Radical Transparency: Examining Ghostwriting and Social Media Authorship

September 1, 2015

[ikon images/corbis]
[ikon images/corbis]

If your chief officer has a Twitter account or blog, then radical transparency is a strategy to consider with regard to disclosing authorship, whether he or she is the sole author or not.

Radical transparency is a business philosophy that involves putting openness above all other competing values, with the exception of protecting information that could violate regulations or ethical principles if disclosed. Thought leaders such as Clive Thompson and companies such as Zappos champion it. The idea is that radical transparency builds trust.

Preliminary research points to radical transparency as a potential solution to the challenges of executive authorship on social media, which includes writing skills and the time-consuming nature of creating social media content.

Deciding to disclose

Yoon Cho, Ph.D. of Pusan National University, Tom Bivins, Ph.D. from the University of Oregon and I conducted a study of 507 readers of corporate blogs, 510 readers of politicians’ blogs and 501 readers of nonprofit blogs.

We asked blog readers about the permissibility of having a PR person draft blog content on behalf of the executive without disclosure. We also noted that, in this scenario, the original ideas came from the executive and he or she reviewed, edited and gave final approval of the content.

The survey results showed that corporate blog readers were split in their opinions about whether this level of PR support without disclosure was acceptable. Among readers of politicians’ blogs and nonprofit blogs, there were more people who disapproved of this level of PR assistance without disclosure than those who approved of it.

We also found that a significant percentage of blog readers in the corporate and political contexts expect this level of assistance. The study, which was funded by the Arthur W. Page Center and the University of Oregon, is published in the Research Journal of the Institute for Public Relations.

Building trust

Many blog readers expect ghostwriting without disclosure to occur and disapprove of the practice, even under the conditions that the ideas come from the executive and there is a final sign-off. One could make a case for building trust through radical transparency. Executives’ social media profiles can include authorship details — regardless of whether the executive independently drafted the social media content or not.  

If the executive actually did write the social media content, then he or she can make note of it through a statement such as, “I write all of my content myself.” He or she does not have to disclose superfluous help, such as proofing an executive’s grammar and spelling, because this level of help does not matter.

In a case of mixed authorship — sometimes the stated author writes the content and other times someone else writes it — disclosure should occur anytime that another person writes the content. For example, some Twitter profiles have a statement such as: “Tweets written by my PR director are marked by her initials, TG.” This type of disclosure can build trust through transparency.

One of my favorite examples of radical transparency is Bill Marriot’s blog, Marriott on the Move. The end of the “About My Blog post” page explains how a communications assistant helps with the technical aspects of the blog.

There are arguably many cases where disclosure is not happening. Along with Kevin Brett of Central Washington University and Toby Hopp, Ph.D. of the University of Alabama, I conducted a study of PR professionals. Seventy-one percent of the practitioners surveyed expressed the view that ghost-blogging without disclosure is permissible, 20.7 percent disapproved of it and the rest were neutral — under the conditions that the content came from the stated author and that he or she conducted a final review before granting approval.

There weren’t any differences in permissibility, based on whether the respondent worked at a nonprofit, at a company or for a politician. This study was published in the Public Relations Journal.

Ensuring accountability

If some PR professionals are not ready for the radical transparency approach, then they can at least ensure accountability with ghostwriting content by having the ideas originate with the stated author and having the stated author approve the post. Or, better yet, the person who writes the content can have the byline.

Blog platforms such as Medium suggest authenticity because stated authors must log in through their Twitter accounts to post content. Channels like this convey that the stated author is the real author.

Based on Kantian theory, acting with a desire to intentionally blur the line between how social media content is actually produced and how it appears to be produced is unethical because it does not treat readers with dignity and respect.

Tiffany Derville Gallicano, Ph.D.
Tiffany Derville Gallicano, Ph.D., is an associate professor of public relations at the University Oregon and head of the Public Relations Division for AEJMC. Her research areas include relationship management and social media. You can reach her at: derville@uoregon.edu and @gallicano.


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