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.
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.
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.
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.
Bonus Resource: Fundamental Approaches To PR
Fundamental Approaches To PR
There are three scholarly approaches to PR:
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.
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.
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.
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