Issue management is difficult enough. And it’s not made any easier when PR professionals and issue managers themselves describe it as spin.
This was demonstrated late last year when representatives of the oil and gas industry got together in Houston to discuss the challenges of public opposition to the technique of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) used to extract coal seam gas and and andshale gas.
Fracking has become a highly controversial and politically sensitive issue in many countries, including Australia, and its cause was hardly assisted by the promotional brochure for the conference. Linda Rozett of the American Petroleum Institute (API) was scheduled to speak on “Evaluating how new media can be used to get ahead of a story and develop immediate proactive responses to minimize and spin negative press.” Another speaker, George Stark of Cabot Oil and Gas, committed to tell the conference how to “… prepare spokespeople in putting out the most positive spin on an event whilst maintaining consistency and accuracy.”
Naturally, industry opponents leapt on this approach to attack the motives and honesty of the industry. But why would PR practitioners think it was clever or helpful to play into the hands of their opponents by positioning themselves as spin-doctors, especially in managing such a high profile issue? Issue management is a proven and established business activity, and continued use of the term spin serves only to undermine the professionalism and integrity of practitioners.
Then there is the question of whether obvious spin is ever effective. Industry veteran Noel Turnbull has a brutally black and white perspective: “I have always been dismissive of the term spin, because it suggests that we distort reality. Some people in the industry try to do so . . . but all of them are always ultimately unsuccessful. For some reason some people in the industry, along with industry critics, adopted the word. But it has never described what the great bulk of practitioners believe and is, in itself, as misleading as those who seek to practise it.”
While there are PR practitioners who remain comfortable with the concept of spin, there is no doubt that the profession’s critics and opponents use it as a term of abuse.* This is especially true for politicians everywhere and for controversial industries where public confidence and credibility is already low. It would be wildly unrealistic to imagine that critics will ever stop using the term. But it would be great if PR professionals and issue managers stopped applying it to themselves. And the oil and gas industry might be a good place to start.
*Footnote: Any time you doubt that spin is a derogatory term, try any of these anti-corporate /anti-PR books
• Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry (2008) Bob Burton
• Global spin: The corporate assault on environmentalism (2002) Sharon Beder
• The Invisible Persuaders: How Britain’s Spin Doctors Manipulate the Media (1998) David Michie
• A Century of Spin: How public relations became the cutting edge of corporate power (2008) David Miller and William Dinan