Coaching crisis

Spin doctors gotta spin…

Public relations pros don’t like the word spin. Call one a “spin doctor” and that’s a low blow. A rude insult.

So how can we put a better spin on our profession? As a child, my mom gave me this piece of life advice: “Don’t call people names they don’t want to be called.”

However, she meant me to take this advice only in the context of oppressed people. It’s never OK to target an oppressed person with a rude name. However, calling privileged people names might be unflattering– but it also might be part of a strategy to elicit attention and needed social change.

It can actually be helpful to call a privileged group of people unflattering names. A powerful person or group may pout of at least make a show of feeling offended — but their elite status means that a rude name can’t really hurt them.

Calling PR pros “spin doctors” can’t hurt us. It can, however, remind us that we need to take responsibility for an industry-wide tendency to manipulate words and media in a way that can be an abuse of power.

Let’s engage in a thought experiment (based on a real-life example!) that examines the kind of tactic that earns PR practitioners that nasty ‘spin’ label. Let’s say a student receives a stern lecture from her PR professor for using the word ‘spin’. The prof scolds the young woman in front of class, rebuking her for daring to use that inflammatory word.

The bold young student counters:

“But isn’t ‘crafting an articulate post-crisis positioning statement’ just spin for the word ‘spin’?” she might ask.

The annoyed professor responds: “No. No it’s not. Don’t be impudent. The word spin is offensive. Just don’t let me catch you using it, ever.”

The student is effectively censored. The professor has the power. The student doesn’t. She cannot realistically continue a meaningful or instructive dialog, for fear of grade backlash. The student simply learns she can no longer use the word ‘spin’ in front of this professor. But the real lesson she learns from this exchange is not lost on her …or the other students in class.

In class, the students have learned not to say ‘spin’ to this particular professor. Behind his back, they call him “Dr. Spinning.” He’s the PR pro who is unaware that he’s spinning ‘spin’, and unaware of what one group of key stakeholders think of him.

If you were the PR prof, how might you have more responsibly answered the young student’s question?