The term “spin doctor” is an amalgam of “spin,” meaning the interpretation or slant placed on events (which is a sporting metaphor, referring to the spin a pool player puts on a cue ball), and “doctor,” derived from the figurative uses of the word to mean patch up, piece together, and falsify. The “doctor” part also derives from the employment of professionals rather than untrained amateurs to administer the spin.
The term “spin doctor” was coined by American novelist Saul Bellow, who spoke in his 1977 Jefferson Lecture about political actors “capturing the presidency itself with the aid of spin doctors.” The word “spin” first appeared in the press on January 22, 1979, in a Guardian Weekly article; the phrase “spin doctor” first appeared in the press on October 21, 1984, in a New York Times editorial commenting on the televising of presidential debates. It took another decade until it was picked up by academics: Maltese (1994, 215–216) discussed the significance of spin doctoring for political communication, and Sumpter and Tankard (1994) for public relations. Theoretical concepts most closely related to spin are priming and framing. Medvic (2001), for example, considers “deliberate priming” as the main responsibility of spin doctors, by which he means producing campaign messages that focus on issues that are to a politician’s advantage and trigger appropriate schemas within targeted voters when evaluating the politician. Other works tied spinning to “strategic framing,” which Bennett (2005) defines as delivering a message with the “right” scripting to lead journalists to pick the preferred category for accentuating the message.
It should be pointed out that many scholars do not take spin doctoring too seriously, because it is neither a neutral scientific concept (such as “communication”) nor theself-labeling of a branch (such as “public relations”), but rather a biased term used by journalists to discredit, hype, or mystify the work of political public relations (PR) experts (e.g., as powerful manipulators). To discuss the term’s relevance for political communication research it seems helpful to distinguish a realist and a constructionist position. The realist position tries to answer the question of what spin doctoring actually means, where spin doctors are active, and what they actually do. The constructionist position doubts the existence of spin doctors as such and considers the use of the term a rhetorical strategy; it tries to answer the question why this term has become such a prominent media phenomenon.
Arguing from a realist position, Andrews (2006) distinguishes four stages with regard to how the term “spin doctoring” has been used and how it has changed its meaning in the process. Initially, spin was used as a technical definition of a specific US campaign tactic whereby, after a televised presidential debate had ended, campaign operatives emerged to try to massage how reporters interpreted the meaning of the event. “Spinning gave political handlers a chance to explain away and thus repair the damage a candidate had done to himself, or to inflict damage on the opponent that their candidate might not have” (Rosenstiel 1994, 309). The practice of party officials patrolling their media contacts after major campaign events turned out to be of mutual benefit, because reporters were keen to speak to dependable sources capable of giving them an instant interpretation as well as background guidance on the likely consequences. The 1988 US presidential election was a watershed insofar as for the first time the news media reported extensively on the practice of spin doctoring (Lemert et al. 1991).
In the second phase, the term rapidly spread to other countries and considerably broadened in meaning. From a specific post-debate tactic it came to signify anyone or anything included in what were believed to be the black arts of campaigning (Andrews 2006). By using the term in an increasingly arbitrary fashion, journalists themselves were arguably putting a spin on minor stories, presumably to increase readers’ interest. As a result, campaign techniques as varied as briefing journalists, explaining campaign strategy or candidates’ actions to journalists, attacking opponents, rapid rebuttals, speech and image consulting, media monitoring, political advertising, or opinion polling were all attributed to spin doctors, a cross-national content analysis of campaign coverage found (Esser et al. 2001).
A contributing factor to a broadening understanding of spin doctoring was the documentary The War Room. This showed Clinton advisors James Carville and George Stephanopoulos engaged in a wide range of campaign activities during the 1992 presidential election. The press pictured Carville’s and Stephanopoulos’ personalities as so intriguing that it turned them into celebrities. Both readily admitted to being spin doctors (and even labeled themselves as such) and appeared on news programs, on talk shows, and in people magazines (as did Alastair Campbell or Peter Mandelson a few years later in Great Britain). Journalists and campaigners in other countries were also fascinated by The War Room and how it staged the campaign process as a glamorous sort of warfare. In the 1990s, carefully planned backstage access for journalists to observe the process of image construction became an essential element of campaigns in many modern democracies. This highly managed strategy of meta-imaging (Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles 1999) triggered a new type of campaign coverage called meta-coverage (Esser & D’Angelo 2003).
In the third stage, spin made the progression to an encompassing word for media operations of political institutions. Important milestones in this development were John A. Maltese’s book Spin control (1994), Howard Kurtz’s book Spin cycle (1998), and Dick Morris’s insider account Behind the Oval Office (1997). Maltese classified as spin control any measure by the White House Office of Communication – responsible for long-term PR planning – that governments since Richard Nixon used in an effort to influence media coverage of administrations and their policies. Kurtz focused on the White House chief press secretary Mike McCurry, characterized as a master of spin, and described his Press Office Staff as being engaged in a constant spin cycle designed to reactively downplay negative issues and proactively promote positive issues. Clinton adviser Morris emphasized the importance of bypassing the cynical mainstream news media and holding instead what he called a second conversation with the general public, by listening to it through polls and talking to it through ads. The same broadening of meaning signified by the term “spin doctor” could be observed in Great Britain. From there it was only a short way to the fourth and final stage when authors begun to equate spin doctoring with any type of commercial PR (see Andrews 2006).
Against the backdrop of this development, it becomes clear that any attempt to classify this particular circle of consultants precisely is an undertaking doomed to fail. The broad use of the term makes it difficult if not impossible to adequately define spin doctors from a realist position. As a consequence, the constructionist position explicitly steps away from the idea that the term “spin doctor” refers to a specifically defined group of people. This approach turns its attention to the question of why there is suddenly a new expression for a well-known and long-established profile of tasks (i.e., political PR). The constructionist position starts from the observation that newly emerging occupations (such as PR) try to attain greater professional recognition by employing strategies of self-promotion. This strategy involves stage-managing one’s own importance by publicly promoting the marketable values of one’s activity. In other words, this strategy is based less on the question of whether someone possesses certain professional characteristics or not, and more on the question of whether one is able to act and appear professional.
According to this strategic approach toward professionalization, the key resource for political PR experts in managing their professional status focuses on the presentation of their own performance. While the majority of political PR experts does not seem to go this route and prefers to remain invisible to the public, a small media-savvy minority began pursuing this strategy actively in the 1990s. These consultants consciously sought the media limelight and had a strong self-interest in creating and sustaining the myth of powerful, omnipotent “spin doctors.” Nowadays, there is probably nobody who would like to admit to being a spin doctor, but for some time the term appeared new and seemed to help some political PR experts to set themselves apart from existing or related occupations. Due to the media attention they received, this small group was highly visible but not representative of the occupation of political PR experts as a whole. This mechanism helps explain the professional image of consultants that in some countries has remained distorted to this date (Tenscher 2003).
The second argument of the constructionist position refers to the behavior of journalists: they also had an interest in creating and sustaining the myth of the spin doctor. Initially, journalists used the term to hype or mystify political PR because it corresponded to an important journalistic demand: it adds drama and color to otherwise boring, stagemanaged events. Stories about spin are enjoyable to write and easy to research because they naturally take place in the journalists’ own direct environment. Undoubtedly, one can also assume a fair degree of professional narcissism when journalists report on political PR, because they implicitly write about themselves as the subject of news management. Later, journalists used the term in a more degrading manner in order to discredit the legitimate aims of candidates, parties, and governments to assert themselves against increasingly autonomous and powerful media organizations, which often pursue an agenda of their own and whose motives are not always exclusively oriented toward the public welfare. The demonization of spin is to be understood as a counter-strategy of journalists to prove their independence and legitimacy. Yet the discrediting use of the spin metaphor by journalists oftentimes conceals the fact that political PR experts provide essential information, without which the media could not possibly carry out their task of informing the public about the internal mechanism of the political process.
The third argument of the constructionist position is that the widely noticed increase in news reports about political PR must be seen as an outcome of a new, modernized, and media-centered approach to policymaking and campaigning. Just as politicians have become adept at devising strategies geared toward effectively communicating their policy and image messages to the electorate, so, too, have journalists adapted to these changing circumstances by weaving into stories information about the behaviors and roles of political publication experts, as well as about the behaviors and roles of journalists. On this basis, Esser & D’Angelo (2003, 2006) developed a theory of meta-coverage that works from the premise that journalists are compelled to cover political PR in order to accurately describe, interpret, and analyze the media politics environment.
- Andrews, L. (2006). Spin: From tactic to tabloid. Journal of Public Affairs, 6, 31–45.
- Bennett, W. L. (2005). News: The politics of illusion, 6th edn. New York: Longman.
- Esser, F., & D’Angelo, P. (2003). Framing the press and the publicity process: A content analysis of metacoverage in campaign 2000 network news. American Behavioral Scientist, 46, 617–641.
- Esser, F., & D’Angelo, P. (2006). Framing the press and publicity process in German, British and U.S. general election campaigns: A comparative study of metacoverage. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11(3), 44–66.
- Esser, F., Reinemann, C., & Fan, D. P. (2001). Spin doctors in the United States, Great Britain and Germany: Metacommunication about media manipulation. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 6(1), 16–45.
- Kurtz, H. (1998). Spin cycle: How the White House and the media manipulate the news. New York: Touchstone.
- Lemert, J. B., Elliot, W. R., Bernstein, J. M., Rosenberg, W. L., & Nestvold, K. J. (1991). News verdicts, the debates, and presidential campaigns. New York: Praeger.
- Maltese, J. A. (1994). Spin control: The White House Office of Communications and the management of presidential news, 2nd edn. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- Medvic, S. K. (2001). Political consultants in U.S. congressional elections. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
- Morris, D. (1997). Behind the Oval Office: Winning the presidency in the nineties. New York: Random House.
- Parry-Giles, S. J., & Parry-Giles, T. (1999). Meta-imaging, The War Room, and the hyper-reality of U.S. politics. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 28–45.
- Rosenstiel, T. (1994). Strange bedfellows. New York: Hyperion.
- Sumpter, R., & Tankard, J. W. (1994). The spin doctor: An alternative model of public relations. Public Relations Review, 20, 19–27.
- Tenscher, J. (2003). Professionalisierung der Politikvermittlung? [Professionalization of political communication?] Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher.