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Is it unethical for PR agencies to ghostwrite for their clients?

By Virginia Marion Bullard

ghostwriting ethicsGhostwriting is a commonplace practice in public relations and can be found everywhere, from your favorite books to the most notable speeches. But what exactly is ghostwriting?


It may be easier to start with what ghostwriting isn’t. Ghostwriting isn’t plagiarism. Plagiarism is the theft of original work with no attribution or permission given by the original author. Plagiarism is a one-route selfish and unethical act of theft, whereas ghostwriting drives down a two-way road of collaboration. 


Ghostwriting isn’t a shadowy transaction in a dark alley. This is something widely used; in fact, the general consensus is around 75% of non-fiction works are “written in collaboration with a professional writer.” Some of President John F. Kennedy's most famous quotes were actually written by one of his advisors, Theodore Sorensen, and he never tried to hide the fact that collaboration was present in his speeches. Why? Because Sorensen’s words reflected Kennedy’s thoughts.


Ghostwriting isn’t unethical. At least, it shouldn’t be. The words and thoughts expressed in the work should be a true reflection of the person taking ownership of it. This means that, at a minimum, the individual taking ownership of the work has reviewed, agreed, and edited the work. Ideally, the more collaboration with the one writing the story, the better. 


On the subject of ethics, ghostwriting is not meant or designed to be deceptive. The expectation of certain works (for example, a president’s speech or a celebrity’s book) is not necessarily that the listed author sat down and wrote it, but that the thoughts and sentiments expressed are their own. We understand that people like CEOs or business leaders may not have the time, or truthfully the skill level, to convey their thoughts concisely, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to share their thoughts and experiences with the world. 

Ghostwriting is a business exchange. As public relations professionals, storytelling is one of the skills we must master. It’s why clients come to us; we are in the human capital market. We sell our product (our writing), and the ownership is transferred to a new owner who is free to do with it as he or she sees fit. Professional ghostwriters know the comparison, “the outcome is no different than if someone buys a guitar on eBay. They can play any tune they like with it after our transaction is done: they paid for the right to do with it what they wish.”


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virginia blog shotVirginia Marion Bullard is an intern with Axia Public Relations and a senior at the University of Florida College of Journalism. Virginia is based out of Jacksonville, Florida and has a passion for crafting blogs and short stories for everyone to enjoy.


Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/paper-business-finance-document-3213924/

Topics: ethics

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