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Why Anonymizing Past Staff Content Does More Harm Than Good
Written by Chris Fullman • Published on January 9, 2019
It’s more common than you might think: when a staff member leaves an organization, a decision is often made to anonymize the member’s past contributions from the organization’s website. It’s unceremoniously done by either renaming their author account or, after deleting the account, reassigning that content to a generic company “Acme Co.” or “Staff” author byline.
At the time for the decision makers, it might make sense to them. However, the potential damage an organization risks in doing so can very well be self-inflicted.
As part of my almost 20 years in the advertising and marketing industry, I’ve been asked to anonymize past-staff contributions for many companies, usually during a website rebuild or overhaul or when importing content from another organization-owned source. I always grit my teeth and recommend another way. It feels dirty, even if it’s not dishonest or by definition unethical.
It should go without saying that content written and published by an organization’s staff (or interns or volunteers) for that organization—in most cases—is generally understood as “owned” by that organization under work for hire. (Unless, of course, that individual worked in a clever licensing clause in their contract.)
First, let’s talk about trust.
By removing a qualified, human voice from online content and replacing it with a generic author byline, that very action is contributing to reasons why a reader might not fully trust an organization as an authority. Worse, it may be contributing to the reader—or potential client’s— distrust.
As a reader, I ask myself a few questions when I encounter a generic author byline:
Is this content even written by someone who was even at the organization now or in the past?
Is the story real at all or it plagiarized from someone or another company?
Is it written up in a content farm by people who vaguely have informed knowledge about a topic and sold to multiple customers just to increase rank in search results or clicks on social media?
Worse, is it… fake news?
In the sudden groundswell of actual “fake news” in the 2016 United States presidential campaign, experts in and out of the media gave common-sense clues to look out for that an article may indeed be fake: look for an author, follow that author, and see if they seem trustworthy.
In the above image, we see two headlines and author bylines. With a real name, a reader can quickly look up their background by searching, finding them on Linked In, or the company site itself through a bio or staff page—in most cases, they’ll provide these links for the reader. On the other, “Staff Author” is anonymous and there’s no indication of who wrote the story and what experience and work history they have to back up their recommendations.
Would you more readily trust a real name or a generic byline, even if it’s from a company with a positive reputation?
Now, there are several legitimate reasons for removing content altogether when a former staff member is no longer on the books; legal disputes, including plagiarism, inappropriate or illegal content, recalled ad campaign work, outdated information, and/or licensing issues all can have a part in dutifully taking content offline.
Trust aside, it’s also about workplace culture.
When an organization asks its staff to contribute content to its blog, newsletters, social media, and more, it’s asking and expecting its staff to take pride in their work. In turn, they’ll share their authored content to their social circles outside an organization, and hopefully receive some positive attention from the content.
What message does it send your staff that, when they leave, the content they were asked (or in some cases, demanded) to contribute is anonymized? The links they might have posted on their Linked In profile, or in emails, or on their own social media accounts might now point to content that doesn’t say their name.
We here at Antimatter Co. didn’t take a lot of time to write blog posts in the first four years of our agency. (We’re usually busy helping our client partners get set up and encouraging them to write content for themselves.) But when those on our team left Antimatter, I never considered anonymizing their past contributions. In fact, I wanted to preserve their bios—responsibly adding in the context that they are no longer with the company—and links to their social media, including their Linked In profile.
So far, I haven’t been asked by our past staff to take the content down or take their name off their contributions, and I hope that won’t change in the future.
About Chris Fullman
Chris Fullman is the Founder and Technology Director of Antimatter Co. He is a veteran of the web industry with over 18 years of agency experience―notably with TEN (formerly AgencyNet) in South Florida, and The Martin Agency in Richmond, VA―under his belt.
Chris is a graduate from Leadership Metro Richmond's Leadership Quest's Class of 2019 and a current member on the Board of Directors for Girls For A Change. He aims to take his experience and find ways to better serve nonprofits, advocacy groups, local governments, and community organizations.
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