Does Spin Suck?

To spin or not to spin, that is the question.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Does spin suck?

The word “spin” does have a neg­at­ive connotation.

One of my favour­ite PR blog­gers, Gini Dietrich, even named her blog Spin Sucks.

And to be fair, in the way Dietrich and many with her would define spin, I’m sure I would agree. Deliberate dis­tor­tion of facts, manip­u­la­tion, and out­right lying to the pub­lic — yeah, that sucks

But I see no reas­on for char­ging a per­fect and usable word with only a neg­at­ive aspect. After all, we’re in pub­lic rela­tions; we should know that there is more than one side to every story.

But maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe spin does suck?

What is Spin?

According to Wikipedia:

In pub­lic rela­tions, spin is a form of pro­pa­ganda, achieved through provid­ing a biased inter­pret­a­tion of an event or cam­paign­ing to per­suade pub­lic opin­ion in favor or against some organ­iz­a­tion or pub­lic fig­ure. While tra­di­tion­al pub­lic rela­tions may also rely on cre­at­ive present­a­tion of the facts, “spin” often implies the use of disin­genu­ous, decept­ive, and highly manip­u­lat­ive tactics.”

Not very pos­it­ive, no.

According to Merriam-Webster, a spin doc­tor is “[…] a per­son (such as a polit­ic­al aide) whose job involves try­ing to con­trol the way some­thing (such as an import­ant event) is described to the pub­lic to influ­ence what people think about it.”

Well. I guess Merriam-Webster’s descrip­tion does­n’t shout “evil” as much as Wikipedia’s. 

Well, here’s what I think:

We should­n’t be strangers to reclaim­ing neg­at­ive words to make them positive.

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations
Edward Bernays, the fath­er of pub­lic rela­tions. Photo: Bettmann /​ Getty Images.

After all, Edward Bernays, the fath­er of PR, wrote in Propaganda from 1928:

I am aware that the word pro­pa­ganda car­ries too many minds an unpleas­ant con­nota­tion. Yet wheth­er, in any instance, pro­pa­ganda is good or bad depend upon the mer­it of the cause urged, and the cor­rect­ness of the inform­a­tion pub­lished. In itself, the word pro­pa­ganda has cer­tain tech­nic­al mean­ings which, like most things in this world, are neither good nor bad but cus­tom makes them so.”

Bernays did­n’t exactly suc­ceed in turn­ing the tables for the word propaganda.

But the major­ity is some­times wrong. I think both “pro­pa­ganda” and “spin” deserves bet­ter PR. Case in point: Back when I stud­ied pub­lic rela­tions at Mid Sweden University, I argued that I would­n’t mind get­ting the pro­fes­sion­al title “pro­pa­gand­ist.” Why not? However, this idea was a tough sell — even in a classroom full of aspir­ing PR pro­fes­sion­als.

Walter Lippmann argued that none of our thoughts or actions is based on dir­ect know­ledge of the ‘real’ world because “the real envir­on­ment is too big, too com­plex, and too fleet­ing for dir­ect acquaintance.” 

To cope, we cre­ate men­tal ste­reo­types based on our thoughts and actions. These ste­reo­types, then, are by design incom­plete. And without these ste­reo­types, it becomes impossible for us to make sense of the world.

To Spin Or Not To Spin - Inception - Spinning Top
To spin or not to spin. That’s the question.

The way I see it, there seems to be an almost infin­ite num­ber of ste­reo­typ­ic­al ways to describe facts — without viol­at­ing the truth. 

A Glass of Different Truths

My favour­ite example involves a fam­ous glass of water: 

Let’s say that there’s a glass of water stand­ing on a table in front of you — and there’s water in it. The glass holds 100 ml of water, but it could store 200 ml (if filled up).

I could say that the glass is half full. That’s true.

I could also say that the glass is half empty. Still true.

The second state­ment emphas­ises empti­ness (the glass needs a refill), and the first state­ment is full­ness (the glass needs no refill).

Both state­ments are equally val­id, of course, but the choice of words will influ­ence our ste­reo­typ­ic­al think­ing about the state of the glass and its con­tent. And the world by extrapolation.

Now, let’s get even more creative:

The glass is full. True, yes?

Technically, this state­ment is true as well. 

50% of the glass con­tains water; the oth­er 50% is split between roughly 78% nitro­gen, 21% oxy­gen, argon, car­bon diox­ide, and small amounts of oth­er gasses. 


How about this:

The glass is not half full, nor is it half empty. Also true.

An equal split between water and gasses implies an exact divi­sion of pro­tons, neut­rons, and electrons. 

However, keep­ing these inter­chan­ging states in equi­lib­ri­um would be impossible. And that’s not tak­ing quantum mech­an­ics into account, either.

And even if we could arrange such an equal split, we’d still have a prob­lem. Since the liquid is dens­er than gas, for an equal split of ele­ment­ary particles, there should only be a small volume of water in the glass and a rel­at­ively large volume of gas for them to weigh the same.

The glass would­n’t pre­cisely look either half-full or half-empty.

Such detail and accur­acy might not mat­ter to you or me, but for a phys­i­cist, these pre­cise ver­sions of the truth might make all the difference.

And it’s not just about what you say (fram­ing and prim­ing).
It’s also about who you are (author­ity).
It’s about when you say it (tim­ing).
Where you say it (con­text and medi­um).
To whom you say it (asser­tion).
And why you say it (intent).

Which Truth Will Benefit Who?

Now, for the sake of argu­ment, let’s assume that someone would bene­fit if one of the glass state­ments some­how became pre­val­ent in a soci­ety obsessed with glasses of whatever.

The glass is half empty” would surely bene­fit those who are pro­viders of whatever that con­tent might be. Should we con­sider these mer­chants evil for pro­mot­ing a ver­sion of the truth that high­lights their par­tic­u­lar solution?

And if this beha­viour is indeed’ evil’ by default, could you then per­haps show me a single per­son in the world who would nev­er dream of doing this?

I don’t think you can.

As humans, we spin. We frame our state­ments to make them serve our pur­poses. Fundamentally, it’s our right to make a case that is ours and not someone else’s.

Perception Quote - Anais Nin
We’re all biased.

And if someone comes along say­ing that they have the abso­lute author­ity on what ver­sion of the truth you and every­one else must abide by? 

Well, run. And while you’re sprint­ing for safety under pan­ick­ing breaths, you can be assured that those scary author­it­ari­ans were also spin­ning their ste­reo­typ­ic­al ver­sion of the truth.

Spin for the Win

In a demo­cracy, we’re sup­posed to have our say to influ­ence our world with our words.

If you don’t get to spin your real­ity the way you see it, then someone else will surely do it for you — but not neces­sar­ily with your best interest in mind. 

I’m proud to say that I spin my ver­sion of how I see the world — all the time. And I help my cli­ents to spin their ver­sions of the truth, too. I’m a propagandist!

This is just semantics,” some might argue.
Well, semantics mat­ter, I say.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

Bonus Resource: Fundamental Approaches To PR

Three Approaches to Public Relations - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Three approaches to pub­lic relations.

Fundamental Approaches To PR

There are three schol­arly approaches to PR:

  • The Excellence Approach
  • The Rhetorical Approach
  • The Critical Approach

The Excellence Approach. A busi­ness-ori­ented approach focused on object­ives and cor­por­ate value cre­ation. The under­ly­ing motiv­a­tion behind the the­ory was that PR was mostly a vari­ety of tac­tic­al tools that des­per­ately needed a man­age­ment the­ory to work well in a soph­ist­ic­ated organisation.

Notable men­tions: James E. Grunig, Larissa A. Grunig

The Rhetorical Approach. A clas­sic­al approach that stems from ideas dat­ing back to ancient Greece. It’s a psy­cho­lo­gic­al the­ory of how com­mu­nic­a­tion struc­tures human cul­ture by shap­ing human minds. An absence of mor­al judg­ment char­ac­ter­ises the rhet­or­ic­al approach and is utilitarian.

Notable men­tions: Edward Bernays, The Toronto School of Communication Theory, Robert Heath

The Critical Approach. A crit­ic­al approach deeply rooted in the­or­ies around soci­et­al power dynam­ics. Power is seen as a means to exert dom­in­ance, manip­u­la­tion, and oppres­sion. The crit­ic­al approach bor­rows many ideas from the rhet­or­ic­al approach by pla­cing them in mor­al frameworks.

Notable men­tions: Walter Lippmann, Noam Chomsky

Read also: 3 PR Approaches: Excellence, Rhetorical, and Critical

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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo has nothing to do with public relations, of course. I share for no other reason that I happen to enjoy photography. Call it an “ornamental distraction”—and a subtle reminder to appreciate nature.

The cover photo has


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