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What does it mean to “spin” something — and is it bad?

by Jerry “Doctor Spin” Silver // Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn
Senior Digital Strategist // Spin Factory

The word spin has a negative connotation.

And yes, this has always bothered me.

Not to the extent that it keeps me awake at night, but it’s a slight discomfort for a guy who has used his online alias Doctor Spin all over the internet since 2001.

Have I gotten it all wrong?

When Spin Sucks

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.

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.”

How About a Glass of Water?

There seems to be an infinite number of ways to describe facts without violating their first principles. My favorite 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. 

I could also say that the glass is half empty

The second statement emphasizes the emptiness (how about a refill, maybe?) and the other the fullness (I’m good, thank you). Both statements are equally truthful, of course, but the choice of words can influence how we think about the glass and its content.

But let’s get even more creative:

The glass is full.

Technically, that 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.

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, maybe there should be a small volume of water in the glass and a relatively large volume of gas for them to weigh the same?

That level of detail and accuracy might not matter to you and me, but for a physicist; it might make all the difference.

I Spin, You Spin, We All Spin Together

As soon as we open our mouths and start talking, 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 so on.

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.

Spin is Freedom of Speech (Yes, I Went There!)

Now, allow me to bang the biggest drum at my disposal:

I’d go so far as to say that we’re supposed to have our say — especially when our stories contradicts the perspectives of the dominant majority. Why? Because if I don’t get to describe the reality in the way I see it, who else will?

I’m not talking about some stone cold capitalistic righteousness á la Ayn Rand where businesses should be allowed to do or say anything within the confines of the law. But I do believe that we all should have the right to participate in public debate.

Even if it’s about which flavor ice-cream people should choose.

Now, this line of argument is not without merit from a linguistic perspective, either:

Spinning is a circular motion, not a binary type of flip where you switch from truth to lie or vice versa. Something can spin out of control, directly implying a circular motion is breaking its gravitational bond with the center and thus spinning outwards in wider and wider circles, like a spiral.

So, is spin a bad thing? Well, no, it isn’t. Because you and I must find compelling ways to tell our sides of the story, too. In short:

No spin, no win.

Is spin a bad thing?

To spin or not to spin.

Which side are you on in this discussion? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Notes:

  1. From Propaganda by Edward Bernays (1928).

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Behind the keyboard:

Jerry Silver is the author of Doctor Spin, a PR blog that's been around for 15+ years. Via his agency Spin Factory, Jerry is advising brands on how to adapt to a 'digital first' world. In 2016, Cision Scandinavia named him "PR Influencer of the Year". Jerry lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife Lisah, news anchor and television host, and their three-year-old son, Jack.


Doctor Spin’s comment policy:
“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt

Reader reactions:

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Jonas Larsson

The viral effect i good, but if people doesn´t get what spin is about you need to change the way you communicate. Not in campaign, but when you are marketing your work.

Reply
Doctor Spin

I see your point about adapting to the receiver and their view of the world.

But in this particular instance, I’m still wondering if we should accept that “spin” is a negative word or if it’s worth the effort to try and change it. I know a lot of digital strategists who use the word in a positive sense when they’re discussing different tactics like timing and framing when discussing how to get a message out there.

I’m biased of course, but I think it makes for a good discussion.

Bertil Myhr

Surely, ‘spin’ is a derogatory term to begin with, and it still carries a negative charge for most people. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. In fact, by using the word an apparently ironic fashion, you are also disarming the negative associations of spin. And we have seen similar namings before, maybe you were inspired by NWA? In Swedish, it’s quite amazing how the Gay movement has ‘reclaimed’ and very consciously acted to change the use and meaning of ‘bög’ – just two decades ago, it was only used as an insult.

Reply
Doctor Spin

Yeah, I actually thought about how minorities have successfully reclaimed terms in the past. But that made me think that maybe this discussion about “spin” easily becomes pretty… vain.

I remember when reading “A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” where the author Douglas Adams sends a spaceship with all the lawyers and PR consultants of earth straight into the sun to disintegrate and to be missed by, like, no-one.

So the minority tactic might be a bit risky, because in the end of days, who really cares about how we marketers label ourselves and what we do? Still, to your point, I do think “spin” is a useful word and I’ve heard it being used in its positive sense outside our little bubble of marketers as well.

To “put a spin to something” maybe has a bright future after all, instead of being used to describe people who lie and manipulate.

Mark Grimn

Spin implies manupulation. Good PR is abouot telling the truth well. Is putting your best foot forward spin? Depends on how it is done. More here: http://markgrimm.com/blog/pr-has-a-pr-problem-the-truth-about-what-we-do/

Reply
Doctor Spin

Yeah, it does imply that. But the way I see it, spin is only evil if the intent is evil. It’ll be interesting to see if our profession ever will get rid of our bad reputation. The more we blog, discuss, and prompt for transparency, the sooner we’ll get there.

Cendrine Marrouat

As I always say, human beings are the ones who create words and then decide on the way they will be used.

I like the word “spin”. It reminds me of the old days, when people still did manual labor. And in a way, it’s what people in social media do. They spin the wheel of the human journey to turn it into digital footprints.

Ok, I’m done with poetry for the night. lol

Great article, Jerry!

Reply
Doctor Spin

“They spin the wheel of the human journey to turn it into digital footprints.”

Love it, Cendrine.

PR_RisingStar

Your blog has made me realize that when I was “spinning” the truth (thinking I was still telling the truth, just a better view of this truth by the way I told it), that I was actually lying by not just saying it straight out, like it was. Spinning IS negative whether you think you are still telling the truth, just your version of the truth or the cleaned up version or whatever….it’s still skewed and not the total truth, hence a lie. It’s time to stop spinning and just give the naked truth. We all deserve it!

Reply
Doctor Spin

Fair enough… you anonymous person, you.

But who’s to determine which truths to be held as absolutes? And if biased voices should forever hold their tongues — who has an unbiased voice?