my boss has delusions of grandeur about our website — do I have to burst his bubble?

A reader writes:

I work as a personal assistant to a retired broadcast journalist who made the transition from analog to digital but hasn’t been able to make the leap to the internet. Much of my time is spent teaching/explaining basic tech things such as how to bookmark internet pages or why Facebook pages are different than regular web pages.

My stated primary role is helping him run a news website, which in reality is him sending me articles he likes and me posting them to his blog and social media accounts; no commentary or original writing just a news aggregation site. He seems to think this site will one day be a major news site and spends a great deal of his day, and my time, talking about the future impact of this site. Our site is a WordPress blog that gets no traffic, and the only people that follow his social media accounts are his children and grandchildren. On top of that, he changes the name and intended audience of his site every other week.

My question is, am I under any obligation to try and explain to him that this site isn’t going anywhere?

I provide him with metrics from the Facebook and the blog, I make sure what he wants posted gets posted, and I do my best to make the blog and Facebook pages look professional but I’m left with a bad feeling that he’s paying me to essentially shout into the void. I’m living at home while going to school and this is a good part-time job that pays well and works with my schedule.

Yeah, I think you have some ethical obligation to try to explain it to him if he’s pouring time and money into it, since you’re seeing evidence that he doesn’t understand the landscape he’s dealing with.

That doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to successfully convince him, or to quit if you can’t.

But I do think you owe him at least one serious attempt to say something like, “I really enjoy doing this work and may be shooting myself in the foot by saying this, but I want to flag for you that based on the metrics we’ve seen so far, there aren’t any indicators that the site is attracting readership. To attract an audience, I think you’d need a more robust marketing plan, including SEO.” Assuming that you don’t feel qualified to put that together, you could add, “That’s not something I’m qualified to advise you on, but you can hire consultants who specialize in this and can tell you what you’d need to do to expand the site’s reach.” And you could say, “I’m happy to continue on with the work we’ve been doing, but I didn’t feel right not flagging that for you.”

Once you do that, I think you’ll have met your ethical obligations to ensure he’s clear on what you’re seeing. (Theoretically, he should already be clear on it from the metrics you’re sending him, but sometimes people need things contextualized for them — especially since this is a medium that he doesn’t seem to have much frame of reference for.) From there, it’s up to him. If he chooses to continue on after that, I don’t think you’re obligated to keep trying to burst his bubble.

The exception to this is if he seems to be losing his faculties — like if he’s suffering from age-related dementia — in which case I don’t think you can ethically continue taking money for work that you know has little value. But otherwise, once you explain it to him, it’s his call.

{ 164 comments… read them below }

  1. Kramerica Industries

    I went through something very similar. I was a “Marketing Coordinator”, which meant stretching myself between updating social media pages with relevant articles and occasionally updating blogs, but without any sort of personal branding touch.

    After months of this, I proposed an SEO strategy to try to get real engagement from readers. However, it was very clear that the CEO was more concerned about volume of posts over quality. I ended up leaving because it was demoralizing to pump out articles and posts while knowing that no one was reading.

    It’s fine to propose changes, but ultimately it is up to him. You’re only responsible for deciding if it’s a system that you can live with.

    1. The Personal Assistant

      I’m the reader who wrote this letter. I think developing a SEO strategy is good and I actually put my boss in touch with someone who can help with that, they’re a website designer that he had asked me to find to make the website look better but they should be able to help with SEO too.

      As for the age related dementia that was a concern of mine but I was recommend this job by a close family friend of my boss and I’ve met several of his adult children who seem fine with him hiring people so I’m confident there aren’t an dementia related issues.

      1. k.k

        I’m glad that another web-savvy person is being brought in, web designer and/or SEO specialist. That can be one more person setting reasonable expectations so that it’s not just you. Even if a designer doesn’t come out and say that they think his plans are off base, in order to do their job they’ll need to ask questions like what he wants to use the site for, his plans for it, etc. which will start the conversation.

      2. Seriously?

        His kids may see this a hobby that makes him happy. If he is enjoying it and can afford it, then there isn’t really a problem so long as he is not being lied to (which you aren’t).

        1. lyonite

          Yeah, even if he isn’t quite as together as he used to be, it sounds like this is something that makes him happy, and his kids don’t have an issue with it, so I think you can feel okay about continuing to work for him, even if you know it’s never going to take the world by storm.

        2. SierraSkiing

          Yeah, if this man was pouring his life savings into this work in the hopes of making a lot of money, OP would have a stronger moral obligation to push back. But it sounds like he’s pretty well off and just enjoying this, so I think OP’s actions are enough!

          1. selena81

            That was mu impression as well: he’s spending a bit of pocket money on something that gives him the idea that he is still relevant
            As long as OP is not deliberately misleading him, and his children aren’t complaining either, then i don’t see a problem.

        3. Anonymoose

          I think this is more the case. It sounds like he may be having a hard time with retirement so he’s doing whatever he can to justify his free time, including ‘building a following’ via his site.

          But also, I mean…if someone wanted to hire you to plant tulips in the desert, and they’re the customer and absolutely insist that they want tulips, the only thing you can really do is inform them that it won’t work. After that, you might as well plant the tulips like they asked for until the customer understands that they won’t grow no matter what.

          1. Thlayli

            In that case you’re harming living things though so there’s a separate ethical obligation there.

        4. Specialk9

          Yeah, that was my guess, without knowing anything more than what’s here. Sometimes it’s fun to dream and see something building, and that’s an end in itself. If he’s not relying on future money, then it sounds like a good part time thing to get through school.

        5. JSPA

          Many times this. He would otherwise be asking those kids to drop their jobs to help him post, and to talk to him about the future of his site. This way, they get quality family time with him, and you get a job / paycheck.

          On the minus side, you can’t point to great metrics, so if you need a reference for the job, you might have to craft something that emphasizes the personal support aspects of the job (or re-casts it as an exercise in learning about the divide between what makes the poster happy, and what makes the site metrics improve). If you can pick up some of the SEO strategies, so much the better.

    1. Autumnheart

      As a web designer, I can verify that the small business delusion that they can spend $100 and put in practically no effort in marketing, and magically wind up with the next Amazon, is extremely common. Everyone thinks their site is going to be the next big thing.

      I’d have to disagree with Alison that no, there is no ethical obligation on the part of the LW to advise him that his site isn’t gaining market share. She is only the part-time assistant and her job is to post his content in addition to whatever other duties she has. She is not in charge of marketing, she is not the owner of the site, she is only facilitating. If the retired journalist wants his site to become the new News and Guts, it is on him to make that decision and to seek out his own brand strategy.

      It wouldn’t be a terrible thing for LW to suggest that her boss pick up a copy of Web Marketing For Dummies or to think about purchasing some advertising, but even that would be a favor, not an ethical obligation. Even as a web professional, it is my job to recommend strategies for increasing the size of one’s audience, but it isn’t my job to make their business successful. It’s their job. If

      1. Media Monkey

        this! we recently worked with a client with an e-commerce site which had little or no USP (they wouldn’t be told this and fired a consultant who did tell them this), a site that was dodgy technically (oh, but that will be fixed today!) and no interest in spending money to drive people to the site or implementing recommendations on how to improve SEO. They had invested in very expensive equipment and a huge (35 people or so) staff. funnily enough it went bust recently.

    2. CatCat

      I think showing the boss Dan Rather’s facebook page and the News & Guts page as examples would be a good idea.

      I read articles because Dan Rather puts a thought-provoking blurb on them when he shares. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t open them. But when Dan Rather gives me some of his personal insight about the article’s topic, I then pay attention.

      1. turquoises

        Got it! Business plan for OP’s boss:

        Step 1. Be Dan Rather.
        Step 2. ???blurbs????
        Step 3. Profit.

        :D

        1. Thlayli

          Step 1 is obviously collect dan’s underpants! OP, start work on this immediately!

  2. SNS

    ugh I had a client like this, constantly sending me articles and copy from their competitors’ site to post to theirs. When I tried to explain that it wouldn’t help their site at all and they could get in trouble for doing so, it was like talking to a brick wall. In the end they chose to leave since I wasn’t meeting their unrealistic expectations, but hopefully your boss is more receptive.

    1. mark132

      You can get demand letters for this. My wife maintained a web site for someone, and she was scrupulous about paying for the images she used. The next guy maintaining the site wasn’t. She got an email from the owner asking about a demand email she had received. And unfortunately the owner was stuck.

        1. mark132

          I asked my wife and she said the demand was for $910. The asset was way less than that done right.

  3. Lil Fidget

    Hmm, the only reason I might have varied from Alison’s answer is that OP says they’re a personal assistant. If that’s their title, I wouldn’t necessarily assume they were hired for their insight and experience into the marketing world, so much as to do whatever the person wants. I’ve had friends hired as PAs just to keep somebody company, basically – which, no shame about that! But if that’s the role this person has in mind, I wouldn’t try more than once to suggest a different approach to the website. Perhaps I’m mis-understanding the set up though.

    1. The Personal Assistant

      My boss hasn’t said that straight up but much of our time is just spent talking, with him talking about his past career mostly, so I think that is an element. His wife passed several years ago and his children don’t live in the area. So I think there is an element of that.

        1. Serin

          This is a good idea. He might not be the next Amazon, but if he’s a good writer who’s had interesting experiences, he could aim to be the next Julie/Julia project.

        2. Anonymoose

          Actually I think the retiree set might really appreciate a blog that focused on their experiences. That’s not a bad idea!

        3. Birch

          Yes, this! The blogosphere is kind of tapped out in certain demographics, but I (millennial professional with a blog about international life as an academic that no one reads) would be really interested in reading firsthand stories from an older person. We’ve lost so much from that generation just from lack of sharing platforms compared to what we have now, and writing about your own experiences is very therapeutic, plus you can use it to reach out to others and examine different perspectives. Please suggest this to your boss!

  4. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials

    OP, I’m not sure I agree that you definitively have an ethical obligation here. The site seems to be a huge learning experience for your boss, so you are being paid in essence to teach him internet literacy, which will be valuable to him whether the site pays off or not. Also, unless he’s a celebrity, there’s no universe really in which this site could make it, even with marketing and SEO, from what I’m understanding, so what’s the point of that?

    A key point for me: he’s retired, so this is something that he can put time into happily, it seems to be very interesting for him and gives him something to work on. Also a potential sequela of trying to talk sense into him could be him firing you and hiring someone who will do it without perceived negativity. If he’s learning, he’ll get it eventually on his own. If he’s not, you’ll graduate and move on.

    If he can’t really afford to put the money into this hobby, my answer would be different, but I don’t get the sense from this letter that this enterprise is draining his retirement account in an alarming way.

      1. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials

        Saw your reply up-thread and seems like you are doing what you can to help already. I’m trying to imagine a retirement age ex-broadcast journalist changing tack based on the advice of a younger person and failing, but of course it takes all kinds, you know him best. I think you just keep trying to help as best you can, I don’t think you’re obligated to have a “come to Jesus” talk with him on this.

    1. Autumnheart

      But if he is a former professional journalist, then if I were in LW’s position, I would recommend that he DO consider writing articles with his take on the events about which he wants to post. After all, people can read articles all day long, but solid analysis and fact-finding is what makes a journalism site worth revisiting.

      People don’t read News and Guts because we have a news shortage on the Internet. They read it because Dan Rather is a respected name who spent his life in journalism. People want to hear specifically from him. If Retired Boss can write an article worth a damn then I bet he *would* get an audience. But, if he is only talking pie-in-the-sky and doesn’t really want the commitment such a site would take, then I guess I would just placidly agree in an encouraging voice and wait for an actual directive before recommending anything.

        1. Personal Assistant (LW)

          He has been talking about writing original articles lately but he hasn’t written any so far. He had me write up some short bios on people he wanted to publish but after a few rounds of editing he didn’t mention them anymore.

          1. Autumnheart

            I can appreciate that. It really is a lot of work, and after all, he’s retired.

            Does the site have a Twitter account, and if not, would he consider getting one? That would be a good format for him to give his thoughts on a given event with a limited word count, it would be good exposure, it’s free, and there are tools where you can publish to Facebook and Twitter simultaneously and also display the feed on the site. I’ve done this in Joomla when I had a blog and I bet WordPress has similar functionality.

            1. Personal Assistant (LW)

              We have a Twitter account but he’s forgotten the sign in info so I’ll need to put some time into getting that. We also have a Facebook page but it doesn’t update automatically, I need to explore WordPress more and see if we can do that.

              That’s an excellent suggestion about him using Twitter. I think he’d love crafting Tweets together, the big thing he talks about missing from his journalism days is the collaboration and the business of the news room.

              1. Autumnheart

                Especially since Twitter is actually a good format for following and re-tweeting other journalists. In that context, it’s more like spreading the word than shouting into the void, since the search functionality of Twitter is centered around keywords and topics.

                1. Personal Assistant (LW)

                  hahah, one of his problems is that he can’t stick to a name. When I interviewed for the job he read me a list of over a dozen domain names he had purchased. I think I will suggest we pursue an aggressive Twitter strategy and that’s actually something I have expertise in!

                2. Autumnheart

                  Well, if he was known under his own byline, have that be the title of his site, maybe with a subhead that changes periodically.

                  Bobloblog.com
                  Catchy Tagline of the Week

                  That way he can use whatever catchphrase he wants, and not lose the SEO value. There is some consideration to whether one wants to use one’s real name in social media, but if he’s already been published then that horse is long out of the barn.

              2. Melissa C.

                Hi there – once you get the Twitter page set up, you might look into a platform like Hootsuite, so you can schedule the posts and send it out to Facebook & Twitter at the same time. It makes life a little easier, and keeps you from having to jump into each native platform every time you want to post.

                1. Personal Assistant (LW)

                  I use TweetDeck currently for several of my own projects so I could easily add his feed to that.

              3. Hey Nonnie

                Jetpack is a standard plug-in for WordPress, that incorporates everything from site stats to a “Publicize” function, which will auto-post to linked social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, LinkedIn, and just about whatever else you can think of. It’s built by the same organization that’s responsible for Askimet anti-spam and a good deal of the core WordPress code.

                I’d also recommend using a password manager like LastPass (which is a browser plug-in combined with secure cloud storage of your passwords).

          2. Flash Bristow

            Yeah. I understand that – my blog has stuttered because I don’t like to publish something that I havent sat on, honed, and become proud of. I really ought to just leave things an hour (or overnight), review it once, then hit send. I know this but I still don’t do it… I wonder if boss is scared of saying something that isn’t perfect? OP you could point out that one of the good things about the Internet is that you can revise things – it’s not like a newspaper where its printed and is out there in black and white forever.

      1. RVA Cat

        What kind of broadcast journalist was he? If he was a local TV anchor he has built trust and name recognition within your community. Maybe he can be a smaller scale version of News & Guts for your city?

        1. The Personal Assistant

          He worked behind the scenes for a national company so he doesn’t have local name recognition

    2. Green

      I agree that OP does not have an obligation here unless (1) OP was not showing him the stats and (2) OP had reason to believe that .

      I once had a boss (age-related dementia wasn’t a concern) who thought, in addition to/as part of his profitable day job where I was an assistant, I should ghostwrite this book-type-thing for him and he would sell it on an exclusive basis for thousands of dollars per copy. I happily plugged away on it during work hours knowing it wasn’t ever going anywhere. Wasn’t my job to tell him that. He had the money and his full mental capabilities.

      Creative people often have lots of ideas. Not all of them are winners. But as long as you’re not misleading them or lying to them, or taking advantage of a mental illness or cognitive problem, they’re allowed to invest as much as they want in the stinkers.

  5. MK

    Hmm. The word that jumped at me was “retired”. A lot of people, especially those who had been career-oriented all their lives, find retirement dificult, boring and depressing. Maybe your boss is delusional, but maybe he knows what he is imagining is unlikely to happen, but cannot bring himself to admit to himself and\or others that he is the equivalent of a retired farmer who now potters around the garden to fill his hours. By all means do as Alison suggests, but don’t be surprised if it has no effect.

  6. Not A Manager

    I disagree that the LW has an ethical obligation to disabuse their boss about the viability of the project. It sounds to me like this is a lonely, retired man with a hobby. He’s lucky to have hired someone who is willing to be a kind, listening ear and to see that as part of their job. I think the LW should continue to work on the project and listen to the conversation (including grandiose fantasies about where it’s going). Only if the expenditures start to *really* ramp up beyond what he’s spending now, might the LW have an obligation to caution him.

  7. Bea

    You’re a personal assistant so this is part of your job but your main focus is just keeping him occupied and assisted in this hobby. I think you’re doing well explaining things but it’s not something that’s unethical unless you’re hired specifically to be the web guru master of news.

    If he had dementia I would have even more guidance for how to shield him but keep him content. You’re essentially a caregiver if that’s the case and it’s only an issue if you know he’s “investing” and draining all his finances into something that will end him in the poor house.

    This is a part time gig, I can’t imagine you’re being paid an epic amount. It’s lije hiring a nanny or companion for the elderly but with a client who has this idea to make his hobby into more.

    1. Specialk9

      Yes, it all sounds very nice and sweet to me. No money concerns, sitting and reminiscing, learning some new skills, having a hobby.

  8. Marcy Marketer

    I don’t think SEO or a marketing plan will help if there’s no original content (I work in digital marketing with a specialization in SEO). I’d also be troubled by the ethical/legal issues of stealing content from other websites and posting it on my own site without the original writer’s permission. Obviously there are content aggregation sites but they typically post a few lines and link back to the original content.

    1. Personal Assistant (LW)

      I do always make sure to link back to the original content and am very sensitive to attribution.

      1. ArtK

        That may not be sufficient defense in the case of copyright violations. Your principal really needs to consult with a good IP attorney. (I have another response in moderation due to a useful — and legal — link.)

      2. Hey Nonnie

        However, if you are literally copying and pasting the article word-for-word from the original site to your boss’s site without explicit permission, you are still in violation of copyright (it goes well beyond “fair use”), plus both you and the originating site will get hit with Google’s duplicate content penalty, which will lower your/their search ranking.

        It would be far better to refer and link to an article and include a few graphs of analysis/opinion/response to it, rather than a literal copy/paste of someone else’s content.

        (Regarding copyright, I’m speaking to US copyright law, since I’m not familiar with copyright in other parts of the world. There are probably similarities to how it is in places like Canada and Western Europe, but there will also be differences. So talk to a copyright lawyer in your jurisdiction if you need to.)

      3. Ask a Manager Post author

        Just to make sure this is what you mean, copyright law says you can’t post the full article, even if you link back to it and give full attribution. You can only use a short “fair use” excerpt (with news articles, usually 1-2 paragraphs but sometimes less, depending on the length of the original).

        I am constantly battling against people who reprint my content without permission, and it’s amazing how many of them think it’s okay because they attribute it correctly! Not saying this is what you’re doing, though, OP.

        1. Personal Assistant (LW)

          He is not posting the full article, the practice is to post 1-2 paragraphs then a link back to the article. The issue I’m seeing is that he’s not adding any analysis or opinion to the posts.

          1. Marcy Marketer

            If the website has no unique content, no original focus, and no utility, why would anyone come to the site from search? Why wouldn’t they go right to the original article? Basically, good SEO comes from good content, so your boss needs a content/brand strategy first. If you advise him to pay for SEO, he’ll be wasting his money. I’d say he should hire someone to help him create and implement a content strategy— that person will probably be well versed in SEO, too, since those usually go hand in hand.

            I’m sorry if this sounds grumpy—it isn’t meant to be, I’m just passionate because it’s one of those things that I hear a lot in my field. A client with boring, useless content will be like “let’s add SEO and then I’ll get views!” And that’s just not how it works— the content has to be useful to someone, somewhere, before SEO can make a difference in volume.

            1. Personal Assistant (LW)

              Not grumpy at all! I think this is very good advice.

              My pitch to him is going to be to transfer the sharing of articles to Twitter, create original Tweets commenting on the articles, and use the website to host original articles he writes.

              1. Autumnheart

                And his original content doesn’t have to be very long, either. It might be an intimidating prospect to write an article that would be suitable to publish in a newspaper, but for the web, a few paragraphs tightly focused on a particular topic would be more than sufficient. To use News and Guts as an example again, even the longer commentaries are fewer than 200 words long. Most are half that length, and link to relevant articles or tweets.

                I would highly recommend Metafilter.com’s political threads for commentary and analysis on current events. There are a lot of links posted from legitimate sources, so there’s a lot less trash to wade through, and the discussion is substantial enough that I bet it would give Boss a lot of jumping-off points for what he might want to write about. Especially news that is important and making regional headlines but not catching the attention of national media.

            2. Moonbeam Malone

              I used to read the Awl back when it was more of a news aggregate site and for me a lot of the appeal was that I didn’t have to check 20 different websites digging through the muck to find the few articles that were relevant/interesting to me. But they always introduced the linked content with their own short blurbs/commentary, and they fostered a pretty active and not-totally-toxic commentor community. Also, I think even in those days they interspersed linked articles with their own original pieces.

              1. Marcy Marketer

                Yeah, new aggregator sites usually have a niche that they promote through a strong brand. If he wants to go that route, he totally can, but he’ll want a brand/content strategy person to help with that and not an SEO expert.

        2. mark132

          Doesn’t fair use also require some original content with it to be true fair use? So just quoting a paragraph with a link to the original without some commentary etc may be pushing the boundaries of fair use.

      4. Student

        If you fully repost their content, even if you link back to the original article and give attribution, that’s still stealing. It’s just stealing poorly. It’s like putting someone else’s art up in your home with a plaque saying “Donated by {guy we stole from}”. It actually shows you are knowingly stealing with intent, so it probably puts you in more legal trouble than if you pretended you didn’t know where the content came from. You’ve hung a neon sign saying “We are taking your IP without permission! Please sue us!”

        “Attribution” also doens’t help the original author nearly as much as traffic to the original author’s website does. There is a very good reason people sneer about “exposure” deals – they are worthless on the internet, monetarily. The content authors likely get paid by the ads on their own site. So when you post their stuff on a different site, and they don’t get a cut of your (non-existent) profits nor do the people who want to read their article have to go to their site, you are taking money away from them.

    2. Autumnheart

      Extremely good point. In this respect it’s a blessing that Retired Boss doesn’t have any followers. To build off Alison’s original comment, it is definitely time to sit down and develop a strategy such that the content posted is done so without violating copyright, and to scrub the site of content that does violate copyright. Better it come from LW than from a C&D from someone’s lawyer.

    3. ArtK

      Good point. Reposting content from some other site without permission is a violation of copyright and can result in some very big fines. Sadly, a lot of people have the idea that if it’s “on the internet” then it’s fair game. It isn’t.

      Here’s a link to a very good resource. Just update “Usenet” to “Internet”. https://www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths.html

      1. Personal Assistant (LW)

        If we are just posting a few lines and then linking back to the original article does that still violate copyright?

        1. ArtK

          Depends on fair use and how many lines and the context. Check the link for Brad Templeton’s discussion of fair use (and look for other resources.) Simply quoting may not do the job. Having your principal add commentary would make it much safer.
          For the record, I am not a lawyer and nothing I say should be taken as legal advice.

        2. fposte

          Gray area–depends on how long the article is, how many lines, how key they are to the content, etc. In general the link roundups I encounter use their own original text to drive the link.

        3. Hey Nonnie

          Without the addition of some original content (like analysis, response, etc.), it’s hard to say. “Fair use” usually assumes that you’re quoting the other person’s IP in order to make, clarify, or illuminate your own point. It’s pretty grey if you’re not including ANY words of your own. If it were me, I wouldn’t risk it. If your boss wants to consider risking it, he should talk to an IP attorney first.

          (It’s also lousy SEO — you’re literally driving traffic away from your own site and providing no incentive for them to stay.)

          1. Hey Nonnie

            I’ll also add: if your boss makes money in any way from his site, it it MUCH more likely to be seen as a copyright violation. Sharing someone’s work on Twitter is one thing; attempting to profit off of someone else’s work is a whole other ballgame, and is the reason that copyright law exists in the first place.

            “Making money” can include running ads, accepting sponsorships, or even having a donate button.

    4. Woman in tech

      Nothing to add but a hearty co-sign on all of your comments in this thread. 10000000%. (Been working in digital strategy and online publishing in some form for 10 years. The number of clients who think they can just sprinkle in seo…) “SEO” is not what he needs, at all, he needs brand and content strategy. Twitter sounds like a mug better use of this guys time, and chances are he’ll reconnect with old newsroom acquaintances there with a little searching.

  9. Plague of frogs

    Back in my professional house-cleaning days, I had a client who was nearly blind. She had these really ugly fake flowers…I mean, just unbelievably ugly. But colorful, so they probably looked good to a person who was almost blind.

    I wondered if I had an obligation to tell her how ugly they were, and concluded I didn’t. My only obligation was to clean to her specifications.

    I’m glad I didn’t tell her. They made her happy and it wasn’t hurting anyone.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger

      That was very kind of you, and the ethical standard is similar for the LW. Unless the person has a lot invested in something, it’s often better to just give them a hint about the issue. If the OP’s boss was really interested in metrics or your client was very interested in entertaining people and presenting her home at its best to visitors, then you can assume that they’re OK with doing things their way rather than the way that makes sense to us. I do agree with Alison that the OP should probably give another shot at making sure that her boss understands what she’s telling him, but it sounds like it’s more of a hobby for him, and he wants to do it this way. As she was hired as more of a PA than a web manager, and more of a content manager than a web marketer, her ethical burden is pretty low on this.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger

        Oops. “UNLESS the OP’s boss expressed a strong interest in metrics or your client…”

        Still not as clear as I would have liked, but I have to hurry right now….

    2. Bea

      You would only need to let her know they were ugly if she decided to buy a warehouse full of them and try selling them. Otherwise everyone has tacky or ugly decor somewhere in their homes.

      I’m reminded of the outrageous costume jewelry my mom’s old clients had that they sent her home with at times. She gave it to me because it’s for grannies and little girls playing dressup.

  10. Bee Eye LL

    I had a client like this and I fired them after a month. They were creating a church-related site and the guy would bombard me with emails all day long wondering why donations weren’t just flowing in. He assumed that once you put a website on the world wide web that the whole world would see and respond. After the umpteenth design change, I finally told them I just wasn’t able to give them what they wanted and handed it all back to them.

    1. Autumnheart

      Like, if I could actually do that, then I would make MYSELF a billionaire, thank you. I wouldn’t be building someone else’s damn site.

        1. Autumnheart

          (Except as a hobby, after swimming around in my billions like Scrooge McDuck)

      1. Bee Eye LL

        I made the mistake of agreeing to a flat monthly rate for updates and this guy thought that meant he owned me. Never again will I do that.

        1. Autumnheart

          I worked for a guy who thought I should be phoning clients 4x a day to nag them to provide content. Starting at 7am. I flat-out refused to do that. That job came with a surprising variety of war stories considering I only worked for him for 6 weeks. If you can call it “working for someone” when your paycheck bounces.

          1. Flash Bristow

            Yikes! I’d love to hear those stories on an appropriate forum. Sounds like it gave you lots to talk about – and that you escaped fairly rapidly!

  11. Student

    What is your real objective here? Get him to give up this hobby? Different job duties for yourself? Make his website successful? Milk the guy for money for your web dev friends?

    I don’t think the greatest SEO in the world is really going to fix your underlying problem. Your problem is that he has a boring web-site that consists entirely of other people’s (stolen?) content. If he actually attracts any search engine attention, he’s likely to get sued for posting other people’s work without permission and payment, going by what you’ve described here.

    If you want him to give up the hobby or you want different job duties, it’s disingenuous to frame this as an “ethics” issue. It’s pretty weird for someone in your position to try to talk him out of the hobby – it’s changing your PA role into more of a business manager role, or possibly a surrogate daughter role, from your comments. If you want different job duties, just tell him what you want – he’ll probably turn you down, since it sounds like you were hired primarily to facilitate this hobby, but you could certainly ask for a different role and explain why you find this one undesirable.

    You could (and probably, both ethically and legally, should) talk to him about the stolen content issue, if you aren’t getting this content through a legitimate licensed deal of some sort. You might have some personal liability here, depending on how stuff is structured – talk to a lawyer if you have serious concerns about that (… it sounds like there is no real business structure, so you may be liable for any stolen content that you post illegally in his name; normally, a business or corporation of some sort would legally shield you on a personal level). Maybe your content is somehow legit – I can’t know from this – but what you’ve described in the OP is very shady-sounding.

    If you’re milking his naiveté for yourself and your dev friends, that’d be unethical. Honestly, bringing in a SEO consultant (or nearly any web consultant) in this situation does sound unethical, since there is no worthwhile underlying content to speak of. It’d be different if you had anything to work with, but you know and I know that this site’s basic concept would have to change dramatically to ever be successful. If you’re sitting there telling him this is the next great thing, giving him wildly unrealistic expectations of success, that’d be unethical. If you’re showing him the honest stats on his site’s traffic, money flow, etc., then you are ethically in the clear. Bringing in some sort of business or online news consultant that’d give him a one-time reality check (as opposed to an ongoing set of meetings/costs likely to lead to milking him) would be the most ethical way to bring in an outsider.

    If what you want is for the web site to be successful, then you need to have a serious of difficult discussions with him on his overall business plan, business practices, content, audience, etc. It’s not really a PA’s typical role, and it frankly sounds like a miserably lost cause here. If you do that, you might want to push to actually become the business manager or content manager for the web site instead of his PA, because right now you may not have the clout or independence to pull that off – you’d need to be able to tell him something’s a bad idea, or not viable, and be respected in that assessment – which you seem to not be able to do right now.

    1. Tobias Funke

      This is bizarrely harsh? It sounds like OP wants to help her boss but isn’t quite sure how. It certainly does not sound like she’s somehow milking his inexperience to keep a gravy train on the tracks.

      1. Whippers

        Yeah; the tone of this comment is weirdly antagonistic toward the OP and attacking her for things she never said.

      2. SierraSkiing

        Yeah, she seems to want to be a good employee, she just has a somewhat unusual employer relationship and job. I don’t read some secret “objective” into this.

    2. Specialk9

      The OP is fine, she clarified upthread that he is not violating copyright.

      And “Milk the guy for money for your web dev friends”? Weirdly accusatory.

      OP sounds like a nice person, trying to make sure they’re not taking advantage of someone. (Which they’re not.)

  12. AMT

    This reminds me of my (admittedly suckier) one-week experience as a “social media manager” for the world’s shadiest cancer charity. After a brief interview, the founder hired me on the spot full-time with no experience to try to raise funds through social media—and for context, this was a charity with around six employees that operated out of a basement. He had absolutely no idea what he was doing (with social media or otherwise) and assumed that the internet was a magic donation machine. He believed donations would start pouring in the moment the internet heard about his great charity. On a more morbid note, he also wanted me to compile a spreadsheet of celebrities with cancer so that he could spam them for donations.

    I quit after a week and the absolute wreck of a charity was shut down a few years later for fraud (not for anything social media-related, but becausespent most of the charity’s money on himself). The founder and his family are banned from operating any charity in the future.

    1. Bea

      Omg “after a few years” :(

      I will be watching for this dude to end up on American Greed…arrrrgh obsessed with that show of utter scumbags and their thievery.

      1. AMT

        I’ve never heard of that show! I love anything on the subject of fraud and scams, so thanks.

        1. Bea

          It’s a CNBC original and available on Hulu. I have marathoned it and wait for new alerts *.*

          Also they do one about the fraudsters who are still fugitives.

          Everything from Ponzi schemes to insurance frauds and church/charity scams.

          1. Nicole

            This sounds like something I could get into…I think I know what I’m doing tonight when I get home!

  13. Personal Assistant (LW)

    My objective was to make sure I am doing the right thing. Your concerns about the stolen content issue has been brought up by others and I am concerned about that. I think his desires, to post articles and be a part of the discussion, could probably be best served by Twitter instead of a website so my plan, having gotten feedback from here, is to suggest he focus on a Twitter account putting out his own thoughts and retweeting content he finds interesting.

    1. Autumnheart

      I quickly googled and saw that there are several widgets that will display a Twitter feed on WordPress, so there’s no reason you couldn’t still use the site. If Boss does get the urge to crank out an article, he would have a place to publish it, and social media to promote it.

    2. CM

      I like this idea and refocusing the question from “what am I morally obligated to do” to “what would best serve my boss’s interests?” You may have great ideas about how to make the site more successful, but it doesn’t seem like he’s asked you to take on that task. On the other hand, if you see that his main motivation is to be engaged in an in-the-moment conversation with others, then certainly suggest that and, if he’s interested, help him get started.

      I think the comments here about how he’s lonely, has dementia, etc. are pretty ageist. The boss is not good at understanding what draws web traffic; there’s no reason to assume he is a doddering old man who is paying the OP just to have company.

      1. CM

        I meant “help him get started with Twitter.” And rereading the thread, I see that there were only a couple of comments above about the boss’s age and how that makes him lonely/clueless, they just stuck out for me. I wasn’t referring to Alison’s original mention of dementia, where she said it would be an exception to her advice.

        1. Genny

          I don’t think he’s a doddering old fool, but based on OP’s replies, it does sound like boss is doing this more as a hobby than as a serious I-need-this-to-make-money-or-else-I-can’t-eat thing, which would affect how I’d act if I were the OP. Knowing what OP has told us about the business model, I’d feel horribly guilty collecting my salary in the latter case, but perfectly fine with it in the former.

          1. Personal Assistant (LW)

            He has actually said he would consider this a success if he broke even on this project, so no the issue is not taking food off his plate.

            I’m very thankful to the commenters for bringing up the fair use issue which has me very concerned at the moment and suggesting Twitter as good platform for my boss.

    3. pleaset

      “My objective was to make sure I am doing the right thing. ”

      Well said.

      I think professionals of all forms have an general obligation to tell their bosses/clients when something is a bad idea. Not an obligation to resolve the issue, or warn about it over and over again, but at least to point the problem out once.

      This obligation has to be weighed against other factors – such as risks to one’s own employment. But if you’re a professional in the working world, you should try to speak up when you know something is wrong.

    4. Genny

      I think that’s a really good idea. He gets to still be a part of the conversation without putting in the time to write full-length articles, and you hopefully will start feeling less like you’re shouting into the void.

      Based on your other comments, it sounds like this a more of a hobby/response to loneliness/coping with being retired thing more than a business. Reframing it that way in your head might also help you get a little less frustrated (or feel guilty) when you see him pouring money into something that most likely won’t go anywhere.

  14. AnotherAlison

    OP, I feel for you. My dad called me last weekend because he had gone to the link I sent to stream a baseball game, and he couldn’t get it to play. It was a matter of scrolling down the page until he could see the play button. My mother just figured out there is Google on her phone (a seriously underutilized Galaxy S7). They just aren’t very techy and no matter how much I explain it, if you don’t TRY it, you can’t figure out how to do it, and remember it.

    I don’t have to deal with this professionally, and it must take incredible patience to do what you’re doing. I don’t have any advice, just kudos.

    1. Millennial Lawyer

      Yeah, my grandma is scared to press buttons on her iphone because she might “mess something up.” Even though it’s impossible and there’s no other way to use the phone…

      1. Willis

        Haha…my mom used to handle my phone very carefully and only touch the edges for fear of “messing something up.” But, then she got a smartphone and is no longer afraid to touch the screen!

      2. Specialk9

        I’ve definitely pushed buttons that I didn’t mean to, and had a hard time finding how to reverse it. And relatively young.

    2. Bea

      I have to update my mom’s tablet every time I visit. I had to “put the WWE network” on it last time. She can’t even install an app despite being shown. They just use it until it stalls out due to not being updated or just needs a reboot. Cue the panicked calls or worse, trekking into the cellphone store for customer service.

    3. Flash Bristow

      I once had a website customer who called me early in the morning freaking out. “I know you need to sleep due to your disability but this is an EMERGENCY! What have you done to my website? Why have you cancelled it?!!” etc.

      Her website was fine and I hadn’t touched it in ages. Long story short – she’d deleted her bookmark.

      *scream*

      No, of course she didn’t apologise, or thank me for fixing it. Somehow, it was still all my fault.

    4. Deus Cee

      I have the opposite problem – my husband and I think of ourselves as fairly tech-savvy, yet hand a phone or tablet to our 3-yr-old and she will find a way to change the settings and create something we’ve never seen before and have no idea how to fix. She managed to lock my brother’s phone up completely once; I was so proud..

  15. Colorado

    You sound like a kind person OP and this seems like a nice part time job for you. Keep doing what you’re doing. Bring it up as Alison said once, develop some other strategies for him, and let him feel like he’s still contributing to the world. I imagine after a livelong career in journalism the need to stay relevant is very strong.

  16. Sarah Peterson

    I actually don’t believe anyone has an obligation to jeopardize their own employment by telling someone they are doing something that will not be successful. Maybe this is exactly how he wants to spend his money, but that is also immaterial – telling him it won’t work means you will need another job. The exception to this is if you think he is suffering from problems that mean he is not in charge of his own faculties. That said, I’d be looking hard for another job, and when you find one and give him notice, that would be an ideal time to suggest that he consider the long-term prospects of his business model.

    1. Personal Assistant (LW)

      I think I’ll suggest changing to a primarily Twitter based business model since that seems to fit his style more; i.e. the sharing of articles he thinks should be discussed.

    2. Bea

      It boils down to taking advantage of someone when you are “employed” by someone doing something that’s not in their best interest. This guy is just paying someone to hangout and help with a hobby though, so there’s a wider grey area.

      A business just folds up if it’s a bust. A guy paying out of his savings or pension or social security checks for assistance isn’t a traditional boss by any means.

      You can’t always just look our for just yourself. Since if something happens his family may have legal standing if they find his accounts are drained without proper paperwork involved.

  17. Chriama

    I think this is just a vanity project. His kids and grandkids are humouring him. I wouldn’t worry about it unless you had reason to believe he was spending money he didn’t have or planning to spend a lot of money on something worthless. This is probably just the adult equivalent of putting him in the sandbox with a couple of toys.

    1. Erin

      If it’s a vanity project then he could just plain blog about his personal experience as a newscaster. That way nobody is stealing anything. Have topics such as advice for journalism students, the best day as a journalist and the worse day as a journalist. The typical day in journalism. Maybe you could do it as part of the site?
      My experience with SEO from my failed Etsy site is that it’s a lot of work for not a lot of payout. You can totally spend all day revamping your sites SEO and end up with the same exact amount of viewer or less than the day before.

      1. Media Monkey

        good SEO is a long term thing. it won’t change in a day (unless you meant that metaphorically in which case ignore me!)

  18. Saucy Minx

    My hair was standing on end as I read the OP, with its mentioning that articles not written by the boss or the LW were being posted on the web site.

    The boss, who used to work for pay as a journalist, seems to have no grasp of the concept of copyright, which baffles me. The LW, if functioning as the content manager, needs to know about copyright in order to do the job properly.

    As a copy editor, I must point out that ignorance of the law will be no excuse. As a freelance writer, I would like to register my irritation that people help themselves to my work without so much as a by-your-leave, never mind paying me for my work, and I resent it.

    1. Sarah

      I read it as if OP is just posting links to other articles on a blog which isn’t the same after people post links on facebook all the time. I could have course misunderstood.

  19. CR

    Honestly my biggest concern is that the LW isn’t learning anything or developing new skills that will help her in her future career.

    1. SierraSkiing

      It’s not that big of a deal for a part-time college job, though. If OP’s getting a bit of work experience and getting paid well, that seems like a decent gig!

    2. Bea

      I’m honestly thinking of this as a side gig for money. Just like cleaning house for your elderly neighbor (my mom did that when I was younger) or babysitting. I’ll be utterly shocked if there is payroll services involved and anything more than a nice personal reference when the OP moves to full time employment. Not everything is career building when you just need extra cash.

      1. Personal Assistant (LW)

        You are correct, I took this job for the extra cash. I’m not expecting to make a career out of this and it’s not long term.

        1. Bea

          Side note, I think it’s pretty awesome that given it’s just extra spending money for you, you’re thinking about legalities and his best interest. Many people take advantage of people his age and it’s so sad/rage inducing. You clearly respect him and want to do well by him.

          1. Personal Assistant (LW)

            He’s a great guy who is interested in current events, had a great career, a family that loves him, and a desire to change the world for the better. I have grandparents his age so I want to make sure he’s treated like I’d want others to treat my grandparents.

    3. Mom MD

      Sometimes you just need money to put food on the table. Not every job elevates the career path and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone wants a career, period. Some people are happy getting a paycheck in what others may consider a low end or mundane job. That’s valid.

      1. Gazebo Slayer

        Yes! And all those low-end, unglamorous, non-career-building jobs still need to get done. We should respect, not shame, the people who do them.

        1. Thlayli

          Yes! I’m a chartered engineer but I’ve worked as a chambermaid and general kitchen assistant among many other jobs. There’s no shame in cleaning toilets for a living, or doing anything else that’s not actually unethical.

          What’s shameful is making people feel bad for not having a “career”. It doesn’t even make sense in this scenario since OP states in the letter that it’s a part time job during college so clearly would not expect it to be part of a “career”.

    4. Specialk9

      I did nothing as relevant as this at that age! As a hiring manager, I’d be impressed by managing a website and conducting training. Knowing how to teach people how to use tech is a good skill!

      1. Bea

        Right? It’s still a commitment and more than a lot of people have upon graduation. It’s networking and learning to work with others in a setting outside a classroom or volunteer position.

        “Tell me about your work experience”
        “I just graduated with my degree in cat herding, while in school I was a part time Personal Assistant to Dr Doolittle, I worked on his blog of cat memes. It was interesting and I taught him about technology to enhance his cat meme experience.”

        It’s something and many entry level jobs prefer some sense of responsibility and commitment to showing up and learning.

      1. SarahTheEntwife

        Yeah, he seems just sort of…adorably deluded? He thinks his website is the best thing since sliced bread, and I don’t get the impression that he’s going to get mad at the OP when she can’t magically make him the new Dan Rather.

  20. Mom MD

    If he is mentally intact this may be a hobby he can afford that keeps him busy. I’m not so sure you should rain on his parade except by giving him truthful metrics.

  21. Triple Anon

    I would frame this differently. Not, “This isn’t working,” but, “This is the gap between the objective and the reality and these are the relevant factors.” Approach it constructively. To meet his goals, he needs to reach a bigger audience. That means attracting more social media followers and raising the profile of his blog. I would show him the metrics along with a proposed strategy. Use simple bullet points or something else that’s easy to go over. Then he can ask questions about each point and agree to them or not.

    It might also be helpful to show him other similar sites. It sounds like he doesn’t know how many news aggregation blogs there are out there. Show him some successful ones. Ones that have a following. Ask if he’d like his blog to be more like those or to be different in some way.

    It sounds like this is a matter of educating the client and developing a game plan with him. If he says no to any of that, then you can continue doing what he’s asking you to do guilt-free; at least you will have tried.

    And as for the memory issue (if he seems to be losing his faculties), I think that’s ultimately between him, his family, and his doctor. You can’t diagnose someone with memory problems unless you’re a medical professional. I mean if he seems forgetful, you have no way of knowing if it’s dementia or if he’s choosing to use some kind of mind altering substance and is fully aware that it makes him act that way. Or if he’s stressed or short on sleep or any number of things. All you really can do is decide where you would draw the line and say, “This person’s behavior is so unusual, I don’t feel confident that he’s using sound judgment and therefore I can’t keep accepting money from him.” But don’t beat yourself up or worry about it too much. It’s not really your responsibility. Hopefully he has a good doctor and/or other people in his life who would step in if there was some kind of issue like that.

    1. Personal Assistant (LW)

      I like how you frame that, I think I will plan out a presentation like that and suggest it to him.

      As for the memory issue, I didn’t mean to make it seem like he has lapses in memory just that he, like many of us including myself, misplaces his passwords from time to time.

      1. Bea

        Misplacing things is normal. Dementia usually is not what people think of it. Confusion and being disoriented are much more of a concern.

        I had a boss who developed Dementia. Nothing you’ve said raises a flag and if it were the case the biggest thing is to be surrounded by people like you who truly care for his wellbeing.

  22. Noah

    Are Facebook pages different than regular web pages?

    I mean, I don’t really think they are, if they are public. They are indexed in Google. Sure, you’re limited by Facebook’s formatting limits, but that’s true (though to a lesser extent) if you have a WordPress page, too. I’d suggest that OP stop explaining this particular point to her boss because it isn’t particularly true. I’d say Google.com is more different from a “regular” web page than somebody’s Facebook page is.

    1. Personal Assistant (LW)

      In this case the boss was confused as to why changes made to the WordPress page weren’t showing up on the Facebook page. I wasn’t getting into the technical details of what constitutes a web page so much as explaining that changes needed to be made separately to the different pages.

    2. Nanani

      A regular web page, even a blog post, can be counted on to show up to people who are looking for it. A facebook page is mediated by the algorithm, the visitor’s settings, and so on (to a much greater degree than the rest of the internet), so yes, it is.

  23. Content Strategist

    Seen some comments about SEO and marketing in the comments, but that may just be part of the picture. That’s where my field comes in. :) Books I’d recommend reading and potentially showing to your boss are Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern. Both are pretty approachable and can also give you some good tactics for conversations if you decide you’re willing to have them.

  24. Flash Bristow

    Oh dear. I know people who got excited that their website got a hit every day! Wow! (probably them checking it…) Or people whose site pulls in 502 photos – and they got 503 hits! (but sadly, just one page view).

    I used to work in the Web industry and I was always explaining how you need to add new, unique, useful content. I got my plumbers and plant nurseries to add “top ten tips” on different topics. But… If they don’t do the work it becomes an expensive vanity projects. OP, I’m glad you recognise this but I’m sorry you’re dealing with it. Maybe ask your boss what makes the site unique? Why do people need it? And how would they find it (show that Google doesn’t care about it as it stands) – and where is he promoting it? Then leave him to have a think. I hope he isn’t too sad – and I particularly hope he doesn’t respond by redoubling his efforts and deciding what the site really needs is the same… But much more of it!

    You’re a good person for not just taking the money and keeping quiet. I hope it works out well for you.

  25. Cornflower Blue

    I think that you’re being really kind and respectful here. He’s lucky to have an assistant who cares for him the way you do.

  26. Snickerdoodle

    I was most definitely paid to shout into the void at my last job; the bosses had delusions of grandeur about their site, too. It was an office supplier with notoriously user unfriendly online ordering, and nobody but spam bots ever commented. I was supposed to post something on the company Facebook page every few days, but no one ever clicked like or commented on anything because people just aren’t that into office supplies.

    The other boss wanted to start a video blog. She only talked about it when she was under the influence of her pain pills (!) and would then forget about it, mercifully. The rest of us prayed she never remembered it sober because it would have been so embarrassing. (On the upside, no one would have watched it anyway, I suppose.)

    They could have learned a lot from looking at the sites of their competition or studying social media in general. Your boss, OP, needs to look at other news blogs as examples of how it should be done. I’ll add to the chorus of SEO/marketing; that’s what it will take to get it off the ground. An active forum will also help, which can develop with time.

    1. anyone out there but me

      Me too! But did your boss then get upset with you because there were no likes on the Facebook posts? Or make demands that you better get them on the “1st page of Google within 30 days or else”?? And when you brought up the fact that there are actual professionals out there who specialize in SEO, digital marketing, social media, etc., you were told to “just do it, because it isn’t that hard anyway! You can just copy and paste the same posts to all of the platforms! And when you run out of original content just copy and paste something from a few years ago! But change a few words so it is different.” :/

      Because my old boss did all of that. :/

  27. Carrie

    I think Alison’s advice is spot on. Just bring it up once, in a way that is kind and not going to make him feel bad but that will make it clear what the realistic outcome is. And all the copyright suggestions are good. You might start by suggesting he describe to you why he was interested in the article and putting in a sentence or two what he told you and build from there. But honestly, I think you will feel much better if you can just once give him an idea of what he can realistically expect from the current state. It sounds like he may be totally okay with that, so ideally put it gently. But I think you will feel much better if you can be sure that he’s clear on likely outcomes and whether it is strictly morally necessary or not, I think erring on the side of honesty is generally good as long as you are also kind.

    1. The Personal Assistant

      A sentence or two is just what I was going to suggest to him as a start. I think that’ll work well with Twitter.

  28. CustServGirl

    Allison is wrong, I’m sorry. For the “pee-er” story, I think it would be important just to tell the HR manager about what you noticed. Not to put the woman on blast, but perhaps The HR manager could re-frame it like “Hey, so-and-so said she used the restroom the other day and passed you in the hall. There was another pee incident- did you encounter a mess at any point that day?”

    NOT saying anything, IMO, ignores the issue and could prolong the problem, which effects everyone’s health safety and comfort levels while at work.

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