Who’s spinning who?: PR pros are often called the sultans of spin. But what exactly is spin? And how often is it done? Adam Leyland argues it’s more complex than reporters allow

Spin. It’s a hated word in public relations. But like it or not, the public has indelibly linked the word, the practice, to the PR profession.

Spin. It’s a hated word in public relations. But like it or not, the public has indelibly linked the word, the practice, to the PR profession.

Spin. It’s a hated word in public relations. But like it or

not, the public has indelibly linked the word, the practice, to

the PR profession.



PR pros are the sultans of spin. The spinmeisters. The spin

doctors.



But nowhere is the link more pronounced than among journalists.

In the PRWeek/Business Wire Journalist Survey 1999, conducted by

Los Angeles-based Impulse Research, 87.8% of journalists

associate the term spin with PR more than with any other

profession - even more than with politics (81.0%).



It’s a terrible reputation to be lumbered with. As Ron DeFore of

Strat@comm, Washington, DC, says: ’I never go out and say, ’Okay,

how do we spin this one?’ It implies an element of untruth.’



Yet the reality, as our survey reveals, is that while

journalists’ knee-jerk reaction is to talk about ’spin’ and PR in

the same breath, they acknowledge that the practice is nowhere

near as prevalent as the figures suggest. In a list of top 10

concerns, factual accuracy ranked ninth, at 24.9%. Far more

important to the average journalist are lack of familiarity with

editorial requirements (59.4%), poor writing (51.5%) and

unsolicited phone calls, faxes and e-mails (58.6%).



Asked how often they encounter PR people who spin to the

detriment of factual accuracy, only 3.7% of journalists said ’all

the time,’ and only 18% said ’often.’ About half say it happens

’sometimes’ and a quarter admit it happens ’very rarely.’



What is spin?



It’s understandable therefore if PR pros feel slighted. They

argue that they are wrongly blamed for a phenomenon that is

everywhere.



’We get spun 5,000 times a day,’ says Hal Dash, president of

Cerrell & Associates in Los Angeles. ’To spin is human,’ adds Rob

Roth, senior associate in BSMG Worldwide’s Boston office. ’As

negative as the term has become, spinning is something that

virtually everyone does virtually every day. It’s how we use

persuasion to exert influence over our environments. In essence,

to spin is to present something from a perspective we hope others

will adopt. Lawyers do it. Teachers do it. Even our parents do

it.’



Greg Wilson, director of federal affairs for Solutia in

Washington, DC, also contends that spin is used by virtually

everybody in life. ’I have kids and I’m spinning things,’ he

says. ’They want to get glasses of juice. I want them to go to

bed.’



All of which raises the question, what is spin anyway? As our

survey demonstrates, even journalists admit that spin is a more

widespread phenomenon than people actually acknowledge - that to

some extent spin exists outside the PR and political spheres.



What’s disturbing is the number of journalists who cannot see

just how prevalent spin is in our daily lives: When they were

asked what professions spin, 68.7% said advertising, only 57.3%

said sales, 30.3% law, 25.2% business management and 4.9%

accounting. How fair is this?



’I am trying to think of an industry where spin doesn’t occur,’

says Strat@comm’s DeFore. ’Everyone from hospital administrators

to accountants preparing for an IRS audit spin’ - proof that the

phrase ’numbers don’t lie’ is a spin in itself.



Webster’s New World Dictionary of Media and Communications says

spin can mean either ’finding a fresh, new angle for a story,’ or

language used to ’slant, twist or manipulate a position, concept

or event.’ But dictionary author Richard Weiner of Porter Novelli

asserts that when a journalist asks the PR representative for his

’spin,’ it only means ’what is his angle or interpretation’ of

the story. ’The twist does not have to be devious,’ insists

Weiner.



It’s therefore doubly aggravating that even as the term has

developed a dual meaning (and PR pros go about business in the

most honorable way), the word is automatically denoted to be bad.

To have a spin on a story is to be a Machiavellian manipulator of

facts, and as we have already seen, even the most cynical of

journalists rarely think that to be the case.



’Spin is not a black and white issue,’ says Catherine Romaine,

president of Integrated Communication Consultants (Greer,

SC).’The bottom line is whether the PR person and/or the reporter

are being honest and telling an entire, fact-based story. Not all

spin is negative and deceitful, and not all reporting by the

media is honest and positive. Somewhere in the middle lies the

truth.’



’I could give you four different spins on the same piece of

information,’ says Michael Sitrick, CEO of LA-based Sitrick &

Associates and author of the book Spin. ’It’s merely a matter of

emphasis. Is that wrong?



All I’m doing is tailoring the information to different

audiences.’



In truth, the word spin has a far wider variety of meaning than

the automatic disparagement suggests. Even PR pros cannot agree

on what spin is. In a PRWeek/Impulse poll of PR pros, the

majority (50.5%) felt it was the presentation of a company,

product or individual in the best possible light. But 27.6% said

it was doing so regardless of the circumstances (see

sidebar).



Taking language to new places



One PR pro described PR as ’taking words in the English language

to places they have never been before - without it being used

against you in a court of law.’ But most see it typically in a

less harmful way.



Wilson considers spin to be simply prioritization because ’there

are some things you want to have viewed as more important than

others.’ But he argues that spin itself is getting spun

negatively: ’I’m a stickler for accuracy, and spin has to have a

grounding in reality. I do not see spin as the nasty thing that

journalists like to portray it as.’



Spin is nothing more than ensuring that your perspective is made

known for a multifaceted issue or story. The reporter may not

have considered all possible angles, or the perspective of

another organization may have been the only one presented. ’What

I try to do is complete the picture so the reporter has all the

factual background needed to produce the most accurate story

possible,’ says Frank Buhrman, PR director of Mount Saint Mary’s

College & Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD.



’Effective spin illuminates the good points,’ says Matthew Rose,

a VP at the MWW Group, ’in the hope that it neutralizes, or at

least provides a counterpoint to the bad points.’



’Michael Sitrick has it right in his book,’ says Mike Lawrence,

SVP of media services at Cone Communications. ’Spin should never

involve a lie or a distortion of the truth. It should always

involve providing information to put a story, product or event

into truthful context on behalf of a client. If it is bad news,

than the role of spin is to explain why it happened and what is

being done about it. Without such spin, the bad news usually

looks worse.’



The problem is that journalists bad mouth the PR profession for a

practice that regularly has no evil or malice attached to it.

Indeed, there are many pros who believe that PR is more a victim

of spin than a spinner, more spun against than spinning.



’The only thing PR practitioners control is the words we say,’

says Thomas Goodwin, senior vice president of Porter Novelli

(Washington) and director of the MessageMark Media Services. ’We

do not control the headlines, the placement, who the reporter

talks to or the angle of the story and its content.’



Says Les Goldberg, vice president of public relations at

GreenLight Communications (Newport Beach, CA): ’Spin, as defined

by journalists (the receivers), is information that is biased

towards the best interests of the sender. When journalists (the

senders) write their stories, the readers, viewers or listeners

(the receivers) are being spun by their biases of leaning when

presenting both sides of an issue.’



’Journalist spin is different from PR spin,’ says Clint Garwood,

PR account executive with Marketing Support (Chicago).

’Journalists use fear/fright spin tactics (i.e., public health

crisis), probably resulting from editorial direction designed to

lure readers and audiences. PR spin is used to minimize the

possibility of a journalist spinning public fear into the story.



Asked if journalists spin, PR pros are unambivalent. A whopping

97% said yes. And asked how often they have found that when

issuing a press release a journalist has taken an angle that

differs from the original positioning, 12.4% said it happens

’often’ and 62.9% find it to happen ’sometimes.’



Even journalists admit that they spin. A healthy 42.4% associate

the term with journalism. But looking at their practices in the

wider definition of the term, it’s clear that reporters are doing

it far more than even they acknowledge. Asked ’how often do you

take an angle that is different from the press release,’ 11% said

’all the time,’ 46.4% said ’often’ and 36.1% said ’sometimes.’

That’s 93.5% who are doing it at least some of the time.



Asked how often they take information from a press release to

support their own angle, 21.1% of journalists said they do it

’often’ while 48.1% admitted that it happens ’sometimes.’



PRWeek’s Media Watch demonstrates how several journalists can

have the same apparent information and come at it from a

completely different standpoint. The latest Media Watch (see

p13), about the MCI Worldcom brownout, illustrates the point.



And it’s also clear from the PRWeek/Business Wire Journalist

Survey that the concept of objective reporting, or ’just the

facts,’ is as good as dead - if it ever existed. The vast

majority (85%) say that when they write a story they are looking

to provide the facts plus an angle. And a staggering 89.2% see

their role not as presenters of information but interpreters of

the meaning or significance.



Journalists see themselves as a spin police force. And to some

extent that’s true. If newspapers and magazines ran press

releases verbatim, they would be a very different product, longer

and much less read! Even the process of editing creates spin of

some sort.



’When a photographer shoots a picture, what he chooses to leave

out of the frame can often be as important as what is included,’

says H&K senior managing director Charles McLean. ’The editing

process may be a necessary function of journalism but it is also

one that ends up producing spin.’



The ever-elusive truth



At the heart of this issue, however, is the fact that objective

truth is an elusive quality. Most often, news is a question of

interpretation, and its accuracy is subjective. Sometimes the

interpretation will cause friction on both sides of the divide.

One can put a positive or a negative spin on the same story. But

all agree that as long as truth prevails, there’s less likely to

be a problem.



’The trouble with spin started when PR and other professionals

lied,’ says Nicholas Wolaver, assistant account executive at The

Headline Group in Atlanta. ’As long as we tell the truth, there

is seldom something wrong with telling a client’s story and

accentuating the positive.’



- Additional research by Steve Lilienthal



- The PRWeek/Business Wire Journalist Survey was conducted by

Impulse Research (Los Angeles) in July 1999 and was based on 977

responses. A copy of the full report is available for dollars 25.

The PRWeek/Impulse poll on PR attitudes to spin took place in

August 1999 and was based on 105 responses



PRWEEK/BUSINESS WIRE JOURNALIST SURVEY 1999 RESULTS

Who spins?

Public relations                   87.8%

Politics                           81.0%

Advertising                        69.0%

Marketing                          68.0%

Sales                              57.7%

Journalism                         42.4%

Law                                30.3%

Business management                25.2%

Teaching                            5.3%

Accounting                          4.8%



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