Ghost writers have existed for a long time and often go unrecognized for their works, which carry someone else’s byline. But passing off a ghost writer’s work as your own doesn’t equate to thought leadership.
Yes, chief executives are busy and don’t have time or the expertise to write every speech they are required to give. Drawing on staff resources to organize material and even craft the language is perfectly legitimate. But it isn’t thought leadership.
Sometimes a leader has an idea for a book and seeks help to write it. John F. Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, even though Ted Sorenson many years later confessed that he “did a first draft of most chapters” and “helped choose the words of many of its sentences.” Kennedy accepted credit for the book, but paid Sorenson for his work. Great idea for a book, but the actual book may not represent thought leadership by the book’s “author.”
Perhaps one of the most famous ghost writers in American history is James Madison. Often dismissed as Little Jimmy to the vaulting Thomas Jefferson, it is widely known Madison “helped” George Washington write his inaugural addresses and shape some of the formative traditions of a new nation. Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton, also wrote under pen names most of the Federalist Papers defending the new Constitution, which they helped write. Through history, the ghost written words of Madison and Hamilton have exerted enormous thought leadership.
The point is that ghost writing – and its offshoot, ghost blogging – is not intrinsically bad or deceptive. It is necessary. But not being bad or deceptive and being necessary doesn’t make ghost-written work thought leadership.
“You cannot be a thought leader,” writes Gini Dietrich, leader blogger for SpinSucks, “if the thoughts are not your own.”
Speeches and blogs have other purposes aside from thought leadership. They can share information or tell inspiring stories. Thought leadership is demonstrating special knowledge, unique insight or keen talent. Thought leaders don’t shout; they attract people to them by the power of their ideas and the elegance of their expression.
You can have the potential to be a thought leader without knowing it – or appreciating the value of being viewed as a thought later. This is where staff and even ghost writers have a role. They can assess an executive’s ideas from informal conversations, interviews and presentations and identify “thoughts” that could be molded into thought leadership.
Since thought leadership isn’t synonymous with great communications skills, ghost writers can help executives organize their thoughts and energize them with prose and visuals. They also can suggest staging and channels to promote thought leadership. You might call this assistance with packaging. But it still would be thought leadership if at its core were the insights of the executive who is portrayed as the thought leader.
Another litmus test for thought leadership, according to Dietrich, who is the founder of a Chicago-based digital marketing firm, is whether the thought leader engages with the audience he or she attracts.
‘One thing shouldn’t be outsourced is having someone else respond to readers,” she says, “If the piece is produced by a named human being he or she alone should answer comments, engage in discussion and spend time on the social networks where those readers hang out.”
The bottom line is that using ghost writers to generate content is perfectly fine. Just don’t pass it off as thought leadership. That’s something you have to do largely by yourself.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.