Emperors need not apply

A freelance journalist quits writing for CEOs, because she's "tired of making rich, white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are."

At the first World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association in May, the notion surfaced of a "speechwriter's code of ethics." The notion struck me as both intellectually intriguing, and a promising concept for an article in The Onion.

I was put in mind of the idea yesterday, when I read writer Amy Westervelt's public vow to stop writing "content" for companies, in part because "I’m tired of making rich, white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are. Yeah, I said it."

Westervelt decries the "usual 'let them eat cake' attitude corporate types have toward creative types in general ('I know! Why don’t we hire a journalist to write this think-piece? They’re all desperate for cash, they’d be happy to take this on for way less than we pay anyone else.')"

She continues:

It’s not that I don’t see the value in executives writing about their perspectives and their work. I’ve worked with plenty of really smart CEOs (that’s why I took these gigs in the first place), and their take on things is interesting and well worth a read, especially in business publications. I’d just prefer to see them writing more of it themselves (okay maybe with some help—let’s face it, not everyone can string sentences together convincingly), and sticking to their own areas of expertise. … These pieces should flow naturally as an outgrowth of a person’s experience and expertise, they should not be a whole additional job for either the executive or, as is the case now, the person they hire to impersonate them. The trouble really begins when marketing departments and PR firms push CEOS for a blog post a week—that’s something no CEO worth his or her corner office has time for, nor should they—and when they get sucked into thinking they need to philosophize on topics well outside their purview.

In theory, she's right. As a writer and just as a citizen, it's bad to live in a media marketplace where underpaid (and under-experienced) writers are inventing brilliant messages for CEOs in compliance with a command that a speechwriter once called, "Write down my ideas as if I had them."

But the reality is, we don't live in such a world. Yet. (Do we?) In the world I live in, anyway, CEOs are frustratingly reluctant pundits who don't hire starving journalists to write their speeches, op/eds and blog posts, but who use speechwriters to do so. When CEOs give the speechwriters access to their calendars and to their minds, they wind up looking as interesting in public as they are in person, and slightly more polished. When they shut their speechwriter out, they wind up spouting platitudes that no one listens to.

What they definitely don't do is mouth compelling or influential ideas conceived by writers out of whole cloth.

I understand Westervelt's decision to "never again pen a 'thought leadership' piece or a corporate blog post." I appreciate the freedom she feels by declaring that she'll "refuse to have even one more conversation in which I explain to a publicist or CEO why I will not connect them with editors I know, or why it would be impossible for their 'contributed content' to appear in The New Yorker. I can’t take it anymore."

Good for Westervelt.

But just because CEOs are often dopey about media and thoughtless about communication … well, that doesn't mean they don't deserve communication counsel. It means they deserve better, and more assertive counsel. That will come not from journalists taking a content gig to make a buck, but from people—among them ex-journalists—who have given themselves over much more fully to the task of making good leadership communication.

"Maybe if we all jump off the 'content' bandwagon," Westervelt concludes a bit pollyannaishly, "maybe CEOs and their publicists will stop worrying about establishing themselves as thought leaders in the media, and actually be thought leaders. You know, in their actual industries, writing one or two really thoughtful, great pieces per year."

Well, that would be totally awesome. But it's probably not going to happen. And if it does, it won't be because one or many struggling journalists stopped ghostwriting for CEOs.

No, an improvement in leadership communication will happen when a few serious speechwriters begin having honest conversations with their CEOs, about thought leadership, which—Wetervelt's right—you don't farm out to a freelancer. —DM


PNC's director of executive communications, Shawn Bannon, had a more personal reaction to Westervelt's piece than I did:

I've got no problem with writers who want to write in their own voice and no qualms with creative types who feel disillusioned with the idea that they're pouring their souls into work that may serve no purpose but to make a handful of rich guys even richer. But I read this piece, and it comes across to me as self-important, self-indulgent whining from a freelancer who didn't know what her personal principles were or didn't apply them when she was deciding what clients to take on, and now she's setting herself up as some heroic crusader willing to martyr herself by waiting tables in order to take a stand against the evil machine of corporate America. Puh-lease.

I've written for dozens of CEOs over the years, and I accepted that giving up pride of authorship is a necessity of ghostwriting. But I've never been afraid to turn down an assignment or even to walk away from a job if I felt my values were being compromised. And during the years that I ran my own business and freelanced, one of the things I loved was the freedom to decide that I would not work with clients I didn't respect or like. I've never worked with a CEO and been forced to write thought leadership pieces that didn't actually reflect their thinking. While they haven't always known the best way to articulate a complex idea, the ideas on the page have always been theirs — even if they might have been something I (or another adviser) suggested in the beginning. I'm sure that's not been the experience of every freelancer, but if Ms. Westervelt has been taking assignments for which she had to do all the original thinking and idea generation in the name of CEOs who had no original thoughts of their own, she ought to have been more diligent about the work she chose to pursue and accept. There are some really tremendous thinkers in the C-Suites of corporate America. And I find it supremely ironic that Ms. Westervelt suggests CEOs ought to stick "to their areas of expertise," when the pure journalists she seeks to celebrate build their careers on telling stories about individuals, industries, institutions and issues about which they are rarely experts.

When I was a consultant, much of my work was centered around civic leadership — business leaders taking on issues beyond the interests of their own organizations to improve quality of life, to breathe new life into cities that were on the decline, to expand access to the arts and education, to shine a spotlight on the need for new investments in infrastructure or transportation, and to guide economic development. When they do these things, they apply their expertise in leadership to issues where it is often lacking, and they leverage their positions at the head of large companies to create platforms from which change can occur. The suggestion that a CEO in the auto industry can't have an informed, thoughtful idea about how to improve education or that a CEO in the energy industry couldn't possibly be worth hearing from on an issue like socio-economic mobility is hogwash.

I read Ms. Westervelt's piece, and what comes across is that she is a writer with a personal/political agenda about which she's passionate, and she's unhappy that she hasn't been able to gain nearly as much traction moving the needle under her own byline as she could command on other issues simply by writing under the name of whichever CEO had hired her. Maybe I'm being harsher on Ms. Westervelt than she deserves, but I've known far too many creative types who have learned how to thrive in corporate culture, and I've seen and been a part of far too many successful leader-writer partnerships to buy the horror story that she's selling. Is the culture of content creation for the sake of content creation contributing to the din that drowns out thoughtful debate in society? Perhaps. But there is so much bitterness and misguided invective in her piece that I find it hard to take her seriously.

Maybe that's just me, though.

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