Ryan Smith has ignited a debate in newsrooms and marketing agencies across America, in the wake of exposing his (now former) employer, Journatic. Stressed-out newspapers have hired Journatic (and companies like it) to “mechanical turk” many of the articles that once formed the backbone of print dailies: real estate transaction summaries, obituaries, even local sports updates.
Journatic hired freelance writers in the Philippines to crank out the raw copy, then paid copy editors like Smith about $10 per hour to massage the text into something more readable for American audiences. Trying to hop on the hyperlocal bandwagon without the desire to pay for boots on the ground, Journatic’s clients ran those articles under fake bylines. Knowing that a name like Gisele Bautista might call attention to the outsourcing, Journatic pushed her copy to client newspapers under the names Ginny Cox or Glenda Smith.
Attention from the New York Times and National Public Radio followed, calling into question the practice of running articles under false names.
Pen names have purpose, when used properly.
Pseudonyms and pen names matter when an author has a material need to detach their writing from the context of his or her identity. Take the case of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril. The couple had already established themselves as respected members of Sweden’s literary community. Writing something so tawdry as a crime novel would cause them plenty of grief among their peers.
But, the couple wanted a fun side project. That’s why they invented a voice named Lars Kepler to tell stories like The Hypnotist and The Nightmare. Their secret’s out, thanks to some determined journalists. But it sounds like they’ll accept global acclaim as a consolation prize for having their identities revealed.
Robert X. Cringely and Penelope Trunk both inherited their pen names as writers for opinion columns already branded by their publications. In both cases, editors maintained that the “brand voice” of their columns and the sensitive topics required a degree of anonymity, and disclosed such to their readers. That is, until both writers became rather notorious and ended up taking their names with them.
Pen names cause damage when authors or companies abuse the trust of their audiences — which leads to extensive reputation management campaigns. It’s fair to disclose when an author writes under a pseudonym to avoid professional or personal conflict. It’s a cynical move (and a public relations risk) to ask your audience to accept that a sole researcher named Glenda pores through all of a city’s police blotters and real estate transactions.
When to outsource your company communication…
The bigger question here is one of outsourcing business blogging. I’ve been called in to rescue too many projects that clients wanted to run cheaply, thinking that paying fractions of a penny per word will give them enough filler to launch a coherent website. Google’s been spanking poorly-written websites lately, even though readers have been doing that for years.
I have worked with a few Manila-based writers on projects like those, and only ever found one that had the chops to build copy that matched the tone and style of an American publication. While I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to write for a living, the effort to bring “imported” copy up to par almost always exceeded the expense to just source it from a local writer. What hurts is when organizations that supposedly exist to disseminate facts hide behind the fiction of pretending that “Ginny” has ever set foot in Chicago City Hall.
Marketing departments and entrepreneurs may not have the same set of journalistic ethics to uphold, but their audiences expect the same level of transparency. Outsourcing your commercial copywriting makes sense when you’re too busy to blog or when online writing doesn’t naturally fall into your skill set. You’ve got two choices: hire a ghost blogger who can match your brand voice, or bring in a “ringer” who can speak effectively to your audience. In both cases, you’re attributing the words to a real person who’s accountable for what’s being said and for what happens next.
How good ghost writers uphold your company’s ethics…
A strong ghost writer takes the time to understand how their client speaks, matching the tone and style of their text to fit the context. When I take on a ghost writing project for clients here in Philadelphia, I usually spend a few hours getting to know my customer and their business. It’s up to my client to read and absorb what I’ve written on their behalf, especially if they’re going to answer questions about it later. There’s nothing dishonest about that relationship as long as everything’s rooted in facts. The client has things to say, and not the ability (or time) to write them.
For other projects, I’ve joined teams as an outsourced “stringer,” someone who’s an independent contractor, but participates in staff meetings, conference calls, or even client briefings. When that happens, and my byline runs on a client’s website or in their publication, it’s up to me to know my stuff. I’ve got to represent that brand even better than my own. It’s also why I’m picky about the clients I help. If I’m not proud enough of our association to write under my own name, we’re probably not a good fit.
Pseudonyms are fair game for crime novels and opinion columns, but not for your company communications. If you tell your customers that someone named Scarlett Simpson writes your blog and answers customer email, someone named Scarlett Simpson had better be a real person that picks up the phone and lets journalists take her picture. If we can’t believe you’ve got real employees, how can we believe you’ll uphold your brand’s other promises?
Let’s talk about how you want your company to uphold its promises by improving the quality of your online presence. Contact our team of marketing consultants today to find out how to get added to our client roster.
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