When I started writing, it was really just a hobby. I thought – since I’m already always scribbling away and habitually putting to paper everything I learn, I might as well start sharing it with blogs and communities across the web, to teach and to be taught.
I was a complete noob to the world of content marketing. But soon enough, what started out as a hobby turned into paying gigs, and those turned into regular and steady work.
As I started collaborating more closely with clients and writing branded content for companies, I was fully immersed as a content creator – which inevitably led me to face the ethical debates of the industry.
I soon learned that in order to maintain my integrity while navigating the realms of content marketing successfully, I’ll have to ask questions, turn down offers, and define my stance on some very specific issues.
The issue with ghostwriting
First off, let’s be clear on what I mean by ghostwriting: writing pieces that will be credited to someone else as the author.
And let’s face it: ghostwriting is not a secret in the content marketing world. It will often be the first step for the aspiring freelance writer. My first paid writing jobs were blog posts written on behalf of small business owners and anyone from their marketing team whose byline was more established than mine.
Of course, I hated not being able to sign my work, but I stuck to the “You gotta start somewhere” mentality and carried on. Ghostwriting helped pay the bills neatly, so I didn’t have to worry about that, while I simultaneously contributed articles under my own name. I was lucky to have enough time to do both, as the latter gave me plenty of professional fulfillment and helped me position myself in the industry so I wouldn’t have to ghostwrite forever. Needless to say, they rarely got paid.
There’s no question as to whether the very idea of ghostwriting is inherently repelling. We’re taught from early childhood that passing off other people’s work as our own is shameful and wrong. And there’s no question as to why ghost blogging is a terrible idea for someone trying to build a personal brand.
That being said, I absolutely believe that ghostwriting can be ethical.
Sure, it would be ideal if business owners, CEOs, and other authorities within a company had the time – and the skill – to create all the content for the brand. But they rarely do, and that’s really why ghostwriting is just another tool a business can use to execute their content marketing strategy successfully.
In the best case scenario, the authority in question will work together with the professional writer and full disclosure would be provided with the piece. The former has something valuable to say as an industry expert, while the latter has the skill to formulate those sentiments into a piece that audiences will appreciate. Quite simple.
While I’ve experienced these kinds of collaborations first-hand, I have yet to see full disclosure provided with the piece when a ghostwriter is hired. That doesn’t quite bear the principles of truthfulness and transparency, but it’s where the industry currently stands.
For many writers, the monetary compensation is enough to make it a fair trade – until it stops being enough and you decide to move on.
Are content marketing ethics journalism ethics?
Content marketing and blogging aren’t journalism. Journalism is primarily impartial, and when content is created as part of a business’ marketing strategy, it’s understood that it can’t be entirely impartial.
However, well-written content (whether it’s blog posts, case studies, how-to guides, white papers, etc.) will have journalistic value. The bottom line is that a brand should seek to provide value through all their marketing efforts, so rather than trying to sell, content created with the intention to inform and teach its audience will be a legitimate resource to its readers.
And to make something a trustworthy resource, you’ll need to stick to the same ethical principles of traditional journalism. It’s about being honest and outright with the reader – honest in your intention to inform truthfully and honest about your biases. Providing appropriate disclosures to acknowledge potential conflicts of interest and making it clear in the byline for which company the author works are the most basic starting points.
Whose responsibility is it?
In an era when audience trust is increasingly difficult to gain, businesses are best advised to follow white-hat practices across all their marketing strategies. But we have to face the facts – that won’t always be the case.
As freelance writers, we come across all sorts of offers. I know I did. It might be a request to write a review for a product you’ve never tried or to plug in some shady statistics.
Now, I’m not here to play ethical police and tell you right from wrong.
Moral principles aren’t rocket science – the majority of us have the conscience and our gut feeling to guide us when something feels like it goes against our established values. The problem, however, is that many of these ethically murky practices have become standard. And if one writer turns an offer down, there will always be somebody else to accept it.
Currently, it’s a fairly lawless system (or lack of a system, rather), where the responsibility ultimately falls upon the individual.
At the risk of sounding self-righteous, and I really don’t intend to be, I can tell you right off the bat that there will always be another solution to earn your income – without having to sacrifice your integrity. It’s up to us to ask questions and think about the bigger picture before taking on offers.
You’re a cog in the big content machine, but if you don’t maintain your integrity, you’re helping feed that machine in all the wrong ways.