The word spin does have a negative connotation, for sure.

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

To be fair, in the way she would define spin, I’m quite sure I would agree. Deliberate distortion of facts, manipulation, and outright lying to the public 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 of every story.

But maybe I’ve gotten it all wrong? Maybe spin sucks?

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.”

Disingenuous use is implied, but it also relies on creative ways of presenting the facts. 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.”

Spin is a tool for creativity, and as such, it can be used for both good and evil purposes. As a comparison, Edward Bernays1, 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.”

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 ‘pictures’ or ‘stereotypes’ upon which we base all our thoughts and our actions. These stereotypes, then, are by design incomplete. Without these filters, it would be impossible for us to make sense of the world.

There seems to be an infinite number of ways to describe facts without violating their first principles. My favourite example involves a 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. 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 both true, of course, but the choice of words will influence how we think about the state of the glass and its content. 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. How about this:

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

An equal split between water and air gasses would imply that there are just as many protons, neutron, and electrons on both sides, however, it would it be practically impossible to keep these interchanging states at equilibrium. And since a liquid is denser than gas at the same temperature, for there to be an equal 50/50 split, there should be a small volume of water in the glass and a relatively large volume of gas for them to weigh the same.

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

As humans, we spin. We frame our statements to make them serve our purposes. And it isn’t all about what you say (framing and priming), either. It’s about who says it (trust and authority). It’s also about when and where you say it (timingcontext, and medium). To whom you say it (assertiveness). Why you say it (intent).

And if someone comes along saying that they have an absolute authority on what version of the truth you and everyone else must abide by? Well, rest assured that they’re spinning, too.

We’re actually supposed to have our say, to influence our world with our words. If we don’t get to describe reality in the way we see it, someone else will be sure to do it for us — but not necessarily with our best interest in mind. 

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).