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
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
’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
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
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
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
’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
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
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
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
’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
Public relations 87.8%
Business management 25.2%