My “S” word column from Talent Zoo

Here’s a piece I wrote for about the use of the “spin” and the utter dread it causes for some public relations people:

Public relations practitioners spin for a living. There, I said it. I dared to utter the “S” word. Get over it and listen to why the profession’s revulsion to the word is just misplaced and counterproductive aggression.

A few years ago at the Public Relations Society of America International Conference in Detroit, the keynote speaker caused quite a stir among the attendees when she use the word “spin” several times while discussing the PR profession.

Because that struck such a chord, I’ve been keeping an eye on reactions to the word whenever it’s used around PR people. For the most part, I’ve noticed that too many practitioners young and old, entry level to veteran, are bothered by it.

Honestly, I don’t get it, and I think it’s high time the profession moves from being offended by a single word. Instead, we should be focusing on making people think highly of us as an industry of ethical professionals who do the right thing at the right time to accomplish the right results for our clients. If what I do is referred to by some as “spin,” then so be it.

Let’s break it down to the basics by looking at some definitions of spin, and how they can be translated to the PR profession.

Spin can mean, “turn or cause to turn or whirl around quickly.” That sounds like when something negative happens to a client and we need to get something positive talked about as quickly as possible.

Spin can mean, “impart a revolving motion to a ball when bowling,” which if you have ever seen it done by a professional, is amazing to watch. The ball starts rolling down one section of the lane then turns and strikes the pins in a way you never thought possible. That sounds like taking an issue and having people look at it in a completely different light because of our ability to offer different perspectives than our client’s competitors and detractors.

Spin can mean, “shape by pressure applied during rotation on a lathe.” That sounds like taking an issue and helping the media understand its intricacies so that their stories provide not just the sensational highlights but also the background context necessary for the whole story to come out.

Spin can mean, “draw out and convert into threads.” That sounds like taking an announcement or event that may not necessarily be the most newsworthy and finding an angle that entices the media into covering it.

And, yes, spin can mean, “a particular bias, interpretation, or point of view intended to create a favorable or sometimes unfavorable impression.”

When clients hire us to provide public relations activities, aren’t we doing all of the above?

It doesn’t mean that we are doing so unethically. However, we are getting paid to help get news coverage in a world where there is too much news to cover. We are hired to help our clients create or maintain a positive reputation — not by lying about their bad deeds but by helping them make better choices. We are compensated to tell our client’s side of the story in a way that makes their competitor’s side seem less believable.

Maybe spin evokes such an emotional reaction from those who don’t like to hear the truth. Maybe they’ve spent too many years trying to, “give a particular interpretation, especially a favorable one,” to their profession via a definition rather than by action.

The PRSA Code of Ethics provides guidelines to practitioners that need to be adhered to closely. These include:

  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.
  • Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.
  • Act in the best interest of clients or employers.
  • Disclose financial interests in a client’s organization.
  • Safeguard the confidences and privacy rights of clients and employees.
  • Avoid conflicts between personal and professional interests.
  • Decline representation of clients requiring actions contrary to the code.
  • Accurately define what public relations activities can accomplish.

If you have a client with a poor reputation because of misdeeds, you know you can’t sugarcoat the misdeeds to make them seem better. You know it will never work. Instead, counsel the client to stop behaving badly. Once that step is taken, you can then help them rebuild their reputation because of your PR skills and experience.

I am a public relations professional. I adhere to the Code of Ethics. I spin for a living — and so do you — so let’s get over it and start doing some good for our clients and our profession by focusing on deeds instead of definitions.

What do you think? Please let everyone know!

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