Invisible hackers. The role of the ghost writer in PR.

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By Anne Nicholls

One of the tasks often assigned to PR professionals is writing opinion pieces. That might seem like a straightforward job if you’ve got a grouse or passion you want to shout about. But if you’re writing on behalf of another person it requires a particular set of skills.

Known as ghost writing, this practice is commonplace in the celebrity world (were Katie Price’s 20 or so books penned totally by herself?), but also within businesses, charities, the public sector and the Westminster bubble. How many politicians, Boris Johnson excepted, do you think have the time to knock out provocative prose for the press between back-to-back voting in the Commons, constituency surgeries and coping with abuse on social media?  Very few. We are well aware that the people pulling the strings behind the scenes  – or rather hitting the keyboards  – are an army of special advisers, heads of communications, PR managers, press officers and policy advisers.  Within the education world you may find some chief executives, academics, vice chancellors, college principals, school heads and teaching staff who write their own articles. Whilst some may have the skills to rattle off a sparkling piece of prose, most will need someone to write the piece for them, or at the very least some guidance.

The first challenge for the ghost writer is ethical. It may seem dishonest for someone to put their name to a piece that has been written by someone else, but this is acceptable professional practice. For journalists who have recently moved into PR roles who are used to seeing their own by-line this requires an element of pride swallowing. However, it is part of the job.

The second challenge is how to adopt the writing style and persona of someone else whilst creating text that is accessible and engaging. Whilst there are some superb writers in the education sector, I have come across a number who seem unable to produce anything remotely readable to a lay audience. Some struggle turning abstract ideas into human interest stories. Others assume that readers will understand terms like “constructivism” and “discourse analysis”. But most just need help writing clearly and concisely. I worked with one CEO who wrote agonisingly long sentences containing numerous sub clauses and dangling participles, so that the main point of the article was lost in a morass of verbiage.  Another CEO insisted on using language such as “second to none”, “innovative” and “exciting”, guaranteed to make any journalist cringe.

Here are some tips you may find useful when ghost writing – all based on my own experience.

Decide on what you want to say and be bold. You (the person who are writing for) need a clear message. It’s no good writing an opinion piece unless you have a strong point to get across. Some academics are nervous about coming off the fence, needing to qualify everything they say with phrases such as “on the other hand”. Others  – such as  CEOs, principals and school heads - are afraid of ruffling feathers by being too bold. The result is text that is so bland that it will get rejected by editors.

Know your audience and your media. You must have a clear vision of who you are writing for. The language appropriate to teachers may be quite different from the approach needed for a more generalist audience. There is also a difference between writing an opinion piece for a specialist outlet such as the Times Higher and The Times.  Find out what buzz words your audience uses, what level of jargon is acceptable and what issues they care about. Then find out what kind of comment pieces get featured in your target publication.

Have a story to tell. Writing about education issues can bore people to death unless there is a human interest angle. A great way to lead into a comment piece is to start with a story. For example, if you are writing about the cuts to adult education why not start with an example about someone who left school with no qualifications, went to college as an adult and now has a glittering career. The story then leads into the main thrust of your argument.

Provide evidence. You need hard facts as well as touching human interest stories. If your  organisation doesn’t have their own stats, scour the internet for recent research. For instance, if you are writing a piece on the impact of Brexit on university recruitment there is plenty of data available. Use it.

Decide on a process. Should you write a draft first and then get the person whose by-line you are using to add some flesh to the bones? Or should you ask them to talk through some ideas you can work on?  Or maybe they would prefer to write something in rough for you to translate into elegant prose. Establish a way of working from the start.

Get inside the head of another person. Spend time with them. Record your conversations. Listen to the language they use and incorporate some pet phrases. Try to write as they speak. If they have personal experiences that you can weave into an article, all the better.

Learn how to deal with intractability. Some people can be very precious about language and refuse to make changes. The result is often an article that is unusable. You need to tell them that. Be diplomatic but firm. Remember that you are the communications expert. If all else fails you could submit the piece but ask the editor what changes need to be made.   Their view may carry more weight.

Finally, be aware that some editors won’t take a comment piece by-lined by a press officer, PR manager or head of communications. What they want is the name of the CEO, academic or other senior figure in the organisation, even if they know that they didn’t actually write the piece.

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