The Specter Behind the Tweet – Ghost Writing, Authenticity, and Social Media

Halloween seems an appropriate time to talk about ghost-tweeting. I have been following a very lively discussion thread on one of my LinkedIn groups about the ethics of ghost-tweeting. In the world of social media, it’s all about authenticity. And with a microblogging forum like Twitter, should we expect the voice/tweeter on the other end of the social media discussion to be the person he or she says they are?

The concept of ghostwriters has been around for as long as man has been putting ideas down on paper, papyrus, or clay tablets. It has become accepted practice that when a celebrity or politician write his or her memoirs that, more likely than not, there is a ghost in the background, whether credited or not. It’s expected. But in the world of social media, the idea is to engage, not just post. I have seen a number of social media experts (myself included upon occasion) who forget the rules of social engagement in favor of posting social media spam – self-promotional content that may, or may not be of interest but is certainly not posted to stimulate discussion. Clearly, these posters are striving to tap the good will of the social media machine. And if they are busy executives or celebrities or politicians, they will probably outsource their tweets.

What makes the ghost-tweeting concept challenging is the authenticity question. As a number of my peers have noted, social media is all about engagement and being “real.” If you are engaging in a threaded conversation, you should be able to assume that the party on the other end of the post is whom he or she says they are. Whether you are Joe Schmoe or the CEO of Acme Inc., if you are engaging in a conversation, then you don’t need a ghost. If, however, you are providing a news or information thread and the data is flowing one-way, then it’s all about the brand and not about the conversation, but does that make ghost-tweeting acceptable?

The Twitter phenomenon has presented some new challenges for communications professionals. Some argue that we have been ghost-writing speeches, articles, and other content for clients for years, and social media is just another channel. Others argue that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, but their very nature, demand a more personal approach for the sake of authentic interaction, and ghosting social media is unacceptable. Still other are struggling with a hybrid approach, where the ghost is identified by some kind of tag or initials.

Some organizations seem to have figured out how to deal with Twitter with sincerity, and without compromising the spirit of engagement. Two examples offered from a colleague in the LinkedIn thread are @StateFarm and @TMobile. In both cases the identifier cites the twitter feed as that sanctioned by the brand, and the State Farm feed even goes so far as to identify the agency serving as the ghost in the machine. Full disclosure, but the posts all seem genuine and in the first person.

I seem to find myself talking to more and more clients who need help supporting their social media strategy. It’s usually not so much that they need help understanding the approach, but they lack the time, resources, and content to launch an effective social media campaign. As communications professionals, we are experts at creating content. How we deliver it, and with what voice and degree of authenticity seems to be the real challenge.

So how do you approach ghost-tweeting for your clients? Of course we know that not all Twitterers are authentic and there is someone at work behind the curtain. Just ask @Jesus, @SantaClaus, @HomerSimpson who ghosts for them on Twitter. But does that mean it’s okay to ghost for your client or company without proper disclosure? How do you exorcize the ghost in the social media machine?

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