How would you spin that? Don’t spin it, bin it

Mumbrella recently reported on a pilot episode of a new Gruen-style public relations TV show 'How Would You Spin That?' Eleven's Fee Townshend says it should go straight in the bin.

How would I spin this? Umm… I’d take this right off the turntable. This is just a bad idea and my recommendation would be don’t spin it. Bin it.

At a time when the best marketing campaigns in the world are judged by the amount of earned impact they achieve, the last thing the PR industry deserves is a show that centres around a very narrow (and more importantly perhaps, outdated) segment of our profession.

A show that suggests the very nature of what we do is sinister, enabled through backroom dealings and with the goal of tricking the public into allowing big business to do bad things, while we sit back and snigger over a Chardonnay?

I shudder.

The use of the word ‘spin’ – which suggests untruth – sits at the core of my disdain for this program. That is closely followed by the narrow focus around corporate issues management undertaken by ‘heavy hitters’ (too much lunch, maybe?), which is only one part of the PR profession.

It’s a bit like launching a new Gruen but only covering campaigns that include 30-second TV executions and ignoring the vast body of digital work created. Frankly, it’s a bit old school.

Public relations is a broad industry. The key difference to advertising being that we generally earn third-party opinion to communicate messaging versus owned or bought means.

On one end of the spectrum are the crisis managers dealing with the fallout of serious issues. I spent the first four years of my career in an agency of that nature and I respect the work of those tasked with finding the best articulation for an issue playing out, detailing how said issue will be resolved, and how that incident may impact future operations or practices.

And I’d bet my non-existent bottle of Chardonnay the last thing these specialists wish to be associated with is a program such as this.

Bad stuff happens – but while a PR practitioner will care about mitigating that incident’s impact on a brand’s health, it is not automatically about initiating a cover-up.

I remain a fan of Ogilvy’s outstanding work in freeing Peter Greste from a prison in Egypt where he was being held on charges of “news reporting that was damaging to national security”.

Oglivy’s #freeajstaff campaign wasn’t ‘spin’

The significant PR efforts to achieve the deportation of Greste back to Australia were recognised as the international campaign of the year in the 2015 PRIA awards. Lots of relationship management, long nights and lobbying, but I don’t think anyone would think this activity was sinister in nature. Peter and his family are no doubt thanking the heavens for the crisis managers involved. The term ‘spin doctor’ just does not feel right in this situation.

Even on the other side of PR – the one not dedicated to putting out fires – the work PR people do today is not adequately reflected by the word ‘spin’.

Eleven and TBWA have just picked up thee bronze Lions in Cannes (two for PR and one for film) for our trans-Tasman work on ANZ’s #HoldTight campaign. In support of the Australasian sponsorship of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and New Zealand’s PRIDE, #HoldTight tapped into the saddening truth that the majority of people identifying as LGBTQI do not always feel comfortable holding hands in public.

I don’t like to think that the data we collected on this, which uncovered the heartening truth that 96% of the public thought everyone should be able to perform this most basic act of love, was some sort of ‘spin’. It was legitimate research, which demonstrated why the #HoldTight film was so relevant and important within contemporary society.

The negative stereotyping of PR practitioners as corporate spin doctors is book-ended by the dumbing down of publicists whose job it is to leverage the lure of celebrity and luxury.

Frequently mocked by ‘heavy hitters’ for undertaking ‘fluffy’ work from their Surry Hills converted warehouses, the work of these practitioners – which often triggers significant uplifts in retail sales – is considered un-strategic or basic work. It deserves more respect.

If we can laud creative genius over a clever ad that sells an extraordinary amount of soap, we should respect the rich relationships behind collaborations, events and photo essays, which also drive irrefutable sales spikes.

Townshend: The term ‘spin doctor’ is outdated

Because, in reality all PR practitioners use the same tools as advertising agencies and other communicators to glean useful insights and cultural truths to formulate our strategies and executional messaging.

It is true that we leverage our contacts – politicians, journalists, industry stakeholders, influencers and celebrities – but it is wrong to assume that we are engaging in dark, deceptive practices to get a result. It’s also an insult to all the contacts mentioned above – suggesting that they are easily deceived and cannot formulate their own objective opinion.

There’s already enough confusion around what we do – bringing PR narrative back to the 1980s’ spin doctors era is both damaging and not reflective of our industry as a whole.

So, begs the question: what would be my recommendation for a PR show?

It’d be called: Now you decide. And it would focus on the public response to an idea – because culture is the litmus test for all of us.

Sure – have a competitive panel addressing PR briefs – but make it more reflective of the vast range of roles within our industry, and a present-day reality at that.

How should a company manage a crisis in a believable and satisfactory way?

What’s the best way to leverage a new corporate service in news channels?

How can a brand best use its equity to make society a better place?

Which celebrity would be best to endorse a particular product?

I’d dance to that.

Fee Townshend is Eleven Melbourne’s managing director


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