When I returned to finish my BA in 2008 (while still on active duty in the Air Force), I took a class called Principles of Public Relations from the outstanding Dr. John Forde at Mississippi State University. This was an introductory course for anyone in the public relations track and this was the first strictly PR class I took after switching from broadcasting. We of course learned about the early history of our profession and its leaders, the ethics involved in our practices, and the different specialties that fall under the large umbrella of public relations. All of this stuck with me as a firm foundation for my new career field, but one thing in particular that Dr. Forde said stuck to my gray matter with more tenacity than the rest. He warned, with great emphasis, against using the dreaded and dirty word spin when discussing public relations.
Spin is a four letter word in the world of public relations. It implies that we, the pr professionals, assume that the targeted public is too stupid or too slow to come to the conclusion we want without just telling it straight. It is lazy and it calls into question our credibility. Resorting to spin conveys the idea that we are covering something up, glossing over something, or otherwise just not telling it in a truthful manner. A PR practitioner with no credibility has no persuasive power and thus becomes an ineffectual communicator in our field. We’ve known this since Aristotle first introduced the concept of Ethos to the world, or the appeal to “believe my argument because you believe in me.”
It takes a professional lifetime to build up credibility respective to your different publics, but it only takes a moment to destroy it. I’ve actually heard a handful of pr professionals and marketers use the term “spin” to describe what they do or “spin doctor” to describe themselves in some misguided attempt to seem more important or specialized in their knowledge. This hurts our profession! Are we not masters of persuasive theories and strategies that don’t involve “spinning” a kernel of truth into a manifesto of doubt? Many publics already mistrust our field because they think we are manipulative or some kind of verbal contortionists with the sole purpose of pulling the wool over their collective eyes. We know this isn’t our role; we know that we are integral in the communication process in B2B and B2C organizations. We need to stop giving existing and potential publics the “art of spin” as another reason to mistrust our messages.
In short, there are times when spin is great:
However, when it comes to public relations, always remember: