Will an ethical lapse haunt the ghostwriting profession?

A recent case of plagiarism has put practitioners in an awkward position. Over time, diligent adherence to attribution and other responsible behaviors can and should erase that blot.

The mayor of Augusta, Georgia, recently came under fire for an opinion piece that carried his byline—a 700-word column about the value of retreats that was published in the Sept.13 edition of the Augusta Chronicle.

Some 300 words of that column, nearly half the piece, were borrowed without attribution from a blog post authored in 2013 by a Seattle-based organization development consultant.

In a press conference, the mayor accepted full responsibility but was also very clear about how this blatant act of plagiarism was committed on his watch and under his signature: The column was largely penned by outside contributors or, in his words, “multiple minds and voices.”

Augusta Chronicle staff opined in a Sept. 23 editorial that the situation was “deeply disappointing” and advised the mayor to discontinue using hired guns to produce his messages. After an open records request for city documents related to the column failed to illuminate the issue further, Chronicle staff published a second editorial and fired this shot over the bow: “The mayor’s vague explanations and the dead-end e-mail trail strain credulity.”

While the precise source of the plagiarism remains in question, the heavy load of public leadership is clear. A mayor—really any politician, CEO or highly placed leader—has too many responsibilities to devote the time and creative energy required to craft his or her own messages. That’s where we—the ghosts—come in.

Ghostwriters have a long and distinguished history. Any speechwriter worth her weight in words recognizes the contributions made to public oratory by Reagan’s Peggy Noonan and Kennedy’s Ted Sorenson.

If you’re a real student of our trade, you’ll also recognize the name Judson Welliver, a literary clerk who carried the official responsibility of composing speeches for President Warren Harding-whose writing was described by satirist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken as reminiscent of “stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.”

Not all leaders are lyricists. They are visionaries. They are hard driving managers. They are change agents. They are technology wizards. Sometimes, though, they need folks like us, corporate Cyrano de Bergeracs, to whisper in their ears, to turn their ideas into compelling messages that inform, inspire and motivate audiences.

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As ghostwriters, we craft messages that brand our executives. We help our leaders shine.

We also have an obligation to protect them—by not using unattributed content, by not conducting sloppy research, by not slipping in savory quotes from unsavory characters.

I was working with my university’s advancement team on an event honoring a large donor to a facility project. We all adored these words by Albert Pike: “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”

A little digging revealed that Pike was anti-Catholic, an advocate for slavery and associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Not exactly the kid of guy you’d want quoted by your chief executive officer.

Our industry has spent far too much time jousting over the ethics of ghostwriting—splitting the fine hairs of attribution and accountability, revisiting the question of whether it is acceptable (honorable or just plain OK) for a leader to represent words written by a willing collaborator as his or her own.

Instead we should be talking about the ethics of ghostwriters—our obligation to protect our clients by dispatching our duties with integrity.

The “minds and voices” who ghostwrote the column for Augusta’s mayor failed him. They also failed our profession.

Deb Barshafsky is a career communicator who has ghostwritten for five university presidents. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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