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Ditch the spin

By Heather Claycomb.

There are a lot of things that “spin.” In fact, spinning is most often a good thing.  
We want the Earth to keep spinning – that’s a good thing.  Those of us who spin multiple plates simultaneously are praised for our skill.  Other good things that spin include cricket balls, wheels, fans, tops. 

You see where I’m going with this, right?

While spinning can be a good thing, in the context of communication it’s bad.  Very bad.

And unfortunately, some propogandists who have wrongly assumed a PR job title have sullied the reputation of the public relations profession.  The result, over many decades, is that the term ‘spin’ has wrongly become synonymous with the practice of strategic communication.

The reality is that spin is propaganda.  And let’s just call a spade a spade: propaganda – spreading cleverly manufactured false messages to either make you look good or others look bad – is lying. Spin implies there is a devious mastermind behind the scenes twisting words, inventing shiny objects to divert attention and putting lipstick on a pig and convincing you to call it pretty.

That’s not the profession I’m in, and that’s not the profession around 13,000 of my PR colleagues around the country are in.

The trouble with equating propaganda with the discipline of ethical, strategic communications is that it all gets thrown in the same basket and labelled, “evil.”  And evil easily gains negative momentum.  Evil fuels gossip, evil attracts critics and evil invites media scrutiny – rightly so.

This misrepresentation of the PR profession has become so distorted that the news of organisations hiring more communications professionals sparks a public outcry that these organisations must have something they need to hide, distort or brainwash the public about.

What nonsense!  The communications industry has grown in leaps and bounds over the past two decades.  This is largely due to two factors: 1) the explosion of channels, and 2) relentless public scrutiny.

The sheer number of communications channels the public demands organisations communicate through has skyrocketed.  Twenty years ago large organisations would have had a call centre, put out a media release every once in awhile and maybe pushed out a monthly newsletter.  One communications person could handle that. 

Now, organisations are expected to be active and listening on a minimum of three social media channels, updating websites weekly, responding to emails within hours 24x7, replying to media queries within minutes, all while generating heaps of content to feed the public who has become an information-hungry beast.  This volume requires a larger, skilled team to manage.

The second factor affecting the rise of the communications profession is that moreso than ever before the public is scutinising your organisation’s every move.  And that scrutiny is not always well-informed or rational.  If you are on a board, you know that companies’ risk registers are more complex than ever before and reputational issues are often at the top of the page.  Boards and leadership teams rely on communications experts to develop mitigation plans that safeguard the public, protect staff, distil the truth and prevent the spread of misinformation.  Just as organisations require specialist legal, finance and HR advice, PR counsel is increasingly in demand.

I decided to write this article because I’ve had enough of the “spin” references, frankly.  And also, because I wanted to ask you two favours.  Don’t worry, they are easy yet will make a huge difference to the communications professionals who support you.

The first favour I ask is that when your organisation is seeking communications support, ensure you hire an ethical public relations practitioner.  The best way to find an ethical practitioner is to search the member database on the PR Institute of NZ (PRINZ) website – prinz.org.nz.  Members of PRINZ sign up to a Code of Ethics, which sets out rules for ensuring our work serves the public interest, provides a voice for informed public debate, is accurate and truthful, builds credibility and relationships and provides objective counsel.

The second favour I ask: ditch the word spin.  If you find yourself equating the word spin with strategic communications, stop yourself.  If you really mean propaganda, call it out for what it is.  Recognise the incredible insult it is to call ethical PR practitioners “spin doctors.”  Not only is it offensive, it’s hurtful.

And finally, the next time you see your communications manager or advisor, recognise their good work.  They care about your organisation and its reputation and they do everything in their power to protect it.  They deserve a “good on ya” and to know you’ve got their back too.