Week 10: Mike Plett – ethical questions

I think it’s interesting that Helen asked us to think about ethical questions this week since that was the subject of yesterday’s Foundations of Strat Comm class. We discussed the ethics of ghost blogging and learned that PR industry professionals and the general public have very different expectations when it comes to ghostwriting, especially when it comes to nonprofit communications. The reality in the industry is that nonprofit CEOs are most likely going to have their speeches, columns and press release statements ghostwritten, while the public expects that these statements actually come from the person to which they are attributed.

This is just another example where producers and audiences have very different expectations, as well as perspectives, on what is acceptable. Here are three particular issues I’ve seen in our reading this term:

  1. Is it ethical to take someone else’s intellectual property and appropriate it for your own purposes? The authors of “Spreadable Media” argue that when fans appropriate copyrighted material they often transform it into something that can be beneficial for the producer, which they imply justifies the practice. It’s even arguable that pirating music or TV shows benefits producers by building an audience big enough that some may actually pay for the content. Obviously, many companies disagree, but “Spreadable Media” indicates that attitudes toward the treatment of intellectual property are changing.
  2. Is it ethical for producers to view audiences as commodities? As audiences visit company social media sites and engage with various brands, these companies amass a great deal of personal information that can be repurposed and monetized without the audience’s explicit permission. A core ethical value is to be respectful, and you can argue that commodification disrespects the audience.
  3. Then there is the issue of authenticity, which is where the discussion of ghosting comes in. There seems to be a general consensus among practitioners that as long as the person that the message is attributed to agrees and signs off, then ghosting is ethically permissible. But is this really OK if audiences have a different expectation? Is ghostwriting all that removed from astroturfing (artificially manufacturing grassroots support)?


On a different subject, I won’t be able to participate in the Zoom call with Sam Ford. So I have the following question for Helen to share with him:

Question for Sam Ford: I read in an online interview you did for MarketingProfs that you came to a new understanding of what marketing is as you were writing “Spreadable Media.” Rather than seeing marketing “as a way to persuade or align audiences to the company’s perspective,” you said the role of marketing is “to listen to the audience and find ways to move the company closer to the audience’s wants and needs.” Do you know of anyone who is successfully implementing this kind of approach to marketing, or is this a lesson you think the industry has yet to learn?

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2 comments to Week 10: Mike Plett – ethical questions

  • Grace

    As I mentioned in our other class, I’ve done my fair share of writing those ghost press release statements and it actually never occurred to me that it might be unethical.

    I would also like to add white papers to this mix. Big companies, especially those in high tech industries, would have a bank of white papers that communications people can access for pitching to trade publications. It’s a common practice to just affix the name of a concerned top executive to this paper as its supposed “author.”

    Yet another layer to the ghost press release statement is the fact that in a big enough company where the CEO probably is way too preoccupied with big company matters to even have the time to sign off on each and every press releases that come off the corporate communications office, it’s usually just your boss, the corporate communications head, who signs off on the CEO’s behalf!

    I personally think that one consideration here is the actual content of the attributed statements. Like I mentioned, companies usually have so-called boiler plate statements that are kind of one-size-fits-all. These are usually statements that are just meant to reinforce the company’s general corporate image and putting them in as a quote attributed to the CEO or company spokesperson is just a device to get them mentioned somehow.
    They’re usually pretty vanilla and I think it would be more unethical to take up a busy executive’s time with those. (Editors mostly ignore them anyway).

    It’s a different situation when the company is putting out a statement about a pressing or important issue concerning them. I don’t think any top executive worth his salt will just allow the communications people to take over the messaging. It’s not even a question of ethics but common sense.

    The sequence of events is usually either the communications guy will draft the message based on what he thinks the situation requires and have the executive quoted approve it, or, the executive will communicate his main thoughts first and have the communications guy put these together in a press-friendly manner. I can guarantee you that if its an important enough issue, the executive will be very involved in the editing of the message.

  • kpokrass@uoregon.edu

    I have never thought of “ghosting” in corporate communications as being unethical. I think where “ghosting” gets tricky is when we’re talking about an individual person vs. a corporation. I have always had ethical questions about celebrity biographies or celebrity clothing labels where other people have clearly done the work. Celebrities are misrepresenting themselves to their publics when they sell a book or a dress as though they’ve created it. To me, that seems more unethical then a CEO who has a cover letter written by their communications team.

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