In his introduction to a 2003 edition of George Orwell’s 1984, Thomas Pynchon wrote: ‘Every day, public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed “spin”, as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry go round’. Pynchon himself is an extremely publicity-averse character, suggesting his attitude towards the media, public relations and corporate marketing is hardly going to be warm. However, his comments regarding spin do not exist in a philosophical wilderness; many others, from academic to layman, support his sentiment. As the title of Ewen’s seminal book “PR! A Social History of Spin” (1996) demonstrates, in the minds of many, the practice of public relations remains interwoven with the idea of spin.
Spin, in its communicative context, is a relatively new term for an ancient aspect of human interaction. The notion of presenting oneself, an idea or a product, in the best possible light, through Machiavellian methods, is as old as history, demonstrated in all from the mundane, as in inter-personal courtship, through to that affecting society as a whole, as in political propaganda. Its modern incantation represents ‘a lack of substance, interpretation parading as fact, image creation at the expense of tangible evidence’ (Pitcher, 2003, p. 5).
When attached to public relations, this notion is given special pejorative attention, with connotations of media manipulation, downright lies, ‘sexing up’, deception and economy of truth. It also appears as a mainstay of propaganda, aimed at promoting a doctrine, a core subject of Orwell’s 1984. Indeed 1984, inspired by the societal and political structure of the Soviet Union, presents a world dominated by propaganda, taken by Pynchon to be exercised in contemporary public relations. There are many examples, such as Alistair Campbell’s ‘Dodgy Dossier’ of 2003 over Iraqi military capabilities and multiple alleged cases of corporate ‘Greenwash’ involving companies such as Shell and Monsanto, which may support Pynchon’s statement and organizations such as Spinwatch and the media themselves are highly aware of spin’s reality.
Public relations undoubtedly suffers being tarnished by the obvious reality of spin, but the real case for such spin deeply manipulating public opinion in modern liberal democracies is undermined by two factors; the nature of contemporary public relations and the complexity of the construction of public opinion. In tackling the question precisely, the former will be examined in detail, with reference to the latter. The methodology will be to examine theoretical aspects of public relations, examining the scope for spin, and then cover the realities of modern public relations in relation to spin within the contemporary communications context applicable to liberal democracies.
The work of Edward Bernays, evocative of a degree of social control via communications, gives credence to many claims that public relations has always welcomed the art of spin in its practice (Ewen, 1996). However, the late twentieth century has seen the embrace of the Grunigian paradigm, enveloped within systems theory, which now seems to pervade modern public relations teaching and theory, representing the mix of methods found in modern public relations. Of the one-way communicative models, Press Agentry or Publicity are susceptible to untruths in order to gain profile, whereas Public Information is largely factual within a liberal democracy, if possibly selectively so. It is of note that, as Kitchen and Papasolomou (1999, p.343) claim, in the US public relations is largely seen as publicity, possibly revealing an increased susceptibility to spin. Two-way asymmetrical methods specialise in examining ways in which publics may be persuaded to conform to an idea or product. It is here that spin may be identified as a means, after risk analysis. Two-way symmetrical methods aim to bring the opinions or attitudes of publics and an organization closer together. Of these approaches, the first three present scope for spin, whereas highly normative two-way symmetrical methods present themselves as less so. However, this last method has come in for criticism as being utopian, with claims that public relations are “necessarily partisan and intrinsically undemocratic”. (L’Etang 1996, cited in Grunig, 2001, p. 16). The implication here is that such partisanship may usher in the idea of spin to achieve that party’s objectives, regardless of method employed However, it can be argued that the principle of two-way symmetrical approaches methodologically reduces the ability or reasons to spin.
Other inter-related theories appear to present less scope for spin, alluding to principles of two-way symmetrical communication. Rhetoric, seen by Gregory (2002) as the dominant practice of public relations, in which truth is said to remain after debate (Moloney, 2004, p. 39), appears to possess less propensity to spin, with the credibility of a source being at its heart. Indeed, Heath (2001, p.32) claims that advocacy is key to rhetoric and that a legitimate battle of persuasive argument, allowing active multi-party participation and scrutiny of communicative messages, creates an environment not conducive to spin. However, the art of such persuasive communication is, in its modern sense, often accused of presenting style over substance, although not necessarily spin.
Relationship management takes a view of complex but mutually supportive relationship networks, in which organizations and publics tend towards ‘co-orientation’ (Cutlip et al, 1999). This theory relies upon two-way communications but is instinctively appreciative of mutual obligations and debts and relies on a significant degree of openness. This approach does not encourage spin, as deep and complex relationships cannot survive under its shadow.
As in most studies of social science, critical perspectives are rightly given space to challenge the dominant paradigms. Postmodernists regard two-way symmetric communications as unrealistic and utopian in an ever complex and fast-moving environment in which meta-narratives have little chance to gain a deep hold on society. The Frankfurt School, especially Jurgen Habermas, have expounded on various critical theories. Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ concept is worthy of mention, claiming the chattering tea-houses of middle-class, bourgeois western societies create their own communicative arena, the ‘public sphere’, which in the twentieth century came under threat from political and economic forces, imposing order on the mob via propaganda and spin (Habermas, 1992). However, Habermas’s theory has been reviewed in light of the rise of information and communication technology (ICT) which has the potential to re-energise, to a degree, the ‘public sphere’ within chatrooms and blogs, an aspect to which we will return later.
The main theories have been skated over for evidence of the possibility or propensity for spin. Although the full expanse of the Grunigian paradigm may be somewhat unrealistic, Grunig’s assessment of public relations generally practicing varying degrees of both one-way and two-way communication is widely accepted. By and large, to use the systems theory paradigm as a template, the one-way transmission systems are possibly laid open to abuse by spin. By comparison, forms of two-way symmetrical communication, with their emphasis on dialogue, relationship-building and debate appear much more resistant to spin. Thus, the claim that public relations is no more that potentially spin-ridden one-way communication, evident in Orwell’s 1984, is theoretically flawed, with modern public relations in liberal democracies operating within theories encouraging spin-resistant approaches, with a scope theoretically exceeding that indicated by the term spin.
That is the theory. But reality and practices need scrutiny.
There has been a recognizable shift by practitioners to re-align themselves away from the methods of one-way and asymmetric methods, especially that of press agentry, to provide distance from the smear of spin (Wood, 2006, p. 540). In essence this has produced a migration into the territory of dialogue, relationship-building and debate. However, that reality does not mean spin has been totally expunged in practice. For example, whilst rhetoric in ideal circumstances may be seen as spin-free, the harsh, cold reality of communicative inequality or power, in which other parties are not resourced or availed of information, make the debate in which truth should prevail rather one-sided (Moloney, 2006, p. 39). As such, rhetoric can in practice be susceptible to spin. Similarly, the soft-sounding term ‘relationship management’ does not necessarily guarantee truthful exchange, free of spin. The partisanship issue is founded in reality, in which business and politics are generally zero-sum games and whereby benefits are not equitably shared.
As Milton Friedman allegedly claimed, ‘the business of business is business’ and although this may be somewhat brittle a statement, the sentiment is indicative of the advantage or profit that organizations will always seek, some falling for spin under the approach that the ends justify the means. This equally applies in the area of government lobbying, in which leverage may sometimes be applied via unethical practices, including patronage, favours and spin.
The predominant systems theory itself, as already indicated, proves to be a case of communicative idealism when presented with reality. As Moloney (2006, p.168) states:
“PR teachers and students glide over the statement that three parts of the Grunigian typology are pathologies of the fourth and not much practised part (two-way symmetrical). By dint of exposure and repetition, the ‘ought’ of the fourth has become the ‘is’ of the other three.”
However, it is the literature of academics, lectures of teachers and studies of public relations students which present the critical aspect of public relations and its relationship with spin – ethics. As normative as theories of public relations may be, it is the study and encouragement of ethics within the study and practice of public relations which indicate its growing aversion to the practice of spin. The teaching of ethical decision-making processes, such as the Potter Box model and the Navron model, are demonstrative of public relations taking its responsibilities as an ethical practice seriously. Self-regulatory codes of practice, such as that upheld by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Global Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations upheld by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, encourage ethical practice. Indeed, the academic development in this area has resulted in ethical theories of public relations. Responsible advocacy charges practitioners with loyalty to those they represent but also to stakeholders at large and enlightened self-interest follows that an ethical approach will result in success. The rhetorical or adversarial approach may embrace ethics through the idea that practitioners act as barristers in an arena of conflicting messages and, unsurprisingly, proponents of two-way symmetrical communications view this as a valid ethical approach.
Another case of relationship-building, or more accurately a widening of the pool of publics to include those not of immediate value to organizations, has been the increasing emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a public relations function. A degree of ethical practice may underpin CSR and in practical terms CSR appears to be a good example of a shift away from asymmetry to less-spin prone dialogue, relationship-building and debate. However, the real effects remain difficult to measure and the motivations for CSR itself present several paradoxes when seen under an ethical spotlight. This has meant that although the practices of CSR may seem less susceptible to spin, the entire concept is sometimes seen as a larger conspiratorial spin agenda (Frankental, 2001, pp. 18-23).
The import of these theories in practice is their mere consideration and instruction. Under codes of conduct and ethical considerations, public relations practice generally, and especially in the field of dialogue, relationship-building and debate, is embracing the notion of spin being utterly unacceptable. But are public relations practitioners practicing what they preach?
Literature is replete with examples of spin, from the ‘Spinocchio’ of New Labour (Franklin, 2004, p.55) to the plethora of corporate cases identified by Stauber and Rampton (2004). Lower profile, non-newsworthy cases of public relations practitioners conducting genuine dialogue, relationship-building and debate are less immediately apparent. This fact itself contributes to the sentiment evident in Pychon’s statement. However, there is evidence to counter Pychon, presented in the way in which many organizations operate in a largely open and honest manner with regard to their publics. Good examples are that of Toyota, apparent through its 2010 Global Vision and its guiding principles (Toyota, 2007) and, surprisingly, Shell. In the latter’s case, despite accusations of ‘greenwash’, it revolutionised its communication practices to forge dialogue and engagement after the Brent Spa case of 1995, which resulted in Shell being voted ‘Britain’s Most Admired Company in 2001 by Management Today (Barry, 2005, p. 14). Further, in the area of crisis communications, where organizations are at most under pressure to pump out spin, there is significant evidence that openness, dialogue and clarity are often the preferred option. One seminal case, used as an example of how to conduct crisis communications, is that of the Tylenol crisis of 1982. More recently, the response of Mattel to a product recall crisis, regardless of criticism of the practicalities of its crisis communications, exemplified an openness which some have seen as most welcome (Kosky, 2007, p.15).
Thus, although stark evidence of public relations practices avoiding spin is hard to come by – after all, there is not a ‘good PR practice watch’ website – they can be found and anecdotal evidence is available, even amongst a spin-aware audience.
Orwell based his predictions on a period of suppression for the social ‘public sphere’, rife with the ideas of Bernays and typified by social systems such as Nazism and Communism. Pynchon’s statement takes little account of contemporary tectonic shifts of the communicative context within which spin, and by inference, public relations functions. To understand the contemporary relationship between spin and public relations, and the manner in which public opinion is formed, this context must also be considered.
Pychon’s statement claims a power of spin, a notion that proactive, targeted communications or public relations can fully form a generally accepted narrative or world-view, which may be over-rated in today’s communicative environment. Just as the modern social ‘public sphere’ of the information age is providing publics with a plethora of communicative links, dialogue, relationship-building and debate is becoming common between publics about organizations, as opposed to with organizations. History is no longer necessarily written by the victors, lies are quickly exposed or met with widely–communicated counter-claims, and amnesia is refused as information sourcing becomes widespread. Hence, on the one hand, the environment in which public relations practitioners could, if desired, conduct spin operations to form public opinion appears to be much less amenable to spin itself. On the other hand, a typical postmodernist reproach could be that communicative anarchy, awash with spin from all, is a more realistic environment. That philosophical debate is beyond the scope of this paper and for the purposes of our examination, we shall assume that ICT can lead to a greater openness and democratization of society if it provides unlimited access to information and equal participation in cultural discourse.
However, whilst access and equality may dampen official spin, the human being is ingenious, and although this environment has changed in one way, in another it has enabled another entry point for the historically spin-susceptible one-way communicators. With the fragmentation of media outlets in the face of pressure from ICT, the journalistic vanguards against spin are much depleted and non-existent amongst the new entrants (Street, 2001, p. 149). While the environment is fragmented yet almost real-time, the thirst for information, copy and access has brought about the PR-isation of the media, be it official or amateur (Moloney, 2004, p. 152). This developing relationship between the media, traditional or new, and public relations appears to be shifting power to the latter and nurturing a relationship in which spin may be encouraged.
Yet, even in the face of possible PR-isation, corporate scandals such as WorldCom and Enron, which were perceived to be awash with spin, and the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ have resulted in publics becoming much more spin-aware as well as media-savvy. In response, apart from ethical considerations, public relations practitioners are increasingly seeing the practical futility of spin, or at least the disastrous consequences of failed spin, and embracing clarity and explanation in its place (Collis, 2004, p.64).
Increased interdependence, pluralism and individualism, along with globalization have also changed the social environment, far removing it from the propaganda-rich world postulated by Orwell. The modern social environment is such that persuasion, spin and propaganda, or even more benign public relations practice, has limited capabilities. Such an example is cited by Moloney (2004, p. 67) in which published opinion, generated by agents of communication, in Denmark’s Euro referendum of 2000, was very different from actual public opinion, the opinion of a spin-aware, interdependent, pluralistic and individualist public. This instance, and similar repeated frequently and widely, flies in the face of Pynchon’s gloomy assessment. In the eyes of an ever more spin-savvy public, as Pitcher notes, the profile of spin itself, and the development of spin-culture, has damaged the reputation of those who wield it (Pitcher, 2003, p. 248).
In summary, spin is an inherent aspect of the human condition, from facing a job interview to conducting a government public information programme. Spin will remain in the public relations arsenal. However, the communications environment in which spin may exist is much changed from the time of Orwell’s writing, making successful spin, on balance, more difficult, and official spin in general more recognisable. Further evidence in practical conduct of public relations shows that it is not the limit of public relations. The Grunigian paradigm, although utopian, is a far cry from the practices of Bernays, and is actively encouraged within the public relations industry. Out of this typology, the practices of dialogue, relationship-building and debate are seen as increasingly predominant forces within public relations. Alongside this, ethics are becoming a mainstay of education and practice of public relations. The ideas behind these practices and ethics, spurning spin, are pervading contemporary definitions of public relations. The most popular definitions, nominally those of the World Assembly of PR Associations, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and CIPR all include at their cores, sentiments of interaction, mutual understanding, public interest and relationship-building.
As can be seen above, in practice, theory and definition, the scope of contemporary public relations far exceeds, even shuns, the dark art of spin. But spin remains and due to the very nature and frailties of human nature and its practice of communications, will not go away.
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