Should ghostwriters tweet for the CEO?

Ed. Note: Since this article originally ran here at a few months ago, mores have inevitably changed. For instance Chicago’s Mayor Daley, who doesn’t even e-mail, now has a Twitter account. We’d love to hear your opinion about ghost-tweeting now. Send it to [email protected]. —ed.

By Robert Holland

We’re still in the wild-west period of social media. The tools and their applications in the business world are new enough that we can chalk up the occasional misstep to the fact that we’re still figuring out the rules.

But now and then we hear something about a social-media practice that just doesn’t set well and it’s worth having a discussion about it so we can figure out the right thing to do.

A recent meeting of PR professionals featured a speaker who is president of an advertising agency and who is known as an expert in social media. Toward the end of the program, in response to a question, he made a statement that caused quite a stir. He mentioned that an intern in his agency tweets for a client’s CEO.

I didn’t attend the meeting, but I checked with several who did to verify that the speaker made the statement.

Since it was an off-the-cuff statement, perhaps the speaker didn’t literally mean that an intern tweets for the client’s CEO. Perhaps the tweets don’t really appear under the CEO’s Twitter handle, but the client’s. My purpose here is not to impugn a professional colleague’s reputation through misinterpretation of what he said. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But, assuming the speaker meant what he said, his statement raises a serious question—one that I know has been debated in other forums:  Should a ghostwriter (intern or otherwise) pose as the CEO of an organization in social media?

I believe the answer is no. In fact, I believe doing so borders on the unethical. Let me explain why.

It is true that many CEOs rely on their public relations or corporate communications departments to help craft speeches, write columns and op-eds and perhaps even write letters for their signatures. In these cases, a professional communicator will spend significant time with the CEO to determine what he or she wants to say and, just as important, how to say it. This is a widely accepted practice and I would guess that most people in the intended audiences for these communications recognize it. Even the president of the United States has speechwriters and we know this.

There is no deception going on. It’s out in the open. We understand that crafting a speech or constructing a well-written column takes time and effort and that professional communicators are employed to carry out the task.

However, social media are different from traditional media. The biggest difference is that social media are about personal interaction. Blogs, for example, are not just electronic versions of the CEO’s newsletter column. They are personal observations, ideally brief and not necessarily letter-perfect. A blog is an online journal. Many CEOs and other executives write their own blogs, as they should.

Twitter is even more personal. It’s like having an online chat or a phone conversation. There is back-and-forth. You don’t have to worry so much about cadence and flow in 140 characters. More important, I believe the audience’s expectation is that a tweet is coming directly from the person who is identified as sending it.

Having an intern—or anyone else—write tweets for a CEO would be akin to having that person impersonate the CEO’s voice on a conference call or webcast. It just wouldn’t be right.

And that’s what it comes down to for me and for some others with whom I’ve discussed this issue. It just doesn’t feel right. The audience’s expectation when using social media is that they are interacting with the person whose name appears on that icon. Anything else feels deceptive.

If someone other than the CEO is writing for social media, then the organization should be identified as the sender, not the CEO.

No guideline has been written about ghostwriting on social media as far as I know, so this is just my take on it. I’m interested in what you think.

Robert Holland is a communication consultant based in Richmond, Va. He blogs at Communication at Work.

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