The word spin has a negative connotation.
And yes, this sort of bothers 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. I do think that I know what public relations is about and that I can get away with it.
But maybe I’ve gotten it all wrong? Maybe spin sucks?
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.”
A True Glass of Water
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 can influence how we think about 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 it might make all the difference.
I Spin, You Spin, We All Spin
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 (timing, context, 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 stupid 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, bad thing? No, it isn’t. Because you and I must find compelling ways to tell our sides of the story, too.
Which side are you on in this discussion? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.