It’s time to stop talking about spin… please

The term "spin doctor" is derogatory and the industry shouldn't joke about its work being "spin", argues Tony Jaques. Because, as assistant minister for homelessness Luke Howarth recently proved, words matter.

Talking about positive PR as ‘spin’ is misleading and unhelpful, and it really is time we moved past this derogatory language. But a federal minister dragged us backwards recently when he publicly called for putting a “positive spin” on homelessness.

This wasn’t just some over-eager publicist trying to reframe the latest gaffe by a B-list celebrity. It was the minister newly appointed to be responsible for homelessness talking about a serious social issue which plagues our cities.

Discussing his role as assistant minister for homelessness on national radio, Queensland MP Luke Howarth said that while about 116,000 Australians were homeless, 99.5% of the population are homed and living in safe places. He also tried to make it sound good that homelessness is not growing as quickly as the population.

“I want to put a positive spin on it as well,” he declared, “and not just say that Australia’s in a housing crisis when it affects a very, very small percentage of the population.”

Perhaps it was just careless use of language, but the media predictably scolded the minster for calling for a positive spin.

The reality is that management of any serious public issue needs facts, compassion and informed discussion, not spin. Issue management is a formal discipline which uses established communication tools and relationships in a structured way to identify and address issues which might affect an organisation, then work towards positive, strategic outcomes.

By contrast, spin is associated with dishonesty and deceit, often trying to achieve short-term gain at the cost of relationships and trust. And the consequences can be severe. Think no further than how the official reports were ‘sexed up’ to provide a stronger justification to invade Iraq in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Communication professionals and issue managers rightly bristle when naysayers call them spin doctors. Because, as New York PR boss Robert Dilenschneider has said: “Spin doctoring is to public relations what pornography is to art”.

Ever since the term ‘spin doctor’ first appeared in print in The New York Times in 1984, it has been used by some journalists and commentators as gratuitous shorthand for PR professionals. But journalists should not call PR people spin doctors any more than PR people should call journalists fake news reporters.

However, this is not just about precious egos and a bit of silly name-calling. It is about protecting public confidence in the news and in professional communication. In a so-called post-truth world, where fake news abounds and where the public increasingly rejects official information and scientific evidence, it doesn’t help for anyone – let alone a federal minister – to talk about promoting positive spin.

A good first step would be for issue managers and other PR people to stop using the term ‘spin’ about their own activities, even in a joking way. And maybe some media advisers might tell their bosses to take more care what they say.

Words matter, and what’s at stake here is public trust in political and organisational communication, and the ability for society to have mature and balanced discussion on important issues of the day.

Tony Jaques is the managing director of Issue Outcomes. This piece appeared in Tony Jaques’ Managing Outcomes newsletter. You can subscribe here.


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