At the first World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association in May, the notion surfaced of a "speechwriter's code of ethics." The notion struck me as both intellectually intriguing, and a promising concept for an article in The Onion.
I was put in mind of the idea yesterday, when I read writer Amy Westervelt's public vow to stop writing "content" for companies, in part because "I’m tired of making rich, white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are. Yeah, I said it."
Westervelt decries the "usual 'let them eat cake' attitude corporate types have toward creative types in general ('I know! Why don’t we hire a journalist to write this think-piece? They’re all desperate for cash, they’d be happy to take this on for way less than we pay anyone else.')"
It’s not that I don’t see the value in executives writing about their perspectives and their work. I’ve worked with plenty of really smart CEOs (that’s why I took these gigs in the first place), and their take on things is interesting and well worth a read, especially in business publications. I’d just prefer to see them writing more of it themselves (okay maybe with some help—let’s face it, not everyone can string sentences together convincingly), and sticking to their own areas of expertise. I’d also like to see less space being given to these stories than to unbiased, reported work. These pieces should flow naturally as an outgrowth of a person’s experience and expertise, they should not be a whole additional job for either the executive or, as is the case now, the person they hire to impersonate them. The trouble really begins when marketing departments and PR firms push CEOS for a blog post a week—that’s something no CEO worth his or her corner office has time for, nor should they—and when they get sucked into thinking they need to philosophize on topics well outside their purview.
I don't disagree with a word she says. She's right. As a writer and just as a citizen, it's bad to live in a media marketplace where underpaid (and under-experienced) writers are inventing brilliant messages for CEOs in compliance with a command that a speechwriter once called, "Write down my ideas as if I had them."
But the thing is, we don't live in such a world. Yet. (Do we?) In the world I live in, anyway, CEOs are reluctant pundits who don't hire starving journalists to write their speeches, op/eds and blog posts, but who use speechwriters to do so. When CEOs give the speechwriters access to their calendars and to their minds, they wind up looking as interesting in public as they are in person, and slightly more polished. When they shut their speechwriter out, they wind up spouting platitudes that no one listens to.
What they definitely don't do is mouth compelling or influential ideas conceived by writers out of whole cloth.
Writing for executives is often a pain in the ass that people put up with because it pays. So I understand Westervelt's decision to "never again pen a 'thought leadership' piece or a corporate blog post. I refuse to have even one more conversation in which I explain to a publicist or CEO why I will not connect them with editors I know, or why it would be impossible for their 'contributed content' to appear in The New Yorker. I can’t take it anymore."
Good for Westervelt.
But just because CEOs are often dumb about media and thoughtless about communication … well, that doesn't mean they don't deserve communication counsel. It means they deserve better, and more assertive counsel. That will come not from journalists taking a content gig to make a buck, but from people—among them ex-journalists—who have given themselves over more fully to the task of making good leadership communication.
"Maybe if we all jump off the 'content' bandwagon," Westervelt concludes a bit pollyannaishly, "maybe CEOs and their publicists will stop worrying about establishing themselves as thought leaders in the media, and actually be thought leaders. You know, in their actual industries, writing one or two really thoughtful, great pieces per year."
Well, that would be great. But it's probably not going to happen. And if it does, it won't be because one or many struggling journalists stopped ghostwriting for CEOs, though I generally agree that they should do so.
No, an improvement in leadership communication will happen when a few serious speechwriters begin having honest conversations with their CEOs, about sustainable thought leadership. More on this concept later. But meanwhile, thanks to Amy Westervelt for a thoughtful post about a personal decision. May her byline proliferate.