Sunday, February 11, 2007

Defining spin

Bond has already mentioned the great series Spin Cycle on CBC. I guess we are both Sunday morning CBC junkies.

Among communications professionals and trainers there exists a love-hate relationship with the idea of spin. I've heard more than a few national level communications trainers and lecturers say that spin is bad, they don't do or teach spin and they advise against spin.

They reinforce the idea that spin is a pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation. These trainers emphasize that while public relations may rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics.

Politicians are often accused of spin by commentators and political opponents, when they produce a counter argument or position whether the charge is true or not. It's become like the word "rhetoric" Rhetoric has taken on a pejorative meaning even though the word simply means using persuasive language or words used to persuade. "That's just rhetoric" has become overt code for bullshit. But that's not what it is and neither is spin. Spin is confused with deception when the two ideas are distinct.

In true spin, the facts are true and lies are never uttered. It's the force with which the ideas are presented which make the message spin or not.

The term spin comes from baseball. The game would be dull if pitchers just threw the ball at the batter so pitchers will throw the ball with spin. The idea is to fool the batter into thinking the ball will appear in a different place than it actually will all with the goal of making the batter strike out.

Hence you get top-spin, so the ball goes faster than expected, back-spin so the ball goes slower than expected, and left-spin and right-spin which make the ball break left or right.

In the same way political messages can be given top-spin, back-spin or side-spin. Let's take some examples of each.

Top-spinning a message means pushing a message hard to that it seems to have more value, weight, and velocity than one would expect of it. It's making the trivial or neutral look more important than it actually is. This past week Premier Williams used a scrum and press release to top-spin a message about NL Hydro filing an application for long-term electrical transmission service through New Brunswick System.

Why is this top-spin? Mainly it has to do with making much ado about a no-news ho-hum item. What makes it important in context is that the release and related activity give the appearance of a government action looking important and decisive just before, wait for it, three by elections.

Then there's back-spin. This is the effort to try to minimize an issue by leeching the matter of energy and importance.

One of the biggest issues of last year was the closure of the Stephenville mill. Premier Williams proclaimed that the mill would never close on his watch and when it was clear it was going to, threw a Hail-Mary pass of $150million to try to keep it open. It closed anyway amidst a flurry of promises about seeking new operators or, failing that, a new industrial tenant for the facility.

Then, very quietly and without any public attention, came this release announcing that the Stephenville Paper Mill Site would be decommissioned. A classic example of desperate back-spin.

Finally, there's the side-spin. The idea is to redirect and divert the reader (and the media) to another issue than the one at hand with a message that's not quite on target. There are many many examples of this but one that comes to mind is the Premier's defense of the $130,000 for entertainment, and more than $100,000 for gifts to other premiers, including a farewell gift of a sealskin coat to Alberta's Ralph Klein during the Premiers' conference held in St. John's and Corner Brook.

"I take my greatest pride as premier of our province in showcasing every single bit of talent and music and culture that we have," Williams said. "By God, that is money well spent."

Side-spin at it's finest.

The important thing to remember is that in none of these cases were there any misstatements of facts or deception of information involved. In fact all the facts were true and corrects and what distinguishes all these examples from what would we conventionally label as "truth" is the application of energy to the message pointing them in certain directions.

Becoming an informed consumer of news media and government information means understanding when and how you are being spun.

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