You Tell Me: Is Every Message Just Spin?

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This topic contains 19 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Chris Trent 5 years, 7 months ago.

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  • #177599

    Dave Hebert

    This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network. No endorsement expressed or implied.

    Right around the start of the sequester, a prominent member of the House of Representatives trotted out that old trope about how much more Feds get in salary and benefits than their private sector counterparts.

    This was not about particular industries or occupations — it was a wholesale comparison of the federal and private sectors. You could question this approach for a few reasons (size/diversity of sectors being compared, differences in ethics and compensation policies, executive pay levels, etc.), but the numbers cited to make this point are, as far as I can tell, accurate.

    So where does the truth lie here, in any amount? Or, which truth weighs more?

    Before we proceed, I want to be clear that I am not asking “What is truth?” That would be an asinine undertaking for this forum, even by my liberal standards of asininity.

    Let’s instead focus on the balance of spin in communications and PR messaging. Can we, as comm./PR pros, ever not spin a message? Is spin not such a bad thing after all?

    I’ll try to illustrate this quandary with an outline of a common experience for me:

    • Meet with client/customer to talk about communication strategy.
    • Discuss what people need to know about an issue/product/effort/etc.
    • Reach point of discussion about messaging and knowingly nod when client/customer and/or colleague says, “Here’s where you, you know, put our spin on it.”
      • Note client/customer either struggling to keep a straight face or look you in the eye while calling for said spin.

    I am reluctant to grant that “spin” is just another way of saying “messaging.” The connotations of spin, and the ways we talk about it — this is just more spin, these people are spin doctors (also the name of a band I don’t care for) — fall on the negative side of the social perception ledger. It certainly seems to trip up those clients/colleagues when they ask for it.

    Knowing what you believe and why you believe it is an important human endeavor, and I’d argue an important professional one for communicators.

    I’m guessing most of us who put words in organizations’ or important peoples’ mouths for a living make every effort to produce messages that are true, if not an exposition on the entire history of truths about the matter at hand (that’s what hyperlinks are for).

    There, perhaps, is the crux of the issue: belief and context. The aforementioned congressman and his comm. staff may have firmly believed in that comparison. Maybe they didn’t; the end may have been enough to justify the means. It struck me as intellectually dishonest, in part because it lacked needed context.

    So how do we determine that the truth of our message weighs more than the truth of an opposing message?

    Or must we accept that every organizational message, absent the context of every other known fact and message about the issue to which it refers, can’t really be delivered with a straight face?

    Somebody tell me: Is every message just spin?


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  • #177637

    Chris Trent

    Although I understand your hesitance to discuss the epistemology of truth on a forum such as this, I would suggest that this is precisely the place to have such a conversation. (“Capital T”-Truth might be beyond our scope, though.) What I’m trying to say is, this place, a place for government employees, should have no qualms agreeing to this maxim: it is wrong to lie.

    From that maxim flows that it is right to always speak truthfully. Assuming perfect knowledge, there is no justification for a public servant to say untrue things.

    Of course, no human possesses perfect knowledge. (Well, maybe the Vice President does.) But your question is not, “Do government communicators make mistakes?” Your question is, in two parts, “Can spin be ethical and do we ever not spin?”

    First, I’d like to suggest a definition for spin. You mention belief and context, so I would offer this:

    Spin is knowingly withholding context in the interest of belief.

    So, do we ever not spin? Philosophically, I have to say no. In fact, I think it’s arguable that spin may be a natural defense mechanism against that perfect knowledge problem. It must be apparent to any introspective person in a position of authority that, sooner or later, they will be speaking with a deficit of knowledge. Spin lets leaders speak without jeopardizing their authority. In other words, if it’s impossible to speak the whole truth, spin lets us speak at least part of the truth.

    Is spin, as I’ve conceived it, ethical? Perhaps not. Ideally, no one should speak without full knowledge, but then no one should ever speak. (Indeed, religious authorities for millennia have come to just that conclusion.) You and I, however, are not monks. Like any other sort of human imperfection, I think it’s only unethical if undertaken maliciously or negligently. It is not wrong to be wrong.

    What makes spin work in the real world is that none of us ever get to tell just our side of the story. Many sides are being told and, perhaps when taken altogether, the multitude of perspectives equal the whole truth. It isn’t wrong to provide your, or your boss’s, point-of-view, but it is wrong to prevent anyone else from providing theirs.

    To me, this is the rub: The question we should ask is not, “How shall we spin?” but rather “In whose voice shall we speak?” What you say is determined by whose voice with which you speak, so before you hit send on that email ask yourself, “Do I really know who I’m representing?”

  • #177635

    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.

  • #177633

    Yvette Grimes

    You may have heard or seen game shows or contests with spin it to win it… not so fast. Communicators loose if every message is just about spin to win. The truth does matter and we need to present the facts. As communicators, we need to realize the impact of messages that we put out there. However, sometimes communicators don’t get all the data or there’s misinformation or mistakes. This is an area where an aspect of spin can make a difference. The message needs correction and spin may help us. We have to revitalize the message and clear things up. I also believe that government agencies could be more proactive with the public. We can avoid spin and still win.

  • #177631

    David B. Grinberg

    To put it bluntly, the authenticity and veracity (or lack thereof) for socalled “spin” — like art — is in the eye of the beholder (or target audiences). Moreover, perception is reality, especially in the national media, regardless of what one calls it.


  • #177629

    David B. Grinberg

    Dannielle, regarding data and Big Data, statistics may be easily manipulated to make one’s point — and in DC this is usually par for the course in government and the media. This is not necessarily untruthful or malicious, it just depends upon the variables one uses to make calculations and draw conclusions.

    That’s why, for example, the same data on the U.S. debt and projected budget deficits may be interpreted differently by OMB and CBO, not to mention “think tanks” and other “experts.”

    Call it “spin” or whatever one chooses, but that’s the way it works for better or worse. I believe your recent post about one’s data versus another’s data made this point fairly well.

    Also, let’s remember that whatever info is communicated to the media will be put through its own “spin cycle” of reporters, editors, producers and headline writers who slice and dice copy, audio and video to put their own “spin” on the story.

    In terms of PR, communications and media relations, “spin” is thus getting one’s message out in the most favorable and persuasive manner with the available facts/data — or to make one’s case in the most convincing and compelling terms while remaining factually correct with supporting evidence. That’s why it’s often called “spin control” — to control the message or info disseminated to the best of one’s ability. This is because once it’s out there, the proverbial genie can usually not be put back in the proverbial bottle.

    Further, as noted, the message or info will disseminated will likely be parsed by those seeking to counteract it or obscure it.


  • #177627

    While it is impossible to eliminate spin, we can take steps to minimize its likelihood.

    The reason spin is inevitable is that people (being what they are) will always try to game the system. Personal preferences, power games, cultural styles and even technology literacy all get in the way of the end goal – pure transparency.

    In addition, there is no getting away from the human bias on how pure data is presented. So the data itself is always suspect:

    1. Someone has to put the data into a format so that people can use it. That container is going to influence the way the data is perceived.
    2. “History is written by the winners.” That’s because there is no such thing as objective history, only the perspective of one party or another.
    3. Any phenomenon can be observed completely differently depending on whether you are looking through a historical, sociological, biological, religious, Western/Eastern, economic etc. lens.
    4. Relying on science is not an escape. Academics have a field day taking apart the methodology used to provide data. The fact that methodology is so easily manipulated is why I don’t trust quantitative studies AT ALL unless they are cross-correlated with qualitative work.

    So we get back to Chris’s point. Is truth possible? Because if it is NOT possible then spin is inevitable as part of any attempt to communicate. Which is what I was trying to say:

    If data is inevitably presented in a biased way, narrative will always be worse.

    Narrative itself entraps us in spin.

    How then can we talk about anything? Perhaps conversation itself is a waste of time, because it’s all biased.

    No – we can instead put biases in conversation with each other.

    Methodologically, this involves a balanced approach to data – quantitative and qualitative.

    Communication-wise, this involves interaction – or social media.

    The concept of “big data” is that we draw from the well of ALL available numbers, all available data, all available studies – and look for overarching trends.

    But you can’t get to “big data” unless you have data sets to begin with.

    Data sets can be drawn from narrative (e.g. content analysis of what Agencies say about their programs in their annual reports), from survey results (customer feedback on Agency performance), to qualitative data (interviews, focus groups where questions are standardized), ethnography (journal notes), and even data collected without human intervention – such as computerized collection of information like call wait times.

    What I am arguing is:

    We need more data, not less.

    The taxpayer owns the data.

    We should make it available raw.

    *As always all opinions are my own.

  • #177625

    EH Rice

    Bluntly, any modern, and some not so modern, societies are based upon spin. I ask, why do kids want to go to McDonalds or Chucky Cheese? Is it that their products are better, no, it’s because of spin. Why do certain people win elections and others don’t? Spin!!! When something bad happens, what’s the first thing that is done? Damage Control (older version of Spin). How does Kim Jong-un stay in power? Spin (and a good secret police)! It seems that everyone puts spin into everything. And lately, everything I read I ask what angle is the spin coming from. Shutting down White House tours? Spin (make it hurt), taking spring brake in the Bahamas? Spin. And, then there are Spin Doctors, who can use spin to surgically achieve the end results. And, then why not a Agency of Spin. What was it one government called it….oh yest the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda [Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda or Propagandaministerium]. I guess that will be the next Agency. Department of Information, Public Relations, and Enlightenment for Citizens, and give them a huge IT budget (for BIG data), some police powers, and exempt them under the National Security clause from certain parts of the Constitution. I have never been told to lie, but I have been told to keep my mouth shut about the truth and what really went on, while in the briefings I hear things spun all over the place.

  • #177623

    The federal government is not McDonald’s. In the case of McDonald’s the customer knows they are being marketed to.

    Running the federal government is not running for political office. The legal system separates politics from the civil service.

    The federal government is not akin to the Nazi regime nor to an organized crime racket. What an offensive comparison (made just for spin’s sake, by the way) and an insult to the people who work here.

    There is no family, school, church, synagogue, mosque, hospital, company or agency that runs perfectly.

    Nor is there a social system on earth that has managed to eliminate corruption.

    In our country we have a balance of power so that bad behavior can be remedied.

    It is easy to talk the big talk and throw stones, but it is hard to actually do the work.

    The truth – and not the spin – is that you can either try to be constructive or destructive. I believe in the system and the people that work here, and I trust that with G-d’s help those who try to turn good into evil will be caught and prosecuted.

  • #177621

    Dave Hebert


    I almost referred to the truth that I wasn’t trying to address here as “capital-T Truth,” so apparently that was clear … or you and I think alike, which is why I’ve been saying we need some time apart. 😉

    And I think I concur with your premise: If said congressman had said to himself, “Well, I know that the way I’m throwing these stats out here is misleading and withholds a significant amount of context needed to understand the situation, but I don’t care because I believe the bigger point I’m trying to make,” then his approach, to me, is unethical.

    That gets at the kind of belief I’m referring to and saying it’s important to know and understand: Belief that you think stands on real truth and reason and that doesn’t need to be obfuscated with statistical trickery or other shenanigans, even if you can’t get anyone to agree with you. But I might be digressing into the other discussion I wanted to avoid, so I’ll stop here.

    You appear to be stating, in any case, that spin is a practical necessity of imperfect human knowledge and is a simple word to describe the sometimes-complicated process of representing a point of view. I can buy that, I think, particularly with you suggestion that we shift to knowing whom/what we representing when we communicate a message.

  • #177619

    Dave Hebert


    I’m not sure that’s what Chris is suggesting — seems he’s equating spin to perspective, but I’ll let him counter if he chooses.

    I should make it clear that I’ve never been asked to lie, either. If I had, I think that would actually make the discomfort with spinning much clearer. I have, however, been in discussions where someone suggests withholding context to significantly alter the nature of a message, and if I am coherent enough to recognize that (depends on what time of day this discussion is occurring/my level of caffeine intake), I argue to convey the message with a more honest backdrop.

    What’s compelling to me here is folks’ inability to keep a straight face while discussing messaging (“spin”) at all — I’m led to conclude that there is something inherently unsavory about the messaging process, especially when it deals with those potential dirty laundry issues you refer to.

    Either what we communicate is accurate and inclusive of sufficient context or it isn’t — let’s make the effort to find that sweet spot so we don’t have to embarrassed or squirmy.

  • #177617

    Dave Hebert

    Glad to see you here, Yvette. You touch on a problem that I see the news media struggling with right now: speed/volume vs. accuracy. We can’t completely have both, and the current ethic is speed/volume over accuracy.

    I like what you seem to suggest: We need to say what we know, when we know it, and no more until we know more.

    Avoid the trap of wanting to be right about everything right NOW and realize that our job is to sustain conversations as long as they need to go on.

  • #177615

    Dave Hebert

    “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” might be well worn, but it’s well heeded, too. Thanks, David.

    Stats have a funny way of becoming reality to us — I’ve seen this happen with polling results, which is an especially dangerous game to play (asking humans to express feelings on a matter and then constraining them to a fixed set of responses can’t possibly result in misinterpretation, right?).

    You also touch on a really important concept that we who put words in the mouths of large and important entities tend to forget: Control is largely an illusion.

    Trying to make the rest of the world think or understand something exactly as you would like them to is a fool’s errand. Just shoot people straight, both proactively and in reaction.

  • #177613

    Dave Hebert

    Politics (both little p and big P) finds its way into everything. That’s how we humans work, and as you suggest, Danielle, we can corrupt anything.

    However, EH, In the context of this discussion, your assertion implies to me that such a conclusion is inevitable, and I agree with Danielle that such an assertion is too extreme.

  • #177611

    Dave Hebert

    Oh, and look for the forthcoming “So You’ve Achieved Singularity” handbook, a product of the Vice President and the Citizen Services folks at GSA.

    Happy April 1!

  • #177609

    The word “context” means “to frame the narrative.” This is the essence of messaging.

    The question here is–

    –Is messaging inherently spin? (misleading, propaganda)

    –Is it possible to provide facts without messaging?

    Another question–

    –Can there be a question absent context? (Consider the title of this post – it is really a statement not a question – it brings its own context to the person providing a response.)

    –What about “high context” vs. “low context” questions:

    * A high context question means that I “get” the underlying question even though the words don’t reveal it. For example: “How pervasive is low morale in the federal workforce?” The superficial question is for data. The underlying question is really an accusatory statement – “morale is low, admit it, tell us how bad it is or defend yourself.”

    * A low context question is as simple as the words themselves – “where did I leave the keys?”

    The war over “spin” is really a war over “who gets to provide the context.”

    The reason people don’t trust PR folks is precisely because they try to provide context, and it sounds completely phony.

    Government is not about PR – it’s about “just the facts, ma’am” – but at the same time, loaded questions require a thoughtful response that takes the entire communication into account.

    To go back to the morale question, it seems appropriate to me to simply release survey responses as a data set and let the public parse them out (like the Partnership for Public Service does with the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey). Better than that – a data set that includes a summary analysis.

    Bureau of Labor Statistics news release is a good example:

  • #177607

    Mark Hammer

    CBC Radio had a fascinating series about the history and nature of spin a year or two ago: Well worth a listen:

  • #177605

    Chris Trent

    Here’s an example (generalized, of course) from my own experience.

    Headline A: “Federal Agency Finds .03 Parts-per-Million Toxins in State Water Supply”

    Headline B: “Federal Agency Finds State Water Supply’s Toxin Levels Below National Average”

    Headline C: “Federal Agency Finds State Water Supply’s Toxin Levels Below EPA Thresholds”

    Each of these examples could be, wholly and completely, truthful. Each, however, could carry very different meanings depending on the context. If the national average is dangerously high, Headline B is a farce, or if EPA thresholds are negligently loose, Headline C is insulting. But without any additional information, Headline A could be misinterpreted as a negative finding when it is actually good news.

    I also remind folks from time to time that “Headline Z” is always an option, too. Federal agencies are not required to produce press releases and talking points for every piece of information they produce.

    My point is simply that “spin” is the process by which we choose which of the four options to take. None of them are right and all of them depend on context to justify. As Danielle rightly pointed out, the question is who controls the context.

    Access to the raw data gives citizens greater powers of contextualization, but citizens can, and frequently do, mis-contextualize information. Moreover, it is not just “citizens” that access the data, but interest groups and media outlets which do not necessarily have the same ethical constraints as Federal employees.

    When I meet with Congressional staffers, I like to tell them that it is not my agency’s job to provide information that settles debates. It is our job to make sure that they engage in fair policy fights, with everyone having the same information.

    In my opinion, it is the government communicator’s job not necessarily to disclose information most fully, but most fairly. That ought to be the standard applied when deciding which headline to write.

  • #177603

    Dave Hebert

    I like your two framing questions. I also agree about the power of the loaded question (“Have you stopped beating your wife?”).

    Now, while I am certainly trying to provoke responses in this forum, I don’t think the way I asked this question about spin forces the same discussion that a question of how low morale is or whether you’ve stopped abusing your spouse does.

    Both of those questions assume an existing state (morale IS low, you DO abuse your spouse). I am asking a question that any of you can answer (and have) with a yes or a no and define a state that the question didn’t force.

    Ok, I’ll stop being defensive.

    Your BLS example is a good illustration of useful govt data without much frosting (low context). It’s great when that can happen.

    For those parts of govt with missions that revolve around services and policies, however, low context isn’t always an option. Whether I’m a citizen or a senator, you’re probably going to have to give me context beyond pure data as to why I should care about your services or want to support/comply with your policies.

    As for surveys of people (Fed. Empl. Viewpoint Survey), bring your mine-detection equipment: There is nothing just-the-facts about asking people for their feelings or opinions of things, and such survey results usually require a boatload of context.

    Even asking people a factual question — do you own a lawn mower? — might not elicit a straight answer

    In any case, the execution of govt services and policies should be based on some data that support the need for said services/policies, too. If nothing else, we in govt should be careful about forcing data to ask questions we are pre-disposed to answer.

  • #177601

    Dave Hebert

    Thanks, Mark — that’s a pretty in-depth treatment of the subject!

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