives prior to publication, just as is routinely done with contributed/authored/bylined articles, speeches, etc. I see that as a practical approach, but the twittering and blog commenting should be disclosed with the author's true identity. Jump to Lynn Anne's content

Melanie Notkin - As long as content is authentic and approved by the client, I'm not sure there's a difference when a "social media consultant" or freelance writer writes the content for a brand. Jump to Melanie's content

Jeremy Pepper - The basic premise on transparency, though, is to provide a biography (large or small) to show who is taking care of what. Jump to Jeremy's content

Tim Skaggs - I can see why larger companies would not be transparent in the social marketing because of the previous types of marketing done by the company in the past. Jump to Tim's content

Michael Stelzner - This is no different than hiring a contractor to do any other project for your company. Jump to Michael's content

Liz Strauss - The key is to choose people who will champion the company because they want to be part of celebrating what the company is doing and they're proud to put their own name on their efforts. Jump to Liz's content. Jump to Liz's content

Mike Volpe - Where you might be posting on behalf of a person, say the CEO of a brand/company, then I think complete transparency is called for. Jump to Mike's content

Kami Watson Huyse - Content creation that enables that, without being untruthful, unethical or misleading, should be whatever works. Jump to Kami's content

Steve Woodruff - Let people get their feet wet and outsource as they must. We should encourage brands to use social media responsibility, realizing that those who abuse it by a lack of transparency will be outed in time, and the lessons will be learned! Jump to Steve's content

Total Transparency Quotations

Chris Brogan - Content creation and the like: we use our own name, but willingly create on behalf of the company. We work to educate our client partners so that they can create on their own, but we still fill in and create under our own name. Jump to Chris' content

Matt Churchill - If we are managing a Twitter stream on behalf of a client, we disclose in the bio which team member is running it, the fact we work for Edelman and also include our Twitter handle. Jump to Matt's content

Yvonne DiVita - In the end, it isn't the bloggers, the company, or the agency that will dictate the success; it's the customers. If they accept it, we'll see a lot more of it. If they reject it, we'll see companies scratching their heads in confusion, because the agencies know all, don't they? Jump to Yvonne's content

Arik Hanson Overall, I tend to fall on the side of transparency. But, that doesn't lend itself too well to agencies making money. Jump to Arik's content

Roger Harris - Most people would rather be aware that content is being provided with an agenda or an element of bias and then make their own decisions rather than have the wool pulled over their eyes. Jump to Roger's content

Ellen Hoenig - Social media is about listening, learning and building relationships..how can you outsource this? And from my own experience, how can you learn or develop your own voice without doing it yourself and experiencing the ups and downs first hand? Jump to Ellen's content

Jonathan Kranz - You wouldn’t get married, then hire someone else to have sex with your spouse; the point of the relationship is to relate, in all its forms. Jump to Jonathan's content 

Tracy Malone - My gut reaction is yes, social media is meant to be nothing but authentic. Relationship development, at it's best, and an opportunity to have more insight into a brand and the people behind the brand. Jump to Tracy's content

Lionel Menchaca - The basics of the policy will stay the same: strive to be honest and accurate while maintaining transparency when speaking about Dell. Jump to Lionel's content

Chris Norton - If I am to write on their blog I will become a guest author and I will make sure it is clearly disclosed in the about page so readers know who is writing what. Jump to Chris' content

Tom O'Brien -  I think the “transparency” requirement is at the brand level.  Not at the “agency on behalf of brand” level. Jump to Tom's content. Jump to Tom's content

B.L. Ochman - Hell there was once a time when you could get by with typewriters and mimeograph machines. Those days are long over and businesses need to stop whining about social media and adapt. Just as companies had to hire IT people a couple of decades ago so they could remain competitive, they now need to hire community managers and others who can participate in online interaction. Jump to B.L.'s content

Jeremiah Owyang - Disclosure is key, and in some cases, may be enforceable by the FTC, we encourage all organizations to abide by the law. Jump to Jeremiah's content

David Meerman Scott - I reject the premise. I do not recommend people hire agencies to create content. Jump to David's content

Rick Short - In 2010, the "rules" are that the blogger/tweeter is authentic, or is pulling a fast one.

And (Rick gave quotes to both Toby & John) Today, given all the concern with transparency in social media, I feel that today's "rules" guide us to be completely open about exactly who is publishing what. It is phony to tweet, blog, and/or post to Facebook or LinkedIn as an executive (or anyone else), when you are a ghostwriter. If your name is on it and it blows up in your face, the world won't allow you to slip out of it by blaming a ghost writer. Jump to Rick's content

Caroline Slomski - These channels are embraced because of the level of authenticity they bring - authenticity that would be completely lost without transparency. Jump to Caroline's content

C.B. Whittemore -  It's been fascinating to observe the process of evolution from traditional to social, and what it takes to get immersed in the social aspect. What this tells me is that the more transparent and authentic the effort, the more credible it is. Better not to delegate all responsibility for your social efforts to 3rd parties who - for the most part - really can't speak competently to your customers. Get guidance, include them, but own it. Jump to C.B.'s content

Jack Yan - My rule is to be transparent on everything that is public knowledge. There is nothing wrong with being personal about the Tweets as long as what you write does not attack the company or in my case the campaign. (Jack is running for mayor of Wellington, New Zealand) Jump to Jack's content

Degrees of Transparency Author Content

Jim Alexander

As long as the client is willing to own the consequences of engagement by proxy I don't think the identity of the content authors need be an issue.

I don't expect UPS or FedEx to identify their seasonal temps, as such, when they deliver my holiday packages. I (as I suspect, their respective employers do) expect them to comport themselves as competent and capable representatives of the hiring firm.

Whether the authors catch a salary + 401K for the client or work on the cum for the consultants take matters little. At the end of the day, if the purpose is served it is irrelevant who dished it up.

Bob Cargill

Having worked on the agency side for most of my career, I’ve earned my livelihood by writing content – direct mail, email, ads, etc. – for my clients. And in that traditional marketing world, there was never much talk about being transparent in communications. It just wasn’t an issue. 

In the world of social media, however, transparency and authenticity are essential. The more capable an organization is of keeping it real on the grid, the more successful it usually is in the blogosphere, on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else it maintains a social media presence.

But not everyone has the bandwidth, capability or desire to use social media themselves. Or they may need a little help getting started. Each of these barriers to entry represents a tremendous opportunity for agencies, consultants and freelancers to provide assistance to their clients. So yes, I think it’s perfectly acceptable for an external resource to write and post social media content under the aegis of a brand. The client representative just needs to be mindful to speak in the first person plural, “we,” as he or she is communicating on behalf of the brand as a whole, not as an individual. 

I don’t believe in posting for another human being, though. “Ghost” tweeting and blogging is verboten in my book. I know it’s done. And I don’t pass judgment on anyone who does it. But if there’s a name and photo attached to a blog post, tweet or any other activity in social media, I think the words should be coming from that particular person and not someone else. 

That doesn’t mean that one can’t receive a lot of help behind the scenes. Those who aren’t the best writers in the world or who have more important priorities can have someone provide them with ideas and even draft posts, tweets and updates. Shared thoughts and opinions should reflect the account holder’s views, however, and – ideally – should be posted by him or her, too. That’s the only way to really get anything out of social media anyway – to be immersed in it yourself, not to have someone acting as your proxy.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Whether social media is outsourced or not, what matters is the end result to the customer. If the goal is to facilitate discussion, improvement of the product or service or quick easy access to 'someone' who can resolve a problem, I don't care if it is the president of the company, a designated CSR or the PR agency who is going to make sure the suggestions, complaints, promotions are handled properly from the customers perspective. What matters is the end result and the press for the company left in the wake of the interaction. Does it build or tear down the brand? 

I'll give you two anecdotal situations from my own experience. I needed to reach someone in control at a furniture company. When I got to their website they did everything imaginable to avoid a customer interaction other than sending an e-mail they could respond to at some future point in time. I ended up calling corporate directly after looking them up on line in the white pages bypassing their website and getting head of quality control. I told him how challenging it was to connect with a live human being and he said that was deliberate because customers are supposed to go through their sales representatives through their stores. Needless to say I was less than impressed. 

On the other hand, I had an issue with Jet Blue who is on Twitter and Facebook, has set up fan pages, etc. I knew they were on Twitter and started to air my complaint. I don't know who facilitates their account. I didn't care what their name was. But I quickly realized through this vehicle that I was able to resolve my problem because we took it from Twitter to e-mail to resolution with the company.

'Personal' in my opinion isn't about a particular 'person'....it is about personalized service through social media that ends with a happy customer and a positive impression which builds that company's brand.

Jeff Cutler

While transparency is vital to get consumers to buy into a firm's product or service offerings, it sometimes handcuffs an organization when they're using an outside party or a freelancer to create content. Like anything else, there are no absolutes. If I write a tagline for Gulf Oil and they pay me for it and use it on all their collateral, I don't expect that the public needs to know I created that content. Moving down the line, if I pen a product description in a catalog for a client, nobody really needs to know who the copywriter was on the job. But then comes the sticking point...is the material being written supposed to be impartial and unbiased?

If the answer is yes, it behooves everyone to reveal where it came from and the credentials of the writer.

If the answer is no, you can do what you want.

The other matter is using a ghost blogger to put up content that supposedly comes from an executive. I think this is OK if the writing is merely rewriting or editing. If it's wholesale editorial change, then you can't really give the executive credit for the post. But you could say that the material was written based on input from that company rep.

Tweeting for hire is another issue. With so little space - and admittedly so little impact for each 140 character tweet - I'm conflicted. Guest tweeting is fine if the credentials are revealed in the bio of the Twitter name/profile page as there's no room to really put a byline on each tweet. Also, if the person tweeting has the blessing of the communications/marketing department on messaging and promotion, I don't see an issue. Where I do feel misled is when some random person tweets to me from a corporate named account and they have no official affiliation to that firm.

Hope that helps.

Full disclosure.... I currently guest blog and tweet for a number of organizations and most of them reveal my identity. There are a few that don't deem it necessary or the pieces I'm writing are just revised materials from existing marketing or advertising.

Susan Getgood

Before I address your question, I want to touch on a related issue. In my opinion, as ethical best practice and per the FTC guidelines on endorsements and testimonials, agency personnel commenting about clients and client products on social media channels must identify their interest. Even on Twitter – it only takes 8 characters (client), 10 if you count the spaces.

I’ve also long thought that public relations, marketing and advertising bloggers should include a list of their active clients on their About page to better inform their readers about potential influences on their opinions. Some agencies and people do it, others do not, on the theory that such a list creates a prospecting list for competitors. Maybe so, but I believe transparency requires it. Utopian of me I know.

Does this mean that Richard Edelman’s About page needs to list every Edelman client. Of course not. The Edelman website surely does that already, and as agency head, he’s not actively engaged in all those accounts anyway.

But if you are actively engaged in an account, even at a senior level, and commenting on the client’s industry, even if not directly about the client, don’t your readers deserve that information? I think so.

Now to your question. What is best practice about transparency/disclosure for agencies creating/writing content for their clients’ social media channels? In other words, when acting as a proxy for the client.

Let’s take blogs first. I have no problem with agencies creating the content for client blogs, as long as it is disclosed. I also don’t have any issue with blogs written by an impersonal “Company Moniker” as long as there is a page somewhere that tells who the people are behind the writing. I do prefer it when those posts are attributed to the individuals writing them, rather than the group identity but also recognize that there are many circumstances when the more impersonal is the better choice. You are  building, writing and speaking for the brand, not an individual.

I do not like ghostwriting, i.e. when someone else writes the blog for a named person like the CEO without attribution. There are so many other tactics available to us in social media to can bring the executive voice to the customer that a ghostwritten blog is just a cop-out. You can do a podcast, and then like Marriott does, transcribe it onto the blog. You can have someone interview the executive periodically, much as you might for a customer or employee magazine. You can do video chats and roundtables. You can even have someone edit the original writing of the attributed writer. But write it 100% for someone else, under their name, on a blog. Nope.

Similarly, I’m not terribly fond of ghostwritten tweets – ghweets – for individuals. However, the practice of having multiple people tweet on behalf of an organization under the organization moniker is fine, and even better when there is a page that tells you who the Tweeters are. That’s what GM does. It’ll be nice with the forthcoming Twitter functionality that those tweets can be identified to the people if the organization chooses, but I don’t think that is absolutely necessary.

Facebook Fan Pages. By design, fan pages are impersonal. Posts default to the fan page name, regardless of which administrator is posting the material. In fact, unlike Groups, you don’t even know WHO the admins are. I imagine this was an intentional decision to focus attention on the brand, not the individuals. It’s not supposed to matter *who* is talking – it is the brand. For this reason, I don’t think it much matters whether it is an agency or internal individuals posting to the page. [Side note: In fact, I’m not even sure if you *can* post to a Fan Page for which you are an admin as yourself, and not as the page. If it is possible,  I wish someone would tell me how, as I think we *should* be able to do this.]

Bottom line, the more personal the expression, the more important it is to know *who* is speaking. When the social media channel, or the brand’s use of it, more closely resembles broadcast, it isn’t nearly so critical.

Brendan Hurley

This is an interesting question. At the end of the day, the client should be reviewing and approving any content that goes out through its social media channels anyway. So in reality, who is writing the content isn’t nearly as important as who is “approving” the content. Strict policies and procedures should be drafted by the client, so the agency knows what it can and cannot do or say, while still giving the writer enough freedom to be creative, passionate and opinionated when necessary.

As you recall, one of the reasons we decided on the use pseudonyms for our fashion blog and Twitter sites (DC Goodwill Fashionista) and mission focused Facebook and Twitter sites (Good Willy) was to enable us to maintain consistency in the “name” of the content provider, even though the individual behind that pseudonym may change…as it did when we transitioned from Em Hall to Gillian Kirkpatrick as the writer of the DC Goodwill Fashion blog. 

In order to be transparent, we wrote a series of “transition blogs” where Em “officially” turned over the writing of the blog to Gillian, so readers knew the writer had changed, even though we never dropped the DC Goodwill Fashionista name or image. That pseudonym and avatar represent the “writer” of the blog, not the “person” writing the blog. Not only was the blog not damaged as a result of the transition, its readership has actually grown quite substantially. And Gillian is not an employee, she is a volunteer.

We recently launched a Spanish fashion blog using the same strategy, which is also doing very well. That writer also is a volunteer.

Max Kalehoff

Max Kalehoff: The fact is that everyone has an agenda, and therefore is an agent of some kind. It builds trust when one is forthcoming with his agenda, and even better for all to simply anticipate agenda and not be surprised. Agenda is not some evil tendency. It's our perspective when going about the world. It's ok.

Personally, I don't advocate ghost writing -- but believe it has its place, but only when the attributed author personalizes and approves the copy. OK for an agent to update a wiki entry on behalf of a company? Absolutely. In fact, agents often can be better suited, more trusted and more capable of acting on behalf of a company than many of a company's own employees. I'm being extreme here, but you get the concept. In my case, we have awesome employees, but we also several contractors (technically/legally) who operate as full-fledged members of our team, with full access and privileges.

John Cass: Do you think your thoughts on ghost writing have changed over the years?

Max Kalehoff: I think there is greater expectation that the author attributed was the actual author, not a ghost writer. Which means that writing skills are becoming perhaps more important in business.

Rick Liebling

This is an issue that comes up quite often for us. My current thinking is that the upside for trying to hide agency involvement is almost nil, but the downside can be high, at least from a consumer perception stand point. So I would advise that any blog, Facebook page or Twitter account be labeled as being written by the 'Company X' team. The term 'team' covers a lot, and certainly makes it clear that the content is not coming from a specific individual.

Now, if you are talking about a blog that is being positioned as written by a CEO, then you've got to make sure it is indeed the words of that CEO. She doesn't have to be the one responsible for uploading and making sure the links work, but it has to be her words.

Jim Matorin

Thought provoking post and in agreement re: transparency. However, I think we should recognize that all the agency people are jumping in because we are alphas that understand social media is a new platform to deliver messages/content, to open conversations with consumers. In closing, dinosaurs need agency folks to jumpstart their new marketing initiatives at this point.  

Marc Meyer

Great topic John and Toby. Surprisingly all we need to know has already been covered by your uber smart readers. The issues as to the why are simple. Clients have neither time nor talent and in most cases knowledge to carry this out. Thus, enter in the Agency, which should have all...OK, Maybe 2 out of three. 

I'm still on the fence about knowledge. But nevertheless some great points were made in regards to a) end result b) transitioning the duties and c)some modicum of ownership is better than none. 

At the end of the day, agencies see an opportunity and until businesses find the time and the staff to learn to do this on their own, there will continue to be this need coupled with the void supplemented by a lack or transparency. A better question might be, Who owns the mistakes and customer service miscues that may arise?

Lynn Anne Miller

Lynn Anne: I just had a very interesting discussion with a potential client about this issue. The client, a savvy Capitol Hill type, did not agree that the agency contact's name should appear along with client names on a client twitter account. He pointed out (rightly so) that CEO speeches and PR commentary are routinely ghostwritten, and said that his clients would be confused if someone else's name appeared on the company Twitter account.

We got into a discussion about the timeliness factor...a CEO always approves a press release or speech before it is released, whereas that is not the way real-time social media channels work.

Increasingly, I see disclosure of team members on Twitter feeds, and I regard that as a best practice. The actual author simply uses his or her initials at the end of the tweet in brackets.

Still, it can be tricky to implement this when every one of those 140 characters counts!

I think the situation is different with blog posts. It is quite common now for blog posts to be ghostwritten and then edited and approved by executives prior to publication, just as is routinely done with contributed/authored/bylined articles, speeches, etc. I see that as a practical approach, but the twittering and blog commenting should be disclosed with the author's true identity, in my opinion.

John Cass: You mention it is quite common for blog posts to be ghostwritten. What do you think of that practice?

Lynn Anne Miller: In very few cases does a CEO have the time, talent, or inclination to blog. There are of course notable exceptions (one thinks of Mr. Marriott dictating his blog entries or Seventh Generation's Jeffrey Hollander, who is also an author is his own right).

Blogging is just one more public communications channel for an exec. Few CEOs write their own speeches so why should they labor over blog posts? I'd rather a CEO focus on more material business matters, and simply review/edit/approve copy that is posted under his or her byline. I think that is entirely appropriate, and I would wager that is the way it is done in most companies.

That said, any comments posted from the CEO should of course come directly from him or her.

John Cass: Why would any comments have to come from the CEO, if the blog post was ghost written?

And what do you think are reader expectations about blog posts, do you think readers believe such posts are ghost written?

Lynn Anne Miller: From your questions, John, I'm wondering if we're in agreement regarding the definition of ghostwriting.

Typically, a CEO brings in a ghostwriter to discuss his or her ideas for the article, speech, blog post, or whatever is being crafted. (In some cases, such as when the CEO or politician has one or more GW/Speechwriters on staff, the writer will know the CEO well enough and the subject matter well enough to approach the CEO with ideas). Then the CEO reviews and approves the copy, sometimes making substantial edits, but usually, if the GW is any good, making very few. Then the piece is published under the CEO's name.

So let me ask you this: When you heard Obama's acceptance speech, did you think of John Favreau, his speechwriter? When Reagan spoke, did you think of Peggy Noonan? When Carly Fiorina gave her speeches at HP, did you think of her speechwriter?

Back to your questions:

1. The comments would need to come directly from the CEO because the comments are in real-time and demand a real-time response and immediate judgment regarding the issues. (That said, in reality, I bet the CMO or his or her designee is the one actually monitoring the blog, drafting those responses, and running them by the CEO for approval before hitting publish).

2. Regarding reader expectations, I think it totally depends on how the blog is positioned with the public. There are some CEOs who have very publicly stated that they in fact are doing the blogging. Those tend to be the best blogs - they may not be perfectly "crafted," and they may not appear on a very regular basis, but the passion and the voice of the CEO comes through loud and clear. In many other cases, though, a post is contributed by the CEO to a group blog and it is ghostwritten just as all the other executive communications are ghostwritten.

So no, I don't think most readers think posts are ghostwritten anymore than they think a CEO's speech or bylined opinion piece was ghostwritten.

That said, is it the CEO's role to labor over prose, or is it his role to communicate ideas to the communications experts and then review the final product?

John Cass: Well ghostwriting means that someone writes a blog for someone else, and there's no revelation that the post was written by a ghost writer.

It is standard practice in political speeches to have a speech writer.

If you look back at the early history of blogging, the clear expectation on the part of most bloggers and blog readers was that blogs would be written by the author. The reason, blogs are not just publishing tools, but rather two way communications tools, they enable people to have a two way conversation back and forth. I don't dispute it may not be the CEO's role to labor over prose in most circumstances, but some in the industry would argue that in the example of blogs and social media, if you are not the author you shouldn't be writing. Toby and I have been in the industry a while, and we developed our strategies for marketing in social media during the early days of how social media should be discussed. We both think that there's a large sea change in how the industry is developing. And that is why we want to get a gauge on where the industry is today. In 2004 if you asked most bloggers is it okay for a CEO to have ghostwritten blog articles they would say no. Today I don't know if that would be the answer. We'd like to find out what the answer is, and perhaps what the answer should be.

Melanie Notkin

As long as the content is authentic and approved by the client, I'm not sure there's a difference between when a "social media consultant" or freelance writer writes the content for a brand. 

The same rules apply: if someone other than brand-guardians are communicating content, it should be guarded and approved by the brand manager and follow brand guidelines. If the writer is writing on behalf of a CEO or other executive, the same rules as ghost writing should be used. Any CEO, brand manager or communications manager who let's someone else communicate on behalf of their company without approval is probably not just downgrading the importance of social media, corporate communications and branding, they are downgrading themselves, their brand and their company.

Jeremy Pepper

Transparency has always been a big sticking point for me - and a hot button issue for the industry - but I learned a while ago that it is not a simple black and white issue. It is fraught with greys, and it is hard to figure out where those lines are, and who is really in the right to call out people.Gray_Scale_1280x1024  

As you know, for generations, PR firms have written white papers, contribute articles and the sort for clients. And it was fine, no one questioned it because it was standard procedures for PR.

And, a few years back, it came to a head with The Newsmarket and Andy Plesser: Corporate Blog Published by your PR and Corporate Blogging and Honesty. Plesser had hired journalists to write the corporate blog for The Newsmarket, and most people attacked it. Ironically, I defended it at the time, and still believe they were handling it the right way.

And I still believe that. Internal people have a lot to do, and ghostwriting DOES happen, and there can be both, and a marriage to transparency. And, with Twitter, we'll see agencies helping out more with the corporate accounts.

The basic premise on transparency, though, is to provide a biography (large or small) to show who is taking care of what. It can be the agency, an outside writer, an internal person ... anything. For ghostwriting, well, that will happen but have the final person actually review and edit, so it is in his/her words. It's not the best practice in transparency but it works.

Tim Skaggs

I agree that the full disclosure of the writer should be viewable by readers and visitors. My clients have a brand to stand by and 'honesty' is a key factor to trusting the brand. The manner that the company conducts themselves will eventually be realized by the visitor or reader. The problem I see here is that companies have hired out to create marketing products before the creation of Social Media and those marketing products do not have any type of transparency as though the company created those marketing products themselves. I can see why larger companies would not be transparent in the social marketing because of the previous types of marketing done by the company in the past.

Michael Stelzner

This is no different than hiring a contractor to do any other project for your company.

Every business hires writers to create content. Heck, I am hired by many of the biggest. They never disclose that I created the content. Why? Because it is not in their best interest to tell who is an employee and who is a contractor. The last thing the business wants is to have someone taken by a competitor.

This is just common sense.

Liz Strauss

Be clear on your goals. In this case, three great goals might be: 

- to foster relationships that work for of the client, the agency, and the client's customers 

- to build an exchange of information that invited participation because it is easy, efficient, and meaningful / fun 

- and to build a situation that can transition in the future if others take over the content producer role 

The agency bloggers should use their own names, even if it's first name only. A good partnership is something worth sharing with customers. The agency bloggers should write what they know or can research, with an eye toward what interests the client's customers (not just the client.) 

On Twitter and Facebook, the agency social media folks can build a client account, but their client account or fan page should reveal their relationship as well. On YouTube, I'd suggest that agency folks get permission to and find ways to feature heroes who work for the company and customers. Creativity can make this low prep, high interest, and high value.

The key is to choose people who will champion the company because they want to be part of celebrating what the company is doing and they're proud to put their own name on their efforts. 

Mike Volpe

I think if it is for the brand/company, then it is fine to just go ahead and post as the brand and not disclose exactly who the post is coming from.  Just like a number of different employees might post on behalf of the company, you might also hire an agency to do so.  And there is not that much difference between the agency and the employees, especially in today's world of contractors, part time workers, outsourcing, etc  People who see posts coming from a brand should understand that it is a person or a team of people posting on behalf of the company, and they need to consume the communication in that way.  Just like you might get an advertisement or letter or email from a company and it is not "signed" by the marketing person or agency that created it, you might get a Tweet from a company but not know who exactly wrote it.

Now, in the case where you might be posting on behalf of a person, say the CEO of a brand/company, then I think complete transparency is called for.  People deserve and expect to know if they are actually speaking with Marc Benioff or someone posting on his behalf, because there is a real person in the conversation.  By the way, this does not mean that it is bad to have people post on your behalf.  I think Guy Kawasaki on Twitter is a great example that being interesting is much more important than posting everything yourself.

Kami Watson Huyse

I think that the goal of the agency/consultant worth its salt should be to enable the client to build relationships (real ones) with their online communities. The content creation that enables that, without being untruthful, unethical or misleading, should be whatever works.

Steve Woodruff

These platforms are communication channels and we all have to take a deep breath and have a reasonable view of how companies will use them. I happen to think that the companies who advance with real personality in their social media endeavors will likely do best, but not every company is prepared out of the gate to have designated in-house personnel to “feed the beast.” 

We don’t need to beat these folks with a purist club and accuse them of being inauthentic – unless they’re being inauthentic! Let people get their feet wet, and outsource as they must. We should encourage brands to use social media responsibly, realizing that those who abuse it by a lack of transparency will be outed in time, and the lesson will be learned! Read more at Steve's post Who's Behind The Avatar?

Total Transparency Author Content

Chris Brogan

Here's where we (New Marketing Labs, LLC) play in the transparency for clients department: 

Content creation like blogs and the like: we use our own name, but willingly create on behalf of the company. We work to educate our client partners so that they can create on their own, but we still fill in and create under our own name. We haven't ghosted. Do I think it's okay to ghost? I think it's more okay to ghost articles than I do social presence. Ghost tweeting seems a bit less genuine to me. Maybe that's splitting hairs, but that's my gut take. 

Social platforms. We don't create on the client's behalf. Tweets should come from the company, not the agency. I think you can tweet on behalf of the agency from your own account, but if I'm talking to @Coke, I want it to be someone from Coke.

Matt Churchill

I work at Edelman Digital in the UK, and this is a topic that is very important to me. The digital team practice full disclosure on every piece of Social Media campaign activity we are involved with. For example, if we are managing a Twitter stream on behalf of a client, we disclose in the bio which team member is running it, the fact we work for Edelman and also include our Twitter handle. This is reflected when also managing Facebook profiles and pages, where we always state who we are and our affiliation with the client. Consumers appreciate the transparency and it ensures that the client is not perceived as running a campaign nefariously.

Yvonne DiVita

First of all, I'm appalled that so many PR firms and agencies are blogging and tweeting, and perhaps doing Facebook, on behalf of clients without letting the end-user know it's them, not the client. Personally, I don't see how they can talk about anything except the current campaign, project, or contest. And that's advertising, not having a conversation.

Ghost blogging is wrong when it's done to deceive, or to be part of the crowd without putting in the work. Ghost blogging where you represent the client because you're in the industry, or know the client's work so well you can speak for them, is somewhat okay. Which means...tweeting on behalf of the client can be okay, if you're really there to talk WITH people, not AT them and if the company participates at least by following the discussion. I see some brands that have twitter accounts that openly say they're an agency or PR firm doing the twittering on behalf of so-and-so...and I watch, and wonder - why can't so-and-so do it for themselves? But, in the case of big brands, they might not have the talent in-house - or, which is more likely - they don't want to train in-house and they are willing to give their brand image over to the agency because...that's what they've always done.

The folks who blog, tweet and create Facebook accounts for themselves, and traverse the many gates one needs to pass through for social media success on their own, are the ones who will see the most and best positive return. That doesn't mean they can't engage a PR firm or agency to HELP... maybe to guide them. But, in the end, it's a consumer controlled environment and the consumer doesn't want to talk to your agency rep. They hate your press releases, and they are especially looking askance at your attempts to fool them with twitter accounts that do nothing but announce your latest product release.

I know companies that have ventured into social media and are relying on agency advice and assistance, when they have some talented small business bloggers on the payroll. Rather than tap into the folks who are experienced with blogs and twitter and Facebook, this company is relying on its ancient roots of paying an agency to tell them what to do and how to do it. I'll be watching to see how they do - because in the end, it isn't the bloggers, the company, or the agency that will dictate the success; it's the customers. If they accept it, we'll see a lot more of it. If they reject it, we'll see companies scratching their heads in confusion, because the agencies know all, don't they? Personally, I think the answer to that is no, they don't. Real people, with real personalities, who identify themselves on the blog, twitter page or Facebook, have the answes. And the answer is: this is who we are (real people), this is who we work with (real company), this is who we want to talk with (you). 

This could go either way. I'm betting on the consumer maintaining control and agencies and the companies they represent learning the hard way that transparency is more than being the mouthpiece for the PR department or "interactive media" - which is the new popular phrase for online media. It's allowing the consumer access to the people who make the company what it is. The brand is not the agency. The brand is not the twitter account. The brand is the conversation between the company and the consumers. It starts with, "Hello, my name is..." Not with, "Hello, look at our new product launch!"

Arik Hanson

Overall, I tend to fall on the side of transparency. But, that doesn't lend itself too well to agencies making money. That said, I think there's still a big role for agencies/consultants to educate, coach and advise. And to keep clients one step ahead in this constantly evolving environment.

Roger Harris

I have worked on both the agency side (Capstrat) soliciting bloggers to write content and as a blogger.

I am strongly of the opinion that complete transparency is essential, whether the content provider is working through their own blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The agency writer needs to fully disclose the relationship with the client, although this does not mean on every blog post, Tweet, Facebook update. Simply that the information is readily available for people who are interested in understanding the motivation and resources of the content provider.

There are too many examples of situations where content providers (usually employees) have contributed ostensibly as objective outsiders, only to be discovered as working for a promotion. Why take the risk of losing credibility and embarrassment? Most people would rather be aware that content is being provided with an agenda or an element of bias and then make their own decisions rather than have the wool pulled over their eyes.

Ellen Hoenig

I'm of the mind similar to BL Ochman that company outsiders should be helping company people learn how to use social media themselves, and if they do write, its not done as 'ghost' but 'guest'... 

Social media is about listening, learning and building relationships...how can you outsource this? And from my own experience, how can you learn or develop your own voice without doing it yourself and experiencing the ups and downs first hand. 

If a company is just doing sm to 'cross it off their list' or to use it as another source of one-way communication, then its not really social media and probably isn't fair to the readers who are genuinely looking for dialog and relationship building/learning. On twitter especially, I find it disconcerting for people to post for others without at least leaving some initials so the reader knows who tweeted it etc.

Jonathan Kranz

First, I believe that much depends on the nature of the content and its corresponding reader expectations. For articles, white papers, ebooks and such, I think ghostwriting is entirely legitimate.  In these instances, reader expectations are focused on the substance of the content, rather than on its author; as long as the ideas truly belong to the putative author (the person to whom the work is attributed), there is no violation of the implied social contract.

But blogs, tweets, Facebook entries and other forms of social media communications are another story. Here, the emphasis is flipped on its head — it’s the author of the communication, not the substance, that attracts readership. After all, if you were to take the same 140 character tweet generated by Seth Godin and attribute it to someone else, it wouldn’t have the same meaning or impact; the tweet is relevant because of the person behind it. The attraction is not the substance, per se, but the reader’s expectation of having some sort of relationship with the author. In this case, I think ghostwriting — or agency creation of social media content — is indeed unethical.

I also think it’s pointless. You wouldn’t get married, then hire someone else to have sex with your spouse; the point of the relationship is to relate, in all its forms. And the point of social media isn’t the exchange of ideas (some cynics might wish one luck finding them), but the building of relationships. If you’re not going to personally participate, why bother?

Tracy Malone

Very interesting and controversial topic you have brought up! I own an ad agency and have seen many of our competitors embrace social media and quickly jump up on a pedestal touting themselves as experts so that they can "help" their clients enter the social media-sphere and take the reins as an opportunity to rack up additional hourly billing each month.

So MANY are doing this. But does it go against the grain of everything that social media stands for?  Good question. My gut reaction is yes, social media is meant to be nothing but authentic. Relationship development, at it's best, and an opportunity to have more insight into a brand and the people behind the brand.

But I do have to admit that we, as marketers, do try our best to become TRUE partners with our clients. Having them see us as an honest extension of their staff. Their advertising/marketing department extended, just beyond the boundaries of their building. And with a more subjective viewpoint.  

So that does mean that, in theory, an agency who is very tapped in to their client, their products and services, understands who that client is, their brand, personality, how they live, eat, breathe, could potentially act as a vehicle for helping that client connect with their market and prospects via social media and actually provide a fairly authentic experience. I do think it is possible. Is it truly REAL, though? Probably not.

That said, our agency is taking another route, and helping our clients put together strategic plans for how to leverage social media, then training them and giving them the tools they need so that THEY can implement it themselves. We've seen great success. And clients who swore they just "don't have the time to blog" are now putting it at the top of their daily priority list because they've seen the light and tremendous results.

So I do think that that is the ideal way to go. Real. Authentic. Personal. If you want repeat traffic and to develop a great following, I think being real and having the client do the work and the agency the guide is the best route.

Lionel Menchaca

We don’t use agencies for content. We do use them for some design help (page and site design on some things). One thing we’re focusing on now is revamping our employee policy in an effort to scale more of the work we do into areas within the business. The basics of the policy will stay the same: strive to be honest and accurate while maintaining transparency when speaking about Dell.

Chris Norton

I am a blogger and public relations consultant and I write, tweet and help my clients all the time but I am transparent about how I do it. For instance, if I am to write on their blog I will become a guest author and I will make sure it is clearly disclosed in the about page so readers know who is writing what. Not only that but I will introduce myself clearly. I think this is simply good practice so the readers aren't reading lots of posts under admin and worst still mislead. People prefer to buy into the bloggers personalities and often they will subscribe to different authors RSS feeds.

Tom O'Brien

I have been pretty much a hard liner on this issue – full disclosure is best.  I don’t think the agency/client relationship (typically) requires disclosure – what requires disclosure is that the communication is being done on behalf of the brand.

John Bell from Ogilvy gave a great presentation on this topic for WOMMA:  Finding Best Practices for SM Health Marketing.  While SM in the health context (involves FDA regulation) is different from other SM, I think the ideas in this presentation are 100% relevant to the question being discussed.

So, I think the “transparency” requirement is at the brand level.  Not at the “agency on behalf of brand” level.  Consumers don’t care about that.  My $0.02.

B.L. Ochman

I think the best role agencies, consultants, etc. can play is coaching clients so they can learn to use social media. As you said, the tools may be free, but effective participation takes time, experience, and a realistic budget to pay for expertise. 

Hell, there was once a time when you could get by with typewriters and mimeograph machines. Those days are long over and businesses need to stop whining about social media and adapt. Just as companies had to hire IT people a couple of decades ago so they could remain competitive, they now need to hire community managers and others who can participate in online interaction. 

Used effectively both internally and externally, social media is not just a time sink. It can increase productivity, and help to build sales. However, I think some standards are necessary. I've blogged for clients on topics as diverse as clutter control and hairstyles. I always write under my own name, with my bio attached so it is clear who I am and what role I play. My goal always is to turn the blog over to the client so they can do it themselves once they learn what's needed.

Jeremiah Owyang

Jeremiah Owyang: In general, that's a bad idea.  Agencies should teach their clients how to 'fish' rather than do it for them as strategic advisors.  I don't have data to how much this happens.

Disclosure is key, and in some cases, may be enforceable by the FTC, we encourage all organizations to abide by the law.

John Cass: I’m getting reports back of agencies conducting campaigns for clients but being transparent about the relationship. What do you think of that? Edelman does this apparently.

Jeremiah Owyang: That's a best practice, absolutely.

Why? It builds trust with their own community and readers.

David Meerman Scott

I reject the premise. I do not recommend people hire agencies to create content. Instead I recommend that they hire journalists -- either full-time or part-time to create content. More here http://bit.ly/ABHLd

I think if a company hires a journalist as a full or part time employee (with a title, email address and whatnot), and that person creates content, then there is no transparency issue.

Caroline Slomski

Being on the agency side, I see my role as consultative more than contributory. My clients need inspiration (and reminders!) to keep their blogs and social networks fresh. If I were to cross that line - especially undisclosed - I risk not only my client's brand reputation, but mine as well. These channels are embraced because of the level of authenticity they bring - authenticity that would be completely lost without transparency.

Rick Short

In these early days, blogging and tweeting are felt to be from the stated author. Just like in the early days of giving speeches - people assumed (rightly so) that the speaker penned the words.

Lynn Anne reveals the crux of the issue when she says, "In very few cases does a CEO have the time, talent, or inclination to blog."

Understood - so don't pretend that you do!

As things evolve (like speech making did) expectations will change. In 2010, the "rules" are that the blogger/tweeter is authentic, or is pulling a fast one.

And Rick Also stated:

Today, given all the concern with transparency in social media, I feel that today's "rules" guide us to be completely open about exactly who is publishing what. It is phony to tweet, blog, and/or post to Facebook or LinkedIn as an executive (or anyone else), when you are a ghostwriter. 

If the "author" doesn't have the time, skill, or ability to write and post, then they shouldn't pretend to be doing so and falsely representing both themself and their company's communications program/capabilities. Why? Because social media was born in an era of transparency and authenticity. Because social media is held, by so many, to be a true voice.

Interestingly, the rules don't apply evenly to all forms of business communication. For examples, a CEO addressing a room full of shareholders may or may not have written his speech. That nuance is not a big deal. The President of the USA addresses a group and no one believes that he wrote his speech. Again, not an issue. Why? Because the practice is both well known and well accepted.

What all media now have in common is that whoever signs their name to the piece must stand behind it.  Regardless of the medium or platform, you can't have it both ways. This is because, while different media have different expectations and "rules", people are now held to one standard of transparency. If your name is on it and it blows up in your face, the world won't allow you to slip out of it by blaming a ghost writer.

C.B. Whittemore

Toby, thanks for this timely and relevant discussion. It's interesting to step back and appreciate that social media tools are communication tools [marvelous ones in my opinion!] and they can be used in the traditional push format or to engage & interact & be social. It's a subtle difference if you're in the traditional mindset and a glaringly obvious one if you're already on the social side. 

To be effective in a social environment, you must be human, authentic, responsive, consistent and genuinely interested. It's what you so often remind us of: it's like being invited into someone's living room. 

I recently set up the "Social Flooring Index" to monitor the social state of flooring - an extremely traditional industry mostly committed to push marketing. It's been fascinating to observe the process of evolution from traditional to social, and what it takes to get immersed in the social aspect. What this tells me is that the more transparent and authentic the effort, the more credible it is.Better not to delegate all responsibility for your social efforts to 3rd parties who - for the most part - really can't speak competently to your customers. Get guidance, include them, but own it. 

I love the approach that DC Goodwill has taken to make the transition in DC Fashionistas and establish connection/continuity for its audience. About developing enough content. Companies develop content ALL the time [or they should be!]. With social media, they have the opportunity to multi-purpose their original content work and distribute it in a variety of forms. It takes some effort at first to proactively think in those terms, but it's effective. When I did that in pre-digital days, I referred to it as 'merchandising my marketing.' Thanks again for this marvelous discussion.

Jack Yan

My rule is: be transparent on everything that is public knowledge, or allowed to be public knowledge. Do not talk about emails or letters that have come in to the firm if the sender can be identified, or anything where there might be the remotest confidentiality involved. Talk about what you would talk about if you were at the pub for after-work drinks. Not that I go to the pub for after-work drinks.

When it comes to the mayoral race, there is a Tweeting strategy. For instance: do not Tweet about getting people excited to vote when voting forms aren't even available. These need to be timed accordingly. However, these should reflect the mood one is in, and the things one does, preferably after the fact for security reasons. It shows what you believe in and what you are prepared to do for the city.

Again, they should not be critical unless there is a very good reason, so no negative campaigning or Tweeting. They should generally be positive and inspirational. There is nothing wrong with being personal about the Tweets as long as what you write does not attack the company or, in my case, the campaign. I cannot see any point being different just for Facebook: use the same messages on all platforms, to be consistent. (Note: Jack is a candidate for mayor of Wellington, New Zealand)

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Comments

Toby!

great discussion! I think transparency is tantamount. As a former journalist, I can attest that we're pretty intuitive in terms of knowing a ghost post etc. Also I disagree that is now "pretty common practice" or that it should be.

I think it works best if you are an agency person to work pro-actively with the company or expert and be congruent and consistent on your content. Have all content including blog postings worked up in partnership with the agency. If you're posting the content on their behalf, then they really need to know and vett exactly what you're posting. Journalists often reflect these blog posts, twitters, etc. in stories and so it's really important for everyone to know what is being put out there.

Even in politics with Sanford we've seen how letting someone post on your behalf on any of these platforms might not be the best idea if you're not fully engaged in what is being posted. It can backfire on you.

And transparency did not kill the cat, but journalist curiousity might if you're posting stuff that is not authentic.

Posted by: Nettie Hartsock on Feb 1, 2010 1:21:41 PM

Transparency should fit into everything you do online, SM or blogging.

Make people trust you.. and nothing more important then having your readers/customers trust.

Posted by: John Paul Aguiar on Feb 2, 2010 1:29:31 PM

@nettie - thanks for the tip about journalists using blog posts in their research. never thought of that .. you just might loose out on a great opportuity.

@john paul - excellent point. i'm wondering if perhaps the discussion of transparency in social media has awaken the conversation about transparency in business at-large.

Posted by: Toby on Feb 4, 2010 12:21:44 AM

Transparency is very important. I won’t work with people that won’t be transparent. It’s what makes the opinions of people worth it.

In mainstream media, you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. Who is taking who out to dinner, drinks, getting free swag or even cash in hand. It happens – and now we’re starting to trust those sources less and less. SM works because the real influencers are telling you about the relationships and that’s part of the commentary and story. Transparency makes it worth reading – and makes it trustworthy.

Anyway – love working with you Wayne because I know you’ll be completely honest with me – and with your audience.

Posted by: IFA Marketing on Feb 8, 2010 5:39:10 AM

Toby, what an amazing discussion and I love that you include Yvonne's comment about customers ultimately being the ones to determine success.

Thank you for addressing a topic that I believe will become even more critical as social grows. And thanks for including me.

Best,
CB

Posted by: C.B. Whittemore on Feb 11, 2010 10:13:35 PM

@IFA Marketing thanks but speaking of transparency really wish I knew your name (!)

@CB - Wondering .. do you think we'll ever create a standard for social media transparency?

Posted by: Toby on Feb 12, 2010 11:04:34 AM

For me in order to become a successful blogger you must have a passion and writing skills.

Posted by: Web Design Firms in Orange County on Mar 20, 2013 5:24:20 AM

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