Chris suggests that spin means intentionally misleading the audience so as to persuade them (propaganda). This is NOT OK unless you’re in the military doing psychological operations overseas as part of war.
In all my years in the federal government, I have never – not once – had someone tell me to lie or mislead. EVER. If that were to happen I would report it and you should too. I have read about such occurrences though. Normally they leak into social media, and then into regular media if there’s overwhelming credibility to the story. That said:
–My experiences is that agencies are responsive rather than proactive. They wait for the question. They are not hanging around waiting to air what they perceive as dirty laundry. It is often frustrating to me personally as a communicator that we don’t get more in line with the private sector, where there is a pretty good understanding that when you share bad news very early on, it loses impact. (Best example is David Letterman who rebounded right away from his PR crisis by simply acknowledging his personal mistakes.)
–It is standard practice to answer the question you were asked. Not more, not less. We are working in a legal environment where words have tremendous impact. Washington is not a TV talk show. Words are chosen carefully not spontaneously and they are done in conformity with numerous legal requirements – including Plain Language.
–I have heard SMEs (subject matter experts) say to writers, “Put your spin on this.” However, what they usually mean is – “Here are the facts. I know I can’t write. Make them sound better.” It is a way of acknowledging their limitations. Sometimes it’s a way of acknowledging that the data sounds bad. But keep in mind that government words are cleared through various officials so it would be very hard to simply “spin something” without a huge team of people on board. Normally those people are pointing out how the content could be more accurate, more clear.
All of that said–
The problem with narrative is narrative itself. Every agency and every company has to describe in a narrative fashion what they are doing. And as nobody and no organization is perfect there will always be delicate subjects. Nobody is going to run around saying, “Look how we screwed up today! Woo-hoo!” That would be ridiculous and a waste of time – just as phony feelgood stories are. Not all of it is high value.
This is why the emphasis on narrative is misplaced.
The best way out of the “messaging” trap is BIG DATA.
Simply make high-value data sets available in an accessible manner. Let the relevant facts speak for themselves. Officials can offer their comments, but the data is the most important thing.
* All opinions my own.