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. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Azalea Annie said...

"I am having a tough time with this one," a reader recently emailed. "Is this ethical?" First clue: "I am having a tough time with this one" means it's not ethical. You could go ahead and sit right on the fence, dangling your mug on the side of 'it's not ethical' and your rump on the side of "it's sort of ethical".

But you know it's not ethical. That's why you had to ask: you want someone to convince you that it's sorta / kinda ethical. Actually, you want someone to blame when you are taken to task for being part of something unethical.

But if you take a role in this unethical mess, you are to blame. You. No one else.

Anonymous said...

It's not hard to see the problem in ethics this example provides. It's also not hard to see the sneaky and snarky attitudes at work here. What kind of world do we live in where this kind of set(s) of circumstances are presented by the questioner? And a better question might be how many other situations are like this out there in the corporate or even the non-corporate world? Wow, morality is sure different today as opposed to when I worked.

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...


Did the Gettysburg address get written by a Confederate deserter or a freed slave?

A person's name is very important and should be. Not for sale.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma

Anonymous said...

The profession of public relations is tarnished by behavior such as this firm is demonstrating. The Public Relations Society of America requires its members to pass an exam which includes a lengthy list of professional ethical standards.

Two PRSA standards apply here: Be honest and accurate in all communications. Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.

Membership is not a requirement to practice this profession. The firm and its associates referred to in this instance either aren't aware of these standards or choose to ignore them.

Matthew Rovner
Natick, MA