The term “spin” has historically been associated with political and governmental campaigns. Two prominent citations stem from the Washington Post and New York Times. In 1977, Washington Post staff writer Spencer Rich wrote an editorial about Mike Pertschuk, former chief counsel and staff director, Senate Commerce Committee. Rich accused Pertschuk of “being too ardent a consumer advocate, of ‘lobbying’ members of the committee on behalf of things he thinks are good, of putting his own philosophical ‘spin’ on options, of being too close to Ralph Nader, of having excessive influence on Magnuson; in short, of acting like the ‘101st senator.’” In 1984, under the headline “The debates and the spin doctors,” New York Times editorial writer Jack Rosenthal predicted that “a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the pressroom” during a presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. He explained: “A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisors to the candidates, and they’ll be playing for very high stakes.”
Doublespeak appears to be a “close cousin” to spin. Kinnick stated, “doublespeak represents a language that is strategically chosen to distort or obscure reality. It is often associated with misleading advertising claims, unethical politicians, and public relations ‘spin doctors’ who use language to frame a subject in the most positive light” (2005, 260).
Somewhere between its early beginnings among the political arena and its present-day use, the term “spin” has become associated with the public relations profession. Sumpter and Tankard (1994) identified the spin model as an alternative approach being practiced in the public relations industry. Part of the reasons this profession may be connected with spinning behavior is because these practitioners have been – historically – associated with using propaganda techniques. The term propaganda itself has a negative connotation. So we should consider the way we engage in and discuss the concept of strategic persuasion. The term motivation has a much more positive connotation, and people seem more responsive to being motivated to do something than being persuaded to do it.
With something of the ominous and the conspiracy theory about it, the public relations spin model still prevails today. Evidence lies not only in the profession but also in the plethora of literature written about spin and its relationship to public relations. The reasons behind this association are open to speculation; however, they may stem from misrepresentation and misinformation.
Public relations activities are very diverse. Some practitioners engage in publicity and promotional activities, and they utilize varying propaganda-type techniques (bandwagon, glittering generalities, etc.) and persuasive methods. Although this paradigm determines how many public relations professionals have been depicted on television, in the newspaper, and in movies, these are not the only kinds of activities in which practitioners are involved. Public relations professionals are responsible for much more, including strategic planning and counseling, fundraising, researching, and developing and maintaining relationships between an organization and its key publics. This is just a range – not a cumulative list by any means. And public relations is practiced among a variety of disciplines, ranging from health-care, government, entertainment, and travel/tourism to corporate, nonprofit, and financial institutions.
There are several reasons why the communication profession supports strategic persuasion:
- Every issue has two sides; hence, there are two viewpoints.
- Practitioners are merely utilizing framing and agenda–setting strategies to disseminate their messages.
- Practitioners are responsible for advocating the viewpoint of the organization they represent, on the basis of the fiduciary relationship/commitment between the organization and its stockholders.
- Strategic persuasion has been around for centuries (e.g., James E. Grunig’s  press agentry model, Edward Bernays’s  “engineering” of public opinion).
- Society should be exposed to a “free marketplace of ideas,” which, in turn, supports socially responsible behavior.
- Strategic persuasion supports the absolutist view of the First Amendment to the US Constitution and corresponding provisions in other countries, and of moral judgment: actions are moral provided they yield positive consequences through moral conformity to moral rules.
There are also several reasons why the communication profession denounces spin:
- Spinning is unethical behavior because it misrepresents and distorts truth.
- Spinning is the antithesis of J. E. Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model of public relations, which seeks to develop mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics.
- Spinning is a form of propaganda that, when used deceitfully and manipulatively, does not fairly represent the information.
- The spin model suggests that public relations professionals are nothing more than “press agents” whose main goal and obligations are to “earn ink” and to make their organization “look good.”
- The word “spin” has a negative connotation, and “perception is reality”; hence, some may view this negative word and its association with the behavior it represents as representative of the behavior of all
- The spin paradigm does not support socially responsible behavior.
The word “spin” will never completely go away. However, by being kept alive via use in everyday dialogue, the word’s existence is perpetuated, thereby giving it power to survive. Communication professionals should strive to diminish its use as a commonplace term among the media and further be committed to practicing ethical communication. Further still, they should never deceitfully manipulate a message to communicate halftruths. And the behavior of those who assert that they practice spin as their “duty” as communication professionals should be discouraged.
Finally, the public relations profession, in particular, should continue to educate people about what it is and its contribution to society. People need to be reminded that, although publicity and promotional strategies are viable components of the communication mix, they are not the sole functions of public relations. Furthermore, instead of advocating propaganda as the foundation for these activities, we need to broaden our thinking to that of motivating particular behaviors that influence positive changes in our society and of the free marketplace of ideas.
- Bernays, E. L. (1923). Crystallizing public opinion. New York: Liveright.
- Budd, J. (1997). Watch out for the spin. Public Relations Quarterly, 42(2), 4–6.
- Coombs, T. W., & Holladay, S. J. (2007). It’s not just PR: Public relations in society. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Dilenschneider, R. (1998). Spin doctors practice public relations quackery. Wall Street Journal, June.
- Fall, L. T. (2005). Spin. In R. Heath (ed.), Encyclopedia of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 800–803.
- Grunig, J. (1992). Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Kinnick, K. (2005). Doublespeak. In R. Heath (ed.), Encyclopedia of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 260–261.
- Rich, S. (1977). An invisible network of Hill power. Washington Post, March 20.
- Rosenthal, J. (1984). The debates and the spin doctors. New York Times, Ocotber 21.
- Sumpter, R., & Tankard, J. W. (1994). The spin doctor: An alternative model of public relations. Public Relations Review, 20, 19–27.