In public relations and politics, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through knowingly providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion in favor of or against some organization or public figure. While traditional public relations and advertising may also rely on altering the presentation of the facts, "spin" often implies the use of disingenuous, deceptive, and highly manipulative tactics.
Because of the frequent association between spin and press conferences (especially government press conferences), the room in which these conferences take place is sometimes described as a "spin room". Public relations advisors, pollsters and media consultants who develop deceptive or misleading messages may be referred to as "spin doctors" or "spinmeisters".
As such, a standard tactic used in "spinning" is to reframe or modify the perception of an issue or event, to reduce any negative impact it might have on public opinion. For example, a company whose top-selling product is found to have a significant safety problem may "reframe" the issue by criticizing the safety of its main competitor's products or indeed by highlighting the risk associated with the entire product category. This might be done using a "catchy" slogan or sound bite that can help to persuade the public of the company's biased point of view. This tactic could enable the company to defocus the public's attention on the negative aspects of its product.
As it takes experience and training to "spin" an issue, spinning is typically a service provided by paid media advisors and media consultants. The largest and most powerful companies may have in-house employees and sophisticated units with expertise in spinning issues. While spin is often considered to be a private sector tactic, in the 1990s and 2000s, some politicians and political staff have been accused by their opponents of using deceptive "spin" tactics to manipulate public opinion or deceive the public. Spin approaches used by some political teams include "burying" potentially negative new information by releasing it at the end of the workday on the last day before a long weekend; selectively cherry-picking quotes from previous speeches made by their employer or an opposing politician to give the impression that they advocate a certain position; and purposely leaking misinformation about an opposing politician or candidate that casts them in a negative light.
Rise of political spin
Edward Bernays has been called the "Father of Public Relations". As Larry Tye describes in his book The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations, Bernays was able to help tobacco and alcohol companies use techniques to make certain behaviors more socially acceptable in 20th-century United States. Tye claims that Bernays was proud of his work as a propagandist. Throughout the 1990’s, the use of spin by politicians and parties accelerated, especially in the United Kingdom. Nicholas Jones notes that the emergence of 24-hour news increased pressures placed upon journalists to provide nonstop content and was further intensified by the competitive nature of British broadcasters and newspapers. He argues that a reduction occurred in the quality of content as a result of 24-hour news and political parties having generated techniques to handle the increased demand. John Street identifies that this led to journalists looking towards the PR industry for stories and made them more susceptible to spin. A problem he argues developed through the media’s reliance on advertisement revenue to generate a profit.
Spin in the United Kingdom began to breakdown with the high-profile resignations of the architects of spin within the New Labour government, with Charlie Whelan resigning as Gordon Brown’s spokesmen in 1999 and Alastair Campbell resigning as Tony Blair’s Press Secretary in 2003. As information technology has increased dramatically since the end of the 20th century, commentators like Joe Trippi have advanced the theory that modern Internet activism spells the end for political spin. By providing immediate counterpoint to every point a "spin doctor" can come up with, this theory suggests, the omnipresence of the Internet in some societies will inevitably lead to a reduction in the effectiveness of spin.
Examples of "spin doctors"
“Spin doctors” can either be in the limelight, gathering a lot of media attention, or assuming their role whilst being unidentified by the media. Examples include Jamie Shea, during his time as NATO’s press secretary throughout the Kosovo War, and well-known figures in the United Kingdom being Charlie Whelan and Alastair Campbell.
Campbell, previously a journalist before becoming Tony Blair’s Press Secretary, was the driving force behind a government that was able to produce the message it wanted in the media. He played a key role in every important decision with advisors viewing him as the true ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ and being inseparable from Blair. Campbell trusted various journalists such as Tony Bevins and Denis Murry whom he had a close relationship with to write stories about Blair in a positive light, as acknowledged in Campbell’s book The Blair Years. Campbell identifies how he was able to spin Rupert Murdoch, in a meeting in July 1995, in to positively reporting an up incoming Blair speech, gathering the support from the Sun and the Times, popular British newspapers. Campbell later acknowledged that his and the governments actions of spinning had played a part in a growing distrust towards politicians by the electorate, stating that spin must come to an end.
“Spin doctors” such as Shea praised and respected Campbell’s work. In 1999 Shea’s media strategy was non-existent, during the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, until the arrival of Campbell and his team. Campbell taught Shea how to organise his team to deliver what he wanted to be in the media, which led to Shea gaining appreciation for his work by President Bill Clinton.
The techniques of spin include:
- Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one's position ("cherry picking"). For example, a pharmaceutical company could pick and choose two trials where their product shows a positive effect, ignoring hundreds of unsuccessful trials, or a politician's staff could handpick short speech quotations from past years which appear to show their candidate's support for a certain position.
- Non-denial denial
- Non-apology apology
- "Mistakes were made" is an example of distancing language commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was managed by using low-quality or inappropriate handling but evades any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by not specifying the person or organization who made the mistakes. Grammatically, the expression uses the passive voice to focus on the action while omitting the actor. The acknowledgement of "mistakes" is framed in an abstract sense, with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. The speaker neither accepts personal responsibility nor accuses anyone else. The word "mistakes" also does not imply intent. A less evasive active voice construction would place the focus on the actor, such as: "I made mistakes" or "John Doe made mistakes."
- Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven claims, or avoiding the question
- "Burying bad news": announcing unpopular things at a time when it is believed that the media will focus on other news. In some cases, governments have released potentially controversial reports on summer long weekends, to avoid significant news coverage. Sometimes that "other news" is supplied by deliberately announcing popular items at the same time.
- Misdirection and diversion This is when a government leaks a story to the news to limit the coverage of a more damaging story that has been circulating. New Labour used this tactic to reduce the coverage of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s affair. This was achieved by leaking a story that a previous Governor of Hong Kong was under investigation by MI6.
- Limited hangout
- Rewarding good journalists with stories. During the Rhodesia crisis Harold Wilson formulated a list of journalists that he trusted to write stories that aligned with the government’s opinion.
- Preventing access to journalists or broadcasters that are reporting to the disliking of the spin doctor. An example is the World at One being ignored by New Labour in the build up to the 1997 General election due to an interview they held with Blair that asked difficult questions, leading to interviews being handed to other stations.
For years, businesses have used fake or misleading customer testimonials by editing/spinning customers to reflect a much more satisfied experience than was actually the case. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission updated their laws to include measures to prohibit this type of "spinning" and have been enforcing these laws as of late.
Impact on elections
The extent of “spin doctors’” impact is contested, though still accepted to be present in the political environment. The 1997 General election saw a landslide victory for New Labour with a 10.3% swing from Conservative to Labour, with help from newspapers such as the Sun in which Campbell focused his spinning tactics towards as he greatly valued their support. The famous newspaper headline ‘The Sun Backs Blair’ was a key turning point in the campaign which provided New Labour with a lot of confidence and hope of increased electoral support. The change in political alignment had an impact on the electorate, with the amount of individuals voting for Labour that read switching newspapers rising by 19.4%, compared to only 10.8% by those that did not read switching newspapers; a study conducted by Ladd and Lenz.
- Astroturfing – Marketing tactic of creating "grassroots" organizations
- Charm offensive
- Cognitive distortion
- Corporate propaganda
- Crisis communication
- Distinction without a difference
- Dog-whistle politics – Political messaging using coded language
- Fake news – Hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation
- Framing (social sciences) – Effect of how information is presented on perception
- Impression management – Conscious or subconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about a person, object or event
- Image restoration theory
- Just How Stupid Are We?
- Managing the news
- Media circus – Phrase describing excessive media coverage
- Media manipulation
- Minimisation (psychology)
- Reputation management
- Sexed up
- Sound bite
- Spin (1995 film)
- Truthiness – The quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true
- Weasel word – Informal term for words and phrases that appear meaningful but are vague
- Yellow journalism
- Malcolm Tucker fictional spin doctor from the BBC comedy The Thick of It
- William Safire, "The Spinner Spun", New York Times, December 22, 1996.
- Michael, Powell. "Tit for Tat on a Night Where Spin Is Master," New York Times. February 22, 2008.
- Gaber, Ivor (1999). "Government by spin: an analysis of the process". Contemporary Politics. 5 (3): 263–275.
- Stauber, John and Sheldon Rampton. "Book Review: The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & The Birth of PR by Larry Tye," Archived 2008-11-21 at the Wayback Machine PR Watch (Second Quarter 1999). Vol. 6, No. 2.
- Jones, Nicholas (2003). "24-hours media". Journal of Public Affairs. 3 (1): 27–31.
- Street, John (2011). Mass media, politics and democracy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Gaber, Ivor (2004). "Alastair Campbell, exit stage left: Do the "Phillis" recommendations represent a new chapter in political communications or is it "business as usual"?". Journal of Public Affairs. 4 (4): 365–373.
- Branigan, Tania, "Internet spells end for political spin, says US web guru", The Guardian. 12 June 2007.
- Oberne, Peter (1999). Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the rise of the media class. London: Aurum.
- Campbell, Alastair and; Scott, Richard (2007). The Blair years: extracts from the Alastair Campbell diaries. London: Hutchinson.
- Campbell, Alastair (2002). "It's time to bury spin". British Journal Review. 13 (4): 15–23.
- Staff. "Are these examples of political spin? Archived 2012-08-15 at the Wayback Machine". BBC Learning Zone. Clip 7265. 2013.
- Weissman, Jerry. "Spin vs. Topspin". The Huffington Post. 19 June 2009.
- "FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials". Federal Trade Commission. 2009-10-05. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
- Fielding, Steven (2002). The Labour Party: continuity and change in the making of 'New' Labour. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Greensalde, Roy (1997). "It's the Sun wot's switched sides back to Blair". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- Ladd, Jonathan M. and; Lenz, Gabriel S. (2009). "Exploiting a Rare Communication Shift to Document the Persuasive Power of the News Media". American Journal of Political Science. 53 (2): 394–410.
- Roberts, Alasdair S. (2005). "Spin Control and Freedom of Information: Lessons for the United Kingdom from Canada". Public Administration. 83: 1–23. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00435.x.
- Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brooks Jackson (2007): unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, (Random House Paperback, ISBN 978-1400065660)
- Christian Science Monitor: The spin room – oily engine of the political meat grinder
- Outfoxed: OUTFOXED: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism
- Spinwatch monitors spin and propaganda
- SPIN (documentary):
- Booknotes interview with Bill Press on Spin This! All The Ways We Don’t Tell the Truth, January 6, 2002.