Ghost writing for the fearless

I’d just like to share my practice for ghost writing for senior managers; and confess some of my sins.

Unlike many a celebrity ‘author’, your boss or CEO probably can write well, but that doesn’t mean they always have to type up every intranet article or mass mail.

puppetA good communications person will have some kind of professional relationship with senior management. It’s not a sign of management weakness to benefit from comms coaching before a CEO takes the podium, writes a speech or appears on TV. The internal communications team should be able to tell the management what the back-channels are humming with, and what employees are concerned about – providing insight to management.

Knowing what’s going on around the organisation (business and culture wise), it’s logical that at times the Internal Comms team will have direct input to articles from the CEO and senior managers.

When a manager gives a major presentation, it’s common for the slideshow to have been designed by MarComms, and the accompanying speech may have been checked by HR, Finance, Legal and other depts for accuracy and appropriateness.

Yet, there’s some umbrage taken when people discover that a personal opinion, expression or whole article was penned by a communications person, rather than the senior manager who signed it off. It’s understandable.

It’s all about authenticity.

I’ve worked with some CEOs in my time; as a younger comms person I would shut up and freeze when the CEO dropped in to talk to my manager. In another company, the CEO would put his hands on my shoulder and look at everything I was working on and ask me what’s what. Having worked as a shop assistant and in a call centre in my youth, nowadays I can’t imagine not working with a CEO in some capacity. Communications is in my blood, and it’s all about business direction and employee needs – and that has to be important to the CEO. I have even worked at a company where the head of Internal Comms was on the Board of Directors. These things don’t always happen.

Most companies I’ve worked in have had a regular ‘CEO’s thoughts’ type article series on the intranet. It’s one way to get to know the senior managers in a large company (along with ‘all hands calls’ and ‘town halls’). As an internal communicator, I’ve had the privilege (and responsibility) of learning about things earlier than other departments. That might sound fun, but it includes learning about the bad things that will happen next month. You know what I mean. As the editor of everything that gets on the home page of the intranet, I’ve had the responsibility to have to point out factual errors and poor writing to people who believe they have a perfect command of language and the business. I’ve learnt from brilliant managers how to approach people who I don’t know all that well with concerns.

In time, a good comms person can be relied upon to improve the perception staff have of a leader in regards to their acumen and focus. Managers who want to control everything and do everything themselves tend to be seen as hoarders and power-centred. Even while they strive to do everything perfectly, their lack of awareness damages their work, and relationships.

I don’t remember the first time I was ‘tasked’ with writing a whole article for a CEO, but I do remember how pleased and nervous I was. What I didn’t feel is any sense of betrayal towards employees. I commonly passed on criticisms and concerns from people who wanted to be anonymous to my managers, and so I’m sure I’ve always been sensitive to people’s needs. But I didn’t have qualms about writing on behalf of my CEO, and here’s why.

Whoever I wrote for back then, they often tore my first draft to shreds. Over time, as I got to know a manager’s business focus and ‘voice’, my drafts got closer and closer to what they would say represented their thoughts.

Without knowing the rules of ghost writing, I had naturally discovered the recipe. It’s all about authenticity.

My boss had this phrase she’d use with senior managers. She’d tell them to ‘verbally download’ their thoughts to me, and I’d go from there. I took the verbal download very seriously. I listened and made bullet points; scribbled down any phrases that struck me as personal to them; and concentrated (as only a comms person can) on the purpose of the message. What would the reader do once they’d read the article? What was the point?

organ-grinderAs I grew in confidence (mine and others’) there were times when I suggested ‘thought leadership’ pieces to senior managers, and wrote draft ideas for their expansion and input. Collaborative writing was the modus; it was my job to make the best use of the manager’s time, and spend mine on making a good article out of whatever skeleton we began with.

Often, the manager and I would speak about what needed to be said in any leadership piece or company wide change explanation. My role was to pre-empt the questions staff might have, and to make sure the article inspired the desired action, rather than being the cause of confusion or further concern.

Sometimes it would mostly be an editing job; shortening rambling sentences, adding facts and figures, naming specific projects, honing the message so that it would land with audiences in an expected manner.

My biggest regret is that I’ve worked in / with HR departments whose proclamations were sacred, and I didn’t manage to help. Their self-serving edicts were committee written, reviewed dozens of times until every fibre of humanity was removed, and then ‘approved’ (glanced at) by a senior manager. It was my job to ‘send out’ the completed comms. It actually hurt me to publish material that had grammatical convolutions that would worry a poet, and wheedle-word laden passive sentences, designed to soften blows through obfuscation. Such horrendous pieces would cause more feedback from people, not because the topic was uncomfortable, but because of the confusion sown by the article itself. My boss counselled me that I couldn’t fix the world, but I’m not so sure. Having so many highly qualified and empathetic HR friends now means that I understand that not all HR departments are like that, and I do celebrate when HR, employee comms and internal comms can align for the good of colleagues and company.

One of my most perspicacious realisations with regard to ghost writing was that style and substance can be separated for the purpose of approval.

By this I mean that a senior manager (and the legal, HR, information security, etc. depts.) can review and approve the purpose of a communique, while leaving the tone, voice and actual sentence crafting to the comms team.

edit-pageI have a confession. I did one naughty thing, and one obvious ’employee centred’ thing. Obviously, however a senior manager wanted their article to be, I  crafted it so that it mattered to the reader. This is perhaps merely an editor’s skill, and I hope it’s obvious to you. The slightly naughty thing I did was to make sure that I added topics that I knew people were talking about, so that the manager was seen to be aware of things. After reading my draft the manager certainly was! The very naughty thing I did was to ensure that the obligatory portrait that accompanied the article had sparkly eyes! I did this by increasing the brightness and contrast of just the eyes. Is this treason? Will I never work in comms again?

There is controversy around ghost writing, and you can readily find other opinions online. I’ve just shared my experience and tips for getting the job done. I exhort any writer to be authentic, or else you’ll lose credibility in the eyes of staff and some people might consider you a mere puppet. And I mean you, the writer, and you, the CEO. ‘Fool me once…’ as the saying goes.

As a sometime ghost writer, I don’t want to fool anyone. I want to provide my skills and insight for the benefit of company, manager and audience. I write and edit communications; I don’t ‘write for’ a CEO, I support senior managers; that’s all.

[ Wedge ]

Photo credits: Scott Beale, wisdomeur, theCreativePenn

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  1. Nice piece Wedge, I agree with you completely. I think staff are quite switched on to the ghost writing issue and appreciate that it is not always the best use of a busy CEOs time to be drafting certain communications. Ultimately they will know that the review process is a far more efficient use of their CEOs time and also the opportunity for them to put their own stamp on company messaging. Have you ever met a CEO who would be content to put his/her name to a communication they didn’t wholly endorse? My beef with ghost writing is not CEOs using comms teams to help with corporate communications.

    I dislike ghost writing on seemingly personal blogs and twitter accounts where the relationship between reader and writer is not enshrined in a corporate hierarchy but is purely voluntary. Ggrrrrrr!

  2. Great post and agree with your perspective on feeling comfortable ghost-writing for /supporting leaders. I’ve worked with a CEO who in the beginning was writing all his own comms (my role was newly-created) and it scares me how many hours he was spending before I joined trying to pull together his thoughts in writing. I use the ‘verbal download’ method too and this really helps with the authenticity.
    Agree with Jon though, there is something different about ghost-writing blogs, they are just that but more personal. Worse still is ‘ghost-yammering’ for a leader…..not good!

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