Sunday, April 20, 2008

Spinning Stories in PR: Unethical or Necessary??

“Spin” is a term used in public relations to describe purposely portraying events or actions heavily in your or your client’s favor. For example, if the Lakers lost a big game, their PR director might pitch a few pieces on what this has done for their motivation or camaraderie, in effect “spinning” the bad events favorably in the media for the organization.

A “spin doctor” is a term used, mostly in the UK, to describe a professional who has essentially become an expert or a specialist in the art of spinning situations. This is generally not a favorable term; it is generally thought of to be the same thing as calling a journalist a “hack.”

Spinning events or stories is often seen as unethical. Many feel that it is the job of PR professionals to report the whole truth to the public. I would argue that it is not the job of PR professionals, but the job of the journalists and the media to report such truth. It would be completely out of the question to ask public relations professionals to not spin stories in favor of their clients, firms, teams, or political candidates. We are supposed to be biased! We would be doing our clients a disservice if we were not biased towards them! Moreover, our job description is not to accurately provide information to the public – it is our first responsibility to protect our clients.

A huge part of a PR professional’s job is something called “crisis management.” This means that if something unfavorable happens to your client, it is your job to figure out how to fix it. This could be applied to a range of things: on a broad scale, if Dell is getting absolutely killed by HP and their sales are slipping, they would hire a crisis management team to pitch a new PR campaign to improve their brand in the public eye and bring back up their revenue and reputation. On a smaller scale, in the jobs of publicists or in house PR teams, everyday can be a crisis management situation; maybe your star player says a racist comment in the media, or your politician inadvertently insults the culture they are currently visiting. It is now essentially your job to clean up the mess.

How do you begin? Well, one way, and usually the first way, to start is to brainstorm ways to spin the event so that it either puts your client in a positive light, an ignorant/made a mistake light, or at the very least an “even ground” light. This obviously often involves bending the truth.

This is a bold statement, but the in the field of public relations, bending the truth is a professional necessity. Every single day in PR you are faced with an ethical dilemma about how much truth to tell the public. And honestly, some days the answer to that question is not very much truth. And I don’t believe that is wrong. It is our job to keep our client’s positive image in the public – we can’t just sit by and watch that go down the drain without doing damage control – which sometimes means telling lies or lying by omission to cover up what happened.

I’m not advocating completely lying to the media in every bad situation – this can be just as damaging. The media is smart – lots of times, if you make up a lie, they are going to be able to tell, or at least tell that something deeper is going on. Also, in a world of connections and leaks, often the media already knows the truth; and if you are caught lying, get ready for a whole additional crisis management board brainstorming session, because you are about to get skewered. If you chose to lie to the media following a situation or event, you put not only your professional credibility at risk, but also the credibility of your firm, client or organization.
In fact, a recent public relations issue has been brought to my attention by fellow bloggers Privileged Indifference, Politiosauras Rex, and Of Ignorance in their discussion about the new cover of Vogue featuring African-American NBA superstar LeBron James and Brazilian supermodel Giselle. While some point to Vogue as being criticized for depicting their cover as "racist," others wonder if Vogue planted the controversy themselves, with the "no press is bad press" mentality. This is a perfect crisis management situation - the Vogue PR team must now decide how they want to spin the story to the public. They have already milked plenty of attention, negative and positive, which did allow them to accomplish their goal: selling magazines. However, now they are faced with the task of reestablishing their bond with their readers and fixing those who they may have alienated. It will be interesting to see what they come up with!

I personally believe that the key to maintaining your ethics while balancing your job of protecting and promoting your client lies both within experience in the field and finding a moral balance inside yourself. Experience is nature’s best teacher. If you don’t spin something one time and it toasts your client’s reputation, you will probably work harder next time to find alternatives. If you tell a blatant lie to the media and get called out, you’ll probably answer “no comment” next time.

It is always OK to answer “no comment” to the media, or, even better, use phrases such as “we are still investigating this matter internally,” or “we are discussing/solving this matter internally.” You don’t owe the media answers, but at the same time, you better give them some or they will make them up and roast you in the papers no matter what. Do you have a little bit more respect now as to what we go through day to day?

All in all, before going into public relations, you have to know your personal ethical limits, and be ready to have those limits pushed, tested, strengthened, and molded. You have to go into that industry understanding that each day you will be tested with dilemmas: the media v. your bosses, the organization v. the fans, etc. PR people work a lot harder to provide the media with ethically correct information that also benefits their clients than they get credit for.

Next time you read a news/entertainment/sports story, I would encourage you to read about the same event from a different media outlet – it is especially beneficial to try to find a media source v. the statement from the PR team. Try to pick out the differences between the stories and see how the PR teams attempt to put positive spins on sticky situations – you might be surprised as to what you find!

1 comment:

Jonathan Bernstein said...

I define "spin" as "using words to obfuscate the truth." I advise my clients to "position," defined as "helping your stakeholders understand your messages the way you intended them to be understood."

Jonathan Bernstein, President
Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.