Does Spin Suck?

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

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

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. 

Right.

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.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

Bonus Resource: Fundamental Approaches To PR

I Love PR – Mug in Snow – Doctor Spin – The PR Blog 3
I love PR.

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. The rhetorical approach is characterised by an absence of moral judgement and is by nature utilitarian.

Notable mentions: 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

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The viral effect i good, but if people doesn´t get what spin is about you need to change the way you communicate. Not in campaign, but when you are marketing your work.

  2. Surely, ‘spin’ is a derogatory term to begin with, and it still carries a negative charge for most people. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. In fact, by using the word an apparently ironic fashion, you are also disarming the negative associations of spin. And we have seen similar namings before, maybe you were inspired by NWA? In Swedish, it’s quite amazing how the Gay movement has ‘reclaimed’ and very consciously acted to change the use and meaning of ‘bög’ – just two decades ago, it was only used as an insult.

    • Yeah, I actually thought about how minorities have successfully reclaimed terms in the past. But that made me think that maybe this discussion about “spin” easily becomes pretty… vain.

      I remember when reading “A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” where the author Douglas Adams sends a spaceship with all the lawyers and PR consultants of earth straight into the sun to disintegrate and to be missed by, like, no-one.

      So the minority tactic might be a bit risky, because in the end of days, who really cares about how we marketers label ourselves and what we do? Still, to your point, I do think “spin” is a useful word and I’ve heard it being used in its positive sense outside our little bubble of marketers as well.

      To “put a spin to something” maybe has a bright future after all, instead of being used to describe people who lie and manipulate.

  3. As I always say, human beings are the ones who create words and then decide on the way they will be used.

    I like the word “spin”. It reminds me of the old days, when people still did manual labor. And in a way, it’s what people in social media do. They spin the wheel of the human journey to turn it into digital footprints.

    Ok, I’m done with poetry for the night. lol

    Great article, Jerry!

  4. Your blog has made me realize that when I was “spinning” the truth (thinking I was still telling the truth, just a better view of this truth by the way I told it), that I was actually lying by not just saying it straight out, like it was. Spinning IS negative whether you think you are still telling the truth, just your version of the truth or the cleaned up version or whatever….it’s still skewed and not the total truth, hence a lie. It’s time to stop spinning and just give the naked truth. We all deserve it!

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