Does spin suck?

Does spin suck?

Indeed, the word ‘spin’ does have a negative connotation.

Even my favorite PR blogger, Gini Dietrich, has named her blog Spin Sucks.

And to be fair, in the way that Dietrich would define ‘spin’, I’m quite sure that I would agree with her. Deliberate distortion of facts, manipulation, and outright lying to the public — yeah, that sucks

But I see no reason for charging a perfectly good and usable word with only a negative aspect. We’re in public relations after all; we should know that there are more than just one side to every story.

But maybe I’m wrong?

Maybe spin does suck?

Have patience with me as I dive deeper into this semantic abyss in search for an answer to the question at hand.

According to Wikipedia:

“In public relations, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion in favor or against some organization or public figure. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, “spin” often implies the use of disingenuous, deceptive, and highly manipulative tactics.”

Not very positive, no.

According to Merriam-Webster, a spin doctor is “[…] a person (such as a political aide) whose job involves trying to control the way something (such as an important event) is described to the public to influence what people think about it.”

Well. Merriam-Webster’s description doesn’t shout ‘evil’ as much as Wikipedia, I guess. 

But, here’s what I think:

We shouldn’t be strangers to reclaiming negative words in an effort to make them positive instead.

As an inspiration, Edward Bernays,1 the father of public relations, wrote:

“I am aware that the word propaganda carries too many minds an unpleasant connotation. Yet whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depend upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published. In itself, the word propaganda has certain technical meanings which, like most things in this world, are neither good nor bad but custom makes them so.”

Arguably, Bernays didn’t succeed in turning the tables for the word ‘propaganda’.

But I’m stubborn. I think both ‘propaganda’ and ‘spin’ deserves better PR.2

Walter Lippmann argued that none of our thoughts or actions are based on direct knowledge of the ‘real’ world, because “the real environment is too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.”

To cope, we create mental stereotypes upon which we base all our thoughts and our actions. These stereotypes, then, are by design incomplete. And without these stereotypes, it becomes impossible for us to make sense of the world.

The way I see it, there seems to be an almost infinite number of stereotypical ways to describe facts — without violating the truth.

My favourite example involves a certain famous glass of water: 

Let’s say that there’s a glass of water standing on a table in front of you — and there’s water in it. The glass holds 100 ml of water, but it could hold 200 ml (if filled all the way up).

I could say that the glass is half full. That’s true.

I could also say that the glass is half empty. Still true.

The second statement emphasises emptiness (the glass needs a refill) and the first statement fullness (the glass needs no refill).

Both statements are equally true, of course, but the choice of words will influence our stereotypical thinking about the state of the glass and its content. And the world, by extrapolation.

Now, let’s get even more creative:

The glass is full. True, yes?

Technically, this statement is true as well.

50% of the glass contains water, and the other 50% is split between roughly 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and the rest is likely argon, carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gasses. 

Right.

How about this:

The glass is not half full, nor is it half empty. Also true.

An equal split between water and gasses implies that there are an exact split of number of protons, neutrons, and electrons on both sides.

However, it would it be practically impossible to keep these interchanging states at equilibrium. And that’s not taking quantum mechanics into account, either.

And even if we could arrange such an equal split, we’d still have a problem. Since liquid is denser than gas, for there to be an equal split of elementary particles, there should only be a small volume of water in the glass and a relatively large volume of gas for them to weigh the same.

The glass wouldn’t exactly look neither half-full, nor half-empty.

Such level of detail and accuracy might not matter to you or me, but for a physicist, these precise versions of the truth might make all the difference.

And it’s not just about what you say (framing and priming).
It’s also about who you are (trust and authority).
It’s about when you say it (timing).
Where you say it (context and medium).
To whom you say it (assertion).
And why you say it (intent).

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that someone would benefit if one of the glass-statements somehow became prevalent in a society obsessed with glasses of whatever.

“The glass is half empty,” would surely benefit those who are are providers of whatever that content might be. Should we consider these merchants evil for promoting a version of the truth that highlights their particular solution?

And if this behavior is indeed ’evil’ by default, could you then perhaps show me a single person in the world who would never dream of doing this?

I don’t think you can.

As humans, we spin. We frame our statements to make them serve our purposes. Fundamentally, it’s our right to make a case that is ours and not someone else’s.

And if someone comes along saying that they have the absolute authority on what version of the truth you — and everyone else — must abide by?

Well, run. And while you’re sprinting for safety under panicking breaths, you can be assured that those scary authoritarians were just spinning their stereotypical version of the truth, too.

In a democracy, we’re actually supposed to have our say, to influence our world with our words.

If you don’t get to spin your reality the way you see it, then someone else will surely to do it for you — but not necessarily with your best interest in mind. 

Personally, I’m proud to say that I spin my version of how I see the world — all the time. And I help my clients to spin their versions of the truth, too. I’m a propagandist!

“This is just semantics,” some might argue.

Well, your semantics just made me out to be an evil person. I’m sorry, but that just won’t stand unargued.

Is spin a bad thing? Movie scene from Inception by Christopher Nolan starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
To spin or not to spin. That is the question.

Cover photo by Ash from Modern Afflatus on Unsplash.

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  1. From Propaganda by Edward Bernays (1928).
  2. Back when I studied public relations at Mid Sweden University, I did argue that I wouldn’t mind getting the professional title “propagandist” for the same reasons that I’m arguing in this blog post. However, this idea surely was a tough sell — even in a classroom full of aspiring PR professionals.
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Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.org/
Jerry Silfwer aka Doctor Spin is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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