Sunday, November 01, 2015
Whose words are these anyway?
"I am having a tough time with this one," a reader recently emailed. "Is this ethical?"
The reader is the head of a nonprofit that serves families in her area. Her email was accompanied by a request from a local public relations firm asking her to identify the name of a member of one of the families her nonprofit serves who would be willing to add his or her byline to an opinion column that could run in the local newspaper. The opinion column would advocate an initiative supported by the nonprofit.
The public relations firm had been hired by others working for the same initiative. Its representative assured my reader that the "writer" would get to approve the column, but must be willing to put his or her name on something the public relations firm would write.
The editor of the local paper had expressed interest in running the column, but the public relations rep indicated he needed a quick turnaround, so this would have to be "a rush job."
It's become fairly common practice among politicians and corporate executives to have someone on their staff write a draft of a speech or a column on behalf of their boss. How much the boss gets involved in the actual writing depends on the boss. Some edit the pieces heavily or work with the staffer to make the piece as strong as it can be. Others come to rely on their staffers to mirror the boss's voice and end up putting their name on something someone else wrote on their behalf.
At the very least, the boss should sign off on what ultimately goes out of the office. (There's an old story of an executive appearing on a radio interview to promote his recent book, only to have it become clear that he didn't know what was actually in the book. "I don't care if you didn't write your own book," the interviewer reportedly said. "But I do expect you to have read it.")
While I'm not crazy about the lack of transparency for the reader in knowing who actually wrote whatever words they are reading, because a long-term relationship between the staffer and the boss has been established, it can be reasonable to expect that the words might actually reflect the boss's views and his or her manner of expression. Good staffers become quite adept at matching their bosses' voices.
But my reader's case is different. The family member is not a public figure and presumably has no relationship with the public relations firm. While it might be common practice to have ghostwriters create pieces to which members of the community attach their names to give a sense of "authenticity" to the column, the more honest approach would be to identify someone from the community to write a draft of the desired column first. If my reader and the nonprofit firm wanted to offer guidance on how to write an effective column and then offer editorial suggestions to make the piece as strong as it might be, that makes sense.
But the right thing is to give the identified column writer the chance to write his or her own words, rather than offer to write it and then slap his or name on the column.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.