Content Marketing Lessons From Rand Paul’s Plagiarism Fiasco

Over the past few weeks, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has come under fire for plagiarism. First Buzzfeed reported that three pages of his 2012 book, “Government Bullies,” were lifted directly from a Heritage Foundation study without attribution, while another section of the book was ripped from a Forbes article. And now The Washington Times has shut down Paul’s column for rampant plagiarism.

“In the thousands of speeches and op-eds Sen. Paul has produced, he has always presented his own ideas, opinions and conclusions. Sen. Paul also relies on a large number of staff and advisers to provide supporting facts and anecdotes – some of which were not clearly sourced or vetted properly,” said Doug Stafford, a senior adviser to Paul, in a statement Tuesday. “Footnotes presenting supporting facts were not always used.”

Translation: Blame the ghostwriters, not me.

Cases like this aren’t limited to Senator Paul — Time political columnist Fareed Zakaria got himself in similarly hot water last year — and ghostwriting isn’t limited to politics, either; it’s common in the B2B content marketing world as well. If you think that every byline you read by a major executive and “thought leader” in an industry pub was actually penned by that exec … well, then I have a Blockbuster store to sell you.

Bylines in industry pubs can be B2B content marketing gold. They can get a company’s name out there and present you to a large, engaged audience for a fraction of the cost of advertising. Many companies—especially in startup land—are led by dynamic personalities that are much more interesting and engaging than the brand itself. And when you’re looking to acquire new clients, those personalities are a huge selling point.

But inevitably, like politicians, executives find themselves high on ideas but low on time to sit down and write. When facing daunting workloads, crafting brilliant, fully formulated articles is one of the first things that gets put on the back burner.

The obvious solution: commissioning a talented ghostwriter from your staff or the freelance world. The potential rewards greatly outweigh the costs, and I’ve seen this tactic deliver a return on investment of 10 times or more. Even if you find ghostwriting ethically dubious, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t work.

Rand Paul’s situation serves as a reminder, though, that using a ghostwriter also comes with increased risk. It’s one thing for a freelancer or staff member to plagiarize in a post on behalf of your brand; it’s an entirely different (and more damaging) thing for a ghostwriter to plagiarize on behalf of the boss in charge. As Senator Paul is realizing right now, that’s like dropping a giant bomb on your brand.

Luckily, there are ways to safeguard against that. The obvious first step is only working with vetted, experienced writers that you trust. The second step is creating clear rules and expectations for your ghostwriters around sourcing and citation. And the third step is using a reliable plagiarism detection software, such as iThenticate, to double check everything that you publish for plagiarism. These are steps you should be taking with all of your brand content, but as Paul’s fiasco has reminded us, it’s especially important with ghostwriting.

What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? It’s something we created at Contently because we believe in a world where marketing is helpful, and businesses grow by telling stories that people love. Take advantage of our tools and talent and come build that world with us.

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