Transcript: Ghosting Ethics

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Interview with Cheryl Snapp Conner

For podcast release Monday, June 23, 2014

KENNEALLY: Do you believe in ghosts? Many of the nation’s leading executives and entrepreneurs certainly do, as well as top athletes, Hollywood stars, and of course politicians. Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book.

If communication isn’t your strong suit, then you may believe in ghosts too. Ghostwriting, of course, is the widely accepted practice of writing a book, a blog or a commentary in someone else’s name. Over the years, many writers have lent their literary skills to celebrities and others in return for pay. But as the name suggests, ghosts are unseen and usually unsung, which raises a question – is the shadowy nature of ghostwriting an ethical snare for ghosts and hosts alike?

In a recent column, Cheryl Snapp Conner looked into the truth and consequences of ghostwriting. And she joins me now from her office in Salt Lake City, Utah. Cheryl, welcome to Beyond the Book.

SNAPP CONNER: Hi, Chris. Thanks for inviting me.

KENNEALLY: Well, I’m looking forward to chatting with you because your column really caught my eye. You asked the question, is ghostwriting ethical? And we’ll get into that in just a moment.

Tell our audience briefly that Cheryl Snapp Conner is the founder and managing partner of Utah-based Snapp Conner PR. She is a trustee of the Utah Technology Council and has been recognized as one of Utah’s 30 Women to Watch. Her columns appear on Entrepreneurs site, and she’s also a contributor to Yahoo Finance and OpenView Labs.

The history of ghostwriting is an interesting one. It’s got a bit of a pedigree. And I think the point that you open with in your column, Cheryl, is that many people – business leaders, athletes, all sorts of people – they may be terrific at what they do, but they can be poor speakers and poor communicators, and thus the need for ghostwriting arises.

SNAPP CONNER: That’s true. At a minimum, everybody, no matter how superb they are on their topic, could use a good editor.

KENNEALLY: I think that’s really a good point. Sadly, all the editors seem to have left their posts these days. There’s a lot of unedited material out there. But with ghostwriting, of course, the activity is an interesting job. It’s a job function that many a freelance writer is happy to take on because the pay can be good. Really, there should be no embarrassment associated with it, right? Ghostwriting itself is a perfectly ethical enterprise.

SNAPP CONNER: I think so. I think, if used appropriately, there are many, many good uses. And I think that we define the term ghostwriting broadly. I think where it’s excellent is where it’s more of a collaboration and not just a, I’m going to pay you some money. Make me look smart. Go ahead and go.

KENNEALLY: Right. I think the collaboration part is the key. Before we get into what that really means, and you’ve thought about it a lot, ghostwriting is a field that seems to be growing a lot. Because in our world of direct online communication, communication, I should say, is really an important part of what we all do. It’s not just left now to the politicians and to others. Just about everybody has a strong need to communicate, and it helps them be successful.

SNAPP CONNER: That’s the case. So there is a need for people to learn to communicate better, clearly, but there are also people who just – they need the additional help, and that’s where this comes into play.

KENNEALLY: Right. And so the professional that they work with – this collaboration that you’re talking about – it’s a way of working the thinking of the person into a form that will be interesting to readers. Talk about how that happens.

SNAPP CONNER: Well, I’ve been a professional writer for, let’s see, 20-some years. Many more years than I’d care to admit. I never considered anything wrong whatsoever with working with leading executives to put their ideas into the best words possible. I considered it an honor, in fact.

But it varies. It depends on the individual. Some are quite skilled, and they just need a little bit of polish. Others don’t quite know even how to organize the thoughts, but they’ve got something worth telling – a message worth telling. In that case, probably an interview – and I’m proud to say my father’s investment in my piano training paid off. I can keyboard notes very quickly.

KENNEALLY: That is important. You have to kind of keep up with them. Is that the place to start for ghostwriting? You talk about collaboration, but it’s really to extract from the individual that you’re going to be ghostwriting for what it is they want to say. Even if they don’t know how to say it, they do know what it is they want to say.

SNAPP CONNER: Generally. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’ll even need the assistance in figuring out what would make an interesting story. What is there about what I know that others would like to know, as well? What would be beneficial to them? So asking the questions like a reporter would could help net some of that out and help to provide that additional perspective. What would people want to hear?

KENNEALLY: Yeah, indeed. I think when people think about reading material that’s been ghostwritten, what you’re looking for is a way not to cheat the reader, right? You want to be sure that the words are their own. Even if they didn’t put them all in that particular order, it’s words and ideas that are their own. And that’s a real responsibility that anybody who’s publishing material has.

SNAPP CONNER: It is. In fact, in the early parts of my career, where I really made a name for myself was that I went further than even just the ideas being genuine to the individual, and I would pay attention to their unique delivery style. Some people will never split an infinitive. Others don’t care. Some use contractions. Some speak very formally. But keeping those unique grammatical fingerprints in place really adds to the genuine nature of that material, as well.

KENNEALLY: Right. And it becomes, I suppose, if it’s a very successful collaboration, a sort of a symbiotic relationship. You talk in your column about particular politicians – some presidents, of course – who’ve been very famous for using ghostwriters. A president, busy as he is, really does need help of that sort. But in the case, for example, of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Ted Sorensen, they might have been two individuals, but they were one as far as the mind that created those words. Even if Sorensen came up with the phrases, Jack Kennedy really owned them.

SNAPP CONNER: Well, and that is really an interesting case in point, because it’s so taken for granted that somebody in that kind of position would have to use writing help. The only unethical thing would be to not. It’s understood. Nobody thinks that the president wrote every one of those words himself or herself. That’s not a breach of ethics that they used a writer. But to then disavow the words – I said them but to say, as an excuse, no, my speechwriter wrote it, so I disavow ownership of that message – that would be a problem.

KENNEALLY: Right. Once it comes out of the president’s mouth or, for that matter, anybody’s, it really is their content, and they have to, as you say, own it. Now, you quote from some guidelines that the University of Oregon has established to help people sort of work their way through these ethical questions. There are several points there. I guess the first one is something we’ve addressed a bit, which is the communicator’s intent. Give us some more detail on that.

SNAPP CONNER: Well, the intent would be what is the message this person has to share, and how will it benefit others? Sometimes that person may be tempted to get up and promote themselves. I’ve had this happen. They’d like to spur an argument in the press, but they don’t want it to come from their own mouth, so they’d like you to say it on their behalf. The intent is important. So you really look at that. Why are you using the ghostwriter? Is it to communicate more clearly, or is it to deceive people? If deception is the objective, you’ve got a bad plan. Maybe rethink it. But if it’s to communicate more clearly something that people genuinely want to know about, now you’ve got a good plan of action.

KENNEALLY: Right. It’s not just, you know, perhaps starting an argument, but to kind of give yourself, if you’re the one saying the words – to give yourself attributes and virtues that maybe you don’t really have. There’s what you call the ethical question about the degree of the stretch here. What do you mean by that – the stretch?

SNAPP CONNER: Well, it’s great for every spokesperson to walk out in their best pair of shoes. It has to genuinely be the person, but there’s nothing wrong with being your best possible self. That’s a good thing. But if you are portraying something that really in actuality doesn’t exist through this ghostwriter, or you’re reaching for attributes – you know, a person is not well spoken, but they sound like a great orator. Now you’ve crossed the line into phoniness, and it’s not going to be as transparent, certainly, and it’s probably not going to go over as well.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. I suppose one of the guidelines, too, talks about the active participation of the communicator and the collaborator. If they really are being honest with each other, pretty much everything else falls into line. Because as a ghostwriter, I’m not going to suggest that you sound like a Roman orator. You’re to sound like a public relations professional from the West.

SNAPP CONNER: That’s very true. There are schools of thought. Back in the day, I can recall a famous editor I worked with saying, you know, perhaps every person has one good column in them in their life. That’s it. That if they really, really met exacting criteria, that’s probably all they have in them that’s worth hearing by others.

Now we have a situation where we’ve got many CEOs who have committed to a schedule, and now it’s I need something every week. Maybe they started out with a good process and a good intent. But busyness got the better of them, and now they’re just turning to that writer and saying, you know my voice, go.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. I think that what we’re talking about here is creating a content beast and then needing to feed it.


KENNEALLY: That is something which is very much a dilemma for so many of us in the 21st century, including this program. Every week, we have to have a new podcast, and so we’re always looking for guests like yourself. I suppose that for the kinds of blogs you’re talking about – CEO blogs and others – it really is unrealistic to think that they would be able to come up with every post themselves. But they probably suggest things. I imagine they meet with their collaborators on a regular basis so that they provide direction and a kind of a polish to whatever is offered.

SNAPP CONNER: Well, and that’s the key. The collaboration is vital. It’s even fine if the ghostwriter or collaborator comes up with some of the ideas. They’ve been discussed together, and they’re co-owned and they’re developed and matured together. That’s a good thing. It’s just when it’s, oh, I don’t even have time to think about this. I did have a prospective client come to me once, back in the day, who just said I’m willing to pay you this money. I need to be a syndicated columnist. Now go. Didn’t even care what it was about, but wanted me to create a fictitious persona for him, be that person, receive some money, and make him famous in the process. That will never work.

KENNEALLY: And you had to give a bit of pushback. always difficult if you’re in business for yourself. But you had to say, well, that’s not going to work for you or for me.

SNAPP CONNER: No, that’s something to turn down immediately. But if somebody has some ideas, they have an opportunity, or they want to create an opportunity to share those and to do it better than they can by themselves, now you’re talking. That’s a good arrangement.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. Finally, we’ve been chatting today with Cheryl Snapp Conner, who has asked the question – how ethical is ghostwriting? Beyond the ethics of it all, what is really of importance to everyone today is that we live in the age of social media, and your point there is that the truth is compulsory.

SNAPP CONNER: Yes, it is. Don’t think that you’re going to get away with anything. If you do for a while, you won’t forever. It’s just better. That’s the biggest PR secret I tell clients right and left is don’t do things that are going to embarrass you. Don’t do things that you don’t want found out, because it’ll backfire on you eventually. Life becomes much, much easier, and your PR a much cleaner process, as well, when you’re just transparent to begin with.

KENNEALLY: Right. Indeed, probably one of the things that might be difficult for someone in that position, apart from making sure that whatever they say is honest and true to their work and themselves – they also need to give credit. So if they do have a ghostwriter, maybe the veil parts just enough to give credit there too.

SNAPP CONNER: Where appropriate. The ghostwriter or the collaborator doesn’t need a co-byline in every case, and in many cases it’s better not, but so that there’s not deliberate deception involved.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. We appreciate your truth and transparency with us today. We’ve been chatting with Cheryl Snapp Conner, who has just talked us through an article she wrote for, which is on is ghostwriting ethical? Cheryl, thanks so much for joining us today on Beyond the Book.

SNAPP CONNER: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed it.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs as well as images, movies and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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