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R.I.P. for PR spin: Ethics, public relations and the imminent death of ‘spin’

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
For a terrifically funny example of spin, watch the 2005 movie, “Thank You For Smoking.”

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has declared this September as “Ethics Awareness Month,” complete with “The New Era of Authenticity” as a theme. There’s also a Google+ Hangout on PR ethics, webinars and a #PRethics hashtag. While it saddens me that any profession places a special emphasis for just 30 days on a code of conduct, the PRSA’s declaration does offer an irresistible opportunity to focus on a single word: “Spin.”

Every once in a great while, a client will ask our Minneapolis PR agency to “spin” some topic for his or her company. It’s almost always asked innocently, like, “We just won this prestigious award for doing really good work, but we don’t know how to word the press release. Can you put your spin on it?”

No matter how benign a client’s intention might be, however, my skin practically crawls every time I hear the word “spin” if it’s not in the context of a fitness class, silk worms, a child’s top, Hanukkah dreidels, or something to do with yarn. In our profession of public relations, the word “spin” connotes deception, obfuscation, misdirection and other smoke and mirrors tactics to hide the truth. For a terrifically funny example of spin, watch the 2005 movie, “Thank You For Smoking.”

Deservedly, the active use of spin has given the PR industry a black eye. Dating as far back as the “public be damned era” of the late-1880s, when ethics-free railroad, banking and oil industry empire builders bought Federal and state legislation to further their stockholders’ profits, publicists would massage the truth to hide the misdeeds of some of their clients.

The trend continued well into our own times, when, in 1991, a Hill & Knowlton agency executive notoriously reminded staff that, “We’d represent Satan if he paid.” And just last week it was announced that former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice hired a PR agency to “fix” his damaged reputation.

During countless incidents of corporate malfeasance — from the tobacco industry’s attempts to hide the danger of its smoking products, the auto manufacturers’ efforts to camouflage defective mechanisms that led to mass recalls, pharmaceutical companies’ reactions to off-label use and side effects, and corporate polluters’ hopes that citizens would simply dismiss spills, leaks and toxic dumps — PR agencies have figured prominently in spinning unspinnable facts. Someone violated business ethics and did not want the public to fully understand what happened.

Even in my own 20+ years experience in PR, an executive I once worked with demanded that my job was “to make him look good.” Considering how he mistreated his direct reports, disrespected and intimidated constituents of the organization, blasted the local news media, and valued bulldozing as his favorite leadership style, I responded, “Then give me something to work with!”

Surprisingly, he didn’t fire me. But he didn’t comply with my request, either. I wound up ending my relationship with the organization shortly afterward.

Will it ever be possible to eliminate spin from our industry? My answer is a qualified “yes.”

The good news is that the vast majority of PR people I know would have responded to the incident above in a similar fashion. They don’t lie. In fact, they do everything within their power to tell a client’s story factually and advise clients to always tell the truth, no matter how difficult it may be.

What’s even better is that the proliferation of YouTube, Facebook and other social media channels is forcing corporations, business executives and public figures into greater degrees of transparency, making getting away with spin harder than ever before. While this information democracy era is still in its infancy, its promise of open, honest and ethical marketing and communication is encouraging.

But humans, being who we are, will still let hubris rule at times. Until our species evolves into a science fiction-like creature of altruism and grace, we’ll need tools like the PRSA’s “Ethics Month” to inform and educate PR practitioners of the important role they play in upholding the public trust — and in encouraging their clients to act with honor and honesty, as their best selves.

This post was written by Gwen Chynoweth and originally published on the MaccaPR Blog. Follow Maccabee PR on Twitter: @maccabeepr.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by John Peschken on 09/16/2014 - 01:44 pm.

    Liars

    While it is very difficult to out and out lie these days, telling half the truth and failing to answer the question is still very popular. All one has to do is look at the current crop of political attack ads to see that, and that’s what I think of when I call something “spin”.

    That is just another form of lying, in my opinion.

  2. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/18/2014 - 09:47 am.

    Optimism, PR Executives & the You Tubes

    Its nice to hear that someone has a hopeful future view for honesty & truth in the face of spin & lies. I hope Mz Chynoweth is correct in her optimism.

    Spin does not go away, however.
    The fact remains that there will always be hired guns to selectively polish up the ‘factoids’ which clients pay to have unduly shined. There is money in manipulating perceptions & always will be.

    Truth is, using the tobacco malfeasance example: the real story was a very long time coming. The lies of the tobacco industry stood for many decades.

    Whether there is a substantial alternative to misrepresentation in Youtube & Facebook has to be proven [to me, anyway].

    These same avenues can be used to misrepresent, as well as dispel lies & there is nothing to accredit the veracity & honesty of them.

    Unscrupulous people, groups, and competitors can always trash a company, organization, or any policy as they see fit.

    In fact, a whole new industry has cropped up to sanitize the reputations of organizations & paying clients of all stripes, to counteract bad press & critical reviews, whether those reviews be true or false.

    Bottom line perhaps:
    We tend to enjoy flattery & decry those who spoil the fun.
    What is the standard of truth that resonates with the public at large?

    Critical thinking, a skeptical mind & a social ethic is essential to being able to differentiate the good from the bad and resist easy acquiescence to hype & even lies.

    Do people really want to know who’s worth their time,
    who’s cheating them, and will they apply themselves to find out?

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