Do PR People “Spin?”

I glanced at my Twitter stream while eating lunch at my desk today and noticed several people sharing tidbits from the in-progress PRSA International Conference. What was the hubbub?

Penelope Trunk, a keynote speaker at the conference, said something to the effect of “it’s all about spin.” If you want to see PR people get REALLY defensive REALLY quickly, say the word “spin.” The reaction is amazing!

Spin has become synonymous with lying. “Spin doctor” was the moniker given to PR people, who some said twisted truth – even outright lied – to keep damaging facts under wraps. Even to a lesser degree, we’ve been accused of “spinning” non-stories to try and get placements for our clients.

I used to cringe when I heard the word “spin.” I still do a little. No, I don’t lie to get news stories for my clients. I’d bet most PR people don’t. Reporters know a good story when they hear one and they act – importantly so – as gatekeepers to make sure real news gets shared.

Let’s be honest, though. We do “spin” to some degree, but it depends on your definition of the word. It’s not about lying. It’s about polishing. Here’s an analogy.

EVERYONE polishes themselves up before going on a date, right?

Showered. Nice outfit. Combed hair. A little cologne. Cool shoes. Breath mints. Maybe a small wrap of flowers. Washed and vacuumed car. Show up on time.

You get the picture. It’s not that you’re not presenting the real you. It’s you…polished.

Polishing yourself up a bit and being thoughtful about how you present yourself doesn’t mean you aren’t a great catch. Likewise, a brand being thoughtful about how it presents itself doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a great story to tell. Sometimes, you just need a little help understanding the newsworthiness of the many layers of your brand. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Does “polish” make you cringe like “spin” does? Do great PR people polish their brands and clients to help tell their stories? Is there anything wrong with that?

*Image by Miguel B.

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16 responses to “Do PR People “Spin?”

  1. Polish or spin, it is all the same thing. The nagative connotation with spin is that people associate it with confusion. Polish doesn’t have the same attachment. And yes, we do it all the time. For example, in a down economy, PR people love the world value. Cheap doesn’t associate with quality, but value does.

  2. I was at the luncheon and was frustrated when PR pros got upset and tried to give Penelope some better words to use than “spin.” They gave her a multiple-word, gobbledygook explanation of what PR people do that they thought sounded better than “spin.”

    Guess what?!? Defining spin is spinning! I owe my career success to spinning better than the next guy and spinning better than my competitor.

    It does not mean I was dishonest or did not have integrity. It meant that I got my side of the story, my client’s position or my angle on an issue out to the targeted audience more effectively. It’s nothing I should be ashamed of or for which I should apologize.

  3. It’s all about presentation.

    Framing, shaping, editing, polishing, spinning — call it what you will.

    Your spin on the story is that using the word “spin” made a PR audience cringe, so maybe the speaker should have used a less inflammatory word to present herself to the audience!

    Or not!

    Because now the audience is talking about, uh, spin! This, in itself, can be a valuable conversation for the conference.

  4. @Laura – I think I may not have been clear. I wasn’t suggesting that Penelope should have used a less inflammatory word. I’m suggesting that PR people get over their knee-jerk reaction to the word since “we all spin to some degree.”

    To be clear, I’m not voting that we all use a new word that will be less likely to upset some people. I’m suggesting that those who get upset about it realize that:

    1. we do it; and
    2. it’s not saying we’re lying, but that we’re framing, shaping, editing, polishing, whatever – as you pointed out.

    Hope that clarifies… Thanks for commenting.

  5. I have to admit I cringe when I hear “spin”, too, but isn’t that what any good communicator should do? You should always be “spinning” your perspective. And the date analogy is perfect. Why would any PR person (or other pro, for that matter) push anything but their most positive attributes?

  6. Isn’t it funny that when it’s in politics ‘spin’ is akin to hiding the truth, when it’s crisis communications ‘spin’ covering one’s butt, and when it’s a pitch it’s working to meet the journalists’ needs. hmmm… 😉

    Here’s an intersting true story. I teach the Marketing PR module for an integrated MarComm course and always open my first class by getting the (mostly ad ad or mktg agency) students to tell me what they think PR is. Several years ago the first word to fly off of peoples lips was “spin!” In the past few years I’ve noticed that it now actually takes a modicum of effort to get them to add ‘Spin’ to the list of things I put up on the board.

    Curious, no?

    Is PR getting better understood? or is the word Spin losing favour/meaning?

    But to keep from straying too far from the topic let me go back to my opening statements and apply them to the original question. In light of all the different ways that things can be ‘spun’ I’d say that yes indeed we are spin doctors. But just what form that spin takes is really dependent on the situation, the person doing it, and the desired outcome.

  7. We spin a web of messages to create a company or brand. We shouldn’t cringe at spin. If you cringe, you clearly don’t understand how to use language in your favor. We create stories for our clients (or companies, if you’re in-house) and each message we have to define who our client is, is a piece of string that when, ahem, spun together creates the overall story of who they are. There’s no reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed. It just so happens that we (should) know how to spin that story to make everything (and everyone) more compelling. Just my 2 cents. Spin away.

  8. I saw on the #prsa08 feed that Penelope clarified, saying “spin” means “optimistic packaging”, not so much being disingenuous. I can agree with this.

    Your date analogy was right on – we don’t aim to mislead, but traditionally, the role of PR is to optimistically position our company/client so as to present the best, most appropriate version for the audience.

    This topic is one of the reasons marketing through social media is so great – it forces authenticity and brings the “spin” (however you define it) out into the open.

  9. It’s common knowledge that PR people “spin,” “polish,” “optimistically package,” whatever you want to call it. I mean, come on. It’s the very heart of what public relations is! You don’t hire a PR firm to make you look bad or to talk about your faults. You hire a PR firm to talk about the GOOD things. What makes your client/product/event/news pitch APPEALING for someone (journalist, general public, etc.) to take notice.

    As an editor, whenever I get pitched by a firm, I automatically know that the person on the other end will NEVER tell me the whole truth about what they are pitching, because to do so would hinder the PR process. This is what journalists are for, to dig the truth out of whatever it is being pitched.

    You really get a clear picture of this with product pitches. PR peeps will give me everything wonderful about said product, but it takes an objective journalist/reviewer to give me the real deal, warts and all. That’s not to say journalists are always looking for the negative (though many PR peeps would say otherwise), it’s just that we understand that the PR firm is being PAID by said product company to put their product in a positive light and any type of negativity associated with their pitch can hinder the process of getting coverage or can result in negative press.

    We all know this. This is the game we all play and have played for decades. This is no secret.

    Regarding social media as a PR tool, the keyword with using Twitter, blogs, etc. is SUBTLETY. If you’re going to keep tweeting about said client multiple times, it gets annoying. Just as it gets annoying getting multiple phone calls or emails. (Note: If we’re interested, we’ll reply back, I swear!) The abuse of social media will be a PR person’s downfall.

  10. Is “spin” really the core issue of this conversation? It seems that PR professionals constantly have to defend our profession, how we say and do things, etc. etc.

    What about the idea of being authentic and using our position/profession to build relationships with the public instead of trying to de-authenticate them? Isn’t that what “spinning” is doing after all? Like it or not, spinning may just be “polishing,” but to our audience is that really how they perceive it? Is that how we perceive it as consumers? When our client does something amazing we don’t see much “spin,” we get the truth. When they screw up–this is where the “spin” factor comes into play–why not share a client’s experience (or mistake) and then focus on the great things that were done to fix it. Bottom line, spinning, only goes so far in my opinion. If you aren’t authentic, real, and tell the truth, you won’t survive anyway. There are companies out there who are, and on top of it, are publically willing to learn and recognize their mistakes. Who wouldn’t value that?

    So as PR professionals why not focus our energy on building relationships with the public? When there comes a time we start worrying everything is going to go up in flames, the people you spent the time building relationships with are going to be the same ones spending their time defending you.

  11. In my opinion, I believe the negative connotation comes from politics; when a debate is over and everyone goes to the “spin room” where journalists don each political strategist as a public relations practitioner.

    I myself draw a line between the regular PR practitioner and a political strategist, due to my dislike of today’s political world. Likewise, as you do David, can draw different definitions of the word spin.

    The same can be said for the term “wordsmith”; it means to polish for them, spin for the other.

    All in all, the English language is a beautiful thing.

  12. I never liked thinking of anything as spin, I still don’t. This maybe isn’t a direct euphemism for spinning, but I like to think that PR is about connecting disparate dots.

    One dot represents what’s going on with the company and the other dot is what is going on in the world around me (or what the media is interested in). In my mind, it’s the job of PR to connect them and communicate how their client/company is relevant to the world/culture/community.

    To me this isn’t spinning, it’s just connecting.

  13. Found you via @BethHarte on Twitter. Great discussion and I’ll be subscribing.

    I direct communications for Washington State University Spokane. In my office, with a staff of 3.5 for a campus of 3000+ students, we handle PR, community relations, events, mktg, media relations, web/online, advertising, emergency communications & crisis response, internal communications, community relations, & government relations w/an integrated communications approach.

    One of the comments above said “PR only talks about the GOOD stuff.” Not in my office, and this idea that PR people are all Sunshine Sally is a common misperception.

    We work on the PUBLIC in public relations. How do we understand what members of the public (defined in terms of various audiences witih differing interests) think, understand what we do in teaching, research and outreach, and describe our work in ways that connect effectively with where they are in their thinking so they will understand and support us?

    This includes things like emergency communications and issues work, where we include statements grounded in our values and principles as we talk about difficult topics and differing views.

    I think people have gotten so cynical in general–not just about the way issues are presented to the public by an organization–that even these sincere statements sound like so much fluff.

    Any really good PR firm–Desautel Hege in my city of Spokane comes to mind–works with clients to prepare them for talking clearly and effectively about problems, things gone sour, and negative outcomes. It’s not just cookies and confetti work.


  14. David, I think this post is great! Maybe it’s b/c I’m a young PR pro, but I never cringe when I hear the word “spin.” It just doesn’t have that negative connotation like it used to. For me, “spin” is equivilant to cleaning up, packaging nicely or, as you said, “polishing.” It’s just what we do, and it’s not a bad thing at all.

  15. I do not like the word “spin” either; I associate it with lies. Polish sounds much nicer.

    As long as PR practitioners are being honest with their messages, that’s the important thing.

  16. David,

    I was at the keynote as well. I think there seemed to be overreaction from the audience. I do not believe Penelope intended to use it in a bad way.

    I think people should have reacted more harsh when MITCH ALBOM used the word “spin.” Why? Because Mitch is a journalist and I feel he used it as a strike on PR pros. But people didn’t seem to notice it as much because Mitch is a good story teller and everyone was wrapped up with hearing about Morrie from Tuesdays with Morrie.

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