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Friday, March 24, 2006

What Is Spin?: Noel Guinane of Blood & Treasure and I have been having an interesting little discussion (see comments) about the meaning of the word “spin,” which is perhaps worth broadening out.

Ironically, or perhaps not, everyone seems to have his or her own definition of spin. “Spin is propaganda, not truth,” says Noel, at one point. Later, he says, “Spin is propaganda, the coloring of some of the facts with no requirement to ‘believe’ in what you are saying.”

A quick glance at dictionary.com provides the following definition of propaganda: “The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.” While spin, according to the same source, means “to provide an interpretation of (a statement or event, for example), especially in a way meant to sway public opinion.”

Those definitions are close enough to suggest that spin is indeed either a synonym for propaganda, or a subset of propaganda. But there are a couple of interesting points to be made about both definitions.

One is that there is no value judgment attached to either definition (although the dictionary’s example of spin in a sentence makes it clear that the term is typically used as a pejorative: “A messenger who spins bogus research into a vile theology of hatred” (William A. Henry III).

But theoretically, by this definition, spin can be used for a good cause just as easily as it can for bad. Take Wal-Mart for example. The fact is that Wal-Mart pays its average hourly worker about $10 an hour, while Costco pays about $17. One spin (interpretation) of that fact is that Wal-Mart is screwing over low-income workers. Another spin (interpretation) is that it is enabling low-income workers to buy more of the things they need by keeping costs, and thus prices, down. Both of those “spins” fit the facts. Whether one is good and the other bad is a purely subjective judgment.

By this definition, then, spin is not only a legitimate pursuit, but a noble one—one that is essential to a well-functioning democracy. Facts are presented, interpretations of those facts are offered, arguments are built, courses of action suggested. Without spin, facts are dull, useless things, raw data of limited utility.

This is the essence of the advocacy function of public relations: the presentation of facts, along with an organization’s interpretation of those facts. (Public relations as a whole is the art of aligning an organization’s objectives with those of the society in which it operates: sometimes that means persuading society to adjust its objectives, through advocacy; often, it involves listening to society and realigning the organization’s objectives.)

I doubt whether this is how Noel would define either spin or public relations. And there is clearly another variety of both, what one might call “black spin,” which involves applying selected facts while ignoring less convenient others; and sometimes downright dishonesty about the facts.

This is the very opposite of public relations, since it does not improve relationships but destroys them. It can occasionally be used to stimulate a transaction—as it is in politics, where the objective is to secure a vote—but it cannot be used to develop a relationship.

I have to admit, this is the sense in which I usually use the word "spin," to make a contrast between spin and public relations. When I hear the two terms being used as if they were synonymous, as if spin was the essence of public relations rather than it's greatest enemy, a thoughtful response is required.


  • At 6:25 PM, Blogger John Wagner said…


    Spin is not just the inclusion or exclusion of certain facts ... it's also the language and approach used to describe the information presented.

    Every time an executive "bridges" during an interview ... every time a spokesperson avoids a tough question by using canned legalese ... every news release that's filled with flowery language to describe something basic and boring ... our reputation suffers.

    There's no doubt that there are always two sides to every story. But until we learn to accept responsibility, speak plainly, avoid cop-outs and most of all, be 100 percent above board and honest in our communications, we'll be accused -- and often rightfully so -- of spinning to the public's detriment.


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