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Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 30 years. He may be reached directly at yusake

He is the author of the Prentice- Hall text The Practice of Public Relations, now in its ninth edition, and co-author of Idea Wise.

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Jan. 16, 2006

Professional Development:

Two prominent stories over the weekend, each on a different continent, underscored the problem that the practice of PR faces in the last half of the first decade of the 21st century.

  • The Financial Times, in a piece on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's son's PR internship, wrote: "Public relations has never had a good name. Ironically for a business all about communications, it has either been associated with the dark arts of political spin-doctoring or the frothy world of show business celebrity."
  • Meanwhile on this side of the pond, The New York Times, in a story about Judge Sam Alito's victorious Senate Judiciary Committee performance, quoted a Democratic Senate strategist as concluding that one reason the Bush appointee triumphed was because Alito's wife began crying as her husband was being questioned.

    "Had she not cried, we would have won that day," concluded the "strategist," who, the Times said, "did not want to be quoted by name," presumably on the grounds of being exposed as a moron.

In both cases, the presumption of PR as "spin" predominated. And therein lies a nagging problem for the practice of PR.

As these stories suggest, PR is still shrouded in the mistaken and damaging belief that its practice is synonymous with distorting, obfuscating, confusing, or even lying.

In other words to many, PR means political or celebrity "spin-doctoring," spreading false stories to make a client look good. Others look at PR as a practice that deviously manufactures events – such as concocting a sniffling Mrs. Alito – to divert attention from truth.

Both interpretations underscore how hurtful the notion of "spin" is to the profession and why any self-respecting PR practitioner should think twice before using the term as representative of what he or she does.

"Spin," in short, is the enemy.

Technically, of course, the term has developed a rather benign formal definition.

"Spin," says Webster, is a "distinctive interpretation (especially as used by politicians to sway public opinion), e.g. "the campaign put a favorable spin on the story."

In 21st century reality, however, "spin" has taken on a sharper, less truthful connotation, more like "making things up out of whole cloth, " as in "spinning a yarn."
Specifically, the propensity in recent years for presumably-respected public figures to lie in an attempt to deceive the public has led to the notion that "spinning" is often tantamount to untruth.

Consider the culprits.

  • In 1998, President Bill Clinton pointed a finger at the American public and insisted that, "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." Clinton's palace guard – James Carville, Paul Begala, Lanny Davis, and the rest – spun anonymous charges that the woman in question was nothing but "trailer park trash."

    In the end, of course, despite the furious spinning, it was determined that he did and she wasn't.
  • In 2005, baseball hero Rafael Palmiero pointed another finger at Congressional inquisitors and insisted, "I have never taken steroids. Period." Fellow testifiers, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, spun similar "not guilty" claims.

    Months later, when Palmiero failed a drug test, McGwire disappeared, and Sosa struggled to explain his monumental body shrinkage, the lie was clear.
  • And then there are the spins of high profile figures from Martha Stewart and Donald Trump to Al Sharpton, and Tom Delay, that have proven less-than-forthright over time.

The point is that despite its formal definition, "spin" has become inextricably linked with these kinds of deceptions, distortions, and outright lies perpetrated by society's most prominent members.

And the practice of PR has suffered as a result.

A book about PR pioneer Edward L. Bernays was titled, "The Father of Spin." When the New York Times wrote about the field, its article was titled, "How Public Relations Tries to Keep the World Spinning."

PR spin has largely come to mean a pernicious force that twists messages to create the appearance of action or performance, which may or may not be true.

Such an interpretation is antithetical to the PR of public relations. PR should be all about proper performance first and communicating that performance second.

In other words, the first task of any PR professional is to make sure the performance is solid, proper, and successful. If it isn't, than it's the responsibility of PR practitioners to work to fix the performance before publicizing how terrific everything is.

Stated another way, you can't have publicity without performance.

Stated another, another way, in public relations, if you lie once, you will never be trusted again-particularly by the media.

In other words, your credibility – with clients, coworkers, and reporters – depends on "truth" not "spin."

So ... the next time you're about to advise the chairman on how you intend to "spin this" or "spin that," think again before blurting out the "S" word. You'll be doing your profession and yourself a great service.



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