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