A Lecture Delivered by Anthony Elikene ANIPR in December at the Edubrainics Africa Platform
Public Relations is a broad discipline and many might wonder why I chose to start with a highly contentious issue such as Spin-Doctoring.
It would be more assimilating and better understood to start with the most controversial part of a discipline that moulds a wrong perception in the minds of people that the normal thing is to start with definitions. I have never been a big fan of definitions as it tends to make people believe, subconsciously, that it tells the whole story. Your portrait does not describe your character.
Back to the topic, what and who is a Spin-Doctor? According to Collins English Dictionary – “in politics, a spin doctor is someone who is skilled in public relations and who advises political parties on how to present their policies and actions.”
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a “Spin-Doctor is a person (such as a political aide) responsible for ensuring that others interpret an event from a particular point of view.”
Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “someone whose job is to make ideas, events, etc. seem better than they really are, especially in politics.”
Wikipedia puts it this way – “in public relations and politics, a spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion in favour or against some organization or public figure. While traditional public relations and advertising may also rely on altering the presentation of the facts, “spin” often implies the use of disingenuous, deceptive, and highly manipulative tactics.”
Personally, I regard a PR person as a bodyguard who must ensure the protection of his client at all times while in the line of duty. That is what you are to do, bodyguard his reputation.
However, from the last definition by Wikipedia most of you might have a biased perception about Spin-Doctoring but you have to first appreciate and ask yourself this questions. Why do people post beautiful photos of themselves on their social media handles from locations or on properties belonging to uncles, rich friends or relatives? Expensive cars on our social media DPs, even without claiming ownership of these properties the impression that registers in our audience mind are deliberately designed to be positive but do you term it misleading even without actual use of words. This is accepted by everyone today.
People do this for one reason and one reason alone – reputation. Why Reputation? Because reputation is tied to our friends accepting us knowing we belong to a particular status, live a particular lifestyle, and it helps us get more friends and favours. The same thing applies to brands, in this case, reputation is tied to sales, marketing, image, and market acceptance by potential target markets, continued brand loyalty, brand value/equity and other positives.
In everything, you must always think about your client’s reputation first and how he could be protected because that is what bodyguards do. But while a bodyguard needs tools such as guns, bulletproof, technological devices to do a good job, a PR person needs an innovative mind to think out of the box for solutions and like lawyers he needs a background information. According to Lord Bell “Good PR needs substance”.
I once received a call from a panicking client on a weekend, Saturday morning to be precise, and was briefed about a possible crisis situation. A journalist who had been complaining that my client was not advertising on the print media he works in and has been publishing negative stories about my client, stumbled on another opportunity to get even.
The journalist had called in to get additional information about a theft that took place at the client’s premises and which allegedly involved some of its staff. This would have created a major crisis for the brand that was already struggling to stay alive. I knew the journalist and I knew he would not back down even with facts as he had a grudge against the brand.
If this obviously biased version of the incidence gets published by the journalist the following were the likely threats –
- Damaged brand reputation,
- The public will form multiple opinions which is harmful to the brand
- It will cost the brand more in damage control
- Other media, especially online, will rejig and publish on their media
- Shareholders and other stakeholders will be interested
- Government agencies would have opened up several investigations
- The management would have been under the radar from every angle
What did I do? I asked my client to send me all the background information they had on the issue. I read the documents. I knew that “even though my client’s staffers were exonerated by the police and the external culprit apprehended”, and “even though my client was even the one that invited the police to investigate the theft on its premises”, once this gets out uncontrolled it will mean nothing because everyone will form an opinion. This was a dangerous situation, a potential crisis situation because the journalist’s publication will definitely guide the opinion of the public.
I knew the journalist’s publication date so the strategy was in fourfolds
- To develop content that would represent my clients narrative which was the truth
- To publish my client’s version first before the journalist’s version because whoever publishes first controls the narrative
- To use the fastest media that can reach more people and drown any other publication at the shortest time possible, hence the use of the online media.
- To also syndicate to print media this is to ensure that the other print media have my own copy of the narrative and would not be tempted to copy from the journalist and further worsen the situation.
On Saturday evening, and Sunday morning online was awash with my client’s version which was the truth and same version of the police and on Monday morning the print media started publishing my client’s version and it drowned the negative publication of the journalist and everything was like it never happened.
The narrative positioned my client on a good light with so many people on social media commending my client for involving the police and showing sympathy for the brand.
If you ask me if Spin-Doctoring is bad and I can equally ask if a gun is bad because a gun can be used to save lives and it can also take lives, what matters is who pulls the trigger.
Excerpts from my book – “In the process of being first or the best sometimes underhand practices and untruth might substitute the fact (there is still controversy trailing who the first on the moon is, Russia or America). These ambiguous claims have led to trust issues as the public becomes suspicious every time a claim is made by a brand or politician. What comes to mind sometimes is not the immediate claim but industry reputation that has seen brands or politicians due to competition make claims but cannot defend it with quality service delivery, which is why a positive brand-recall by customers depends on positive customer experience.”
Glo, 9mobile, MTN, and Airtel, all position themselves as the leader in the telecommunications market. Who do you think is the market leader? The wrong answer, I guess you picked MTN. The answer is they are all saying the truth of being the market leader and these claims are backed with facts.
“MTN positions its leadership to wide coverage, population and the premium market, 9mobile position its leadership to Data, youths and innovation. Airtel and Glo also position themselves as the leader of the telecom market. When evidence backs whatever truth you are presenting it makes it easier for push and takes it out of the realm of propaganda (embellishment).”
“They are all correct in claiming leadership of the telecom market because the market is nothing but a big pie with everyone getting their piece. It’s just a question of positioning to a particular niche where you have a more corporate advantage than every other competition.”
“The easy way to get into a person’s mind is to be first. If you can’t be first then you must find a way to position yourself against the product, politician, the person who did get there first…” – Al Ries & Jack Trout, Positioning (p.19).
“The first man to walk on the moon was not the first man to the moon. When the record for the first man to the moon was broken by Russia, America had to position itself to another ‘first’, which was the first man to walk on the moon – after carving this niche, massive communication was deployed to make this stick in the consciousness of the public. Till today nobody talks about the ‘first man to the moon’, they all talk about the ‘first man to walk on the moon’.”
Yours truly headed the media presentation in early 2018 for the first ever bespoke research presentation for Nigeria, at the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual international research organized by the largest PR firm in the world, Edelman, which was held in Lagos. The report revealed that 72 per cent of Nigerians still trusts the media despite Fake News and the growth of unregulated social media. The bulk of the media trust was for the print media and the public trust for politicians was the least in the report.
Truth, however, is relative and there can be more than one truth. When there is a war and a victor gives an account, even though this account is backed with evidence it is going to be different from the truth of the vanquished who also has evidence.
Spin-Doctoring enables you to tell your client’s truth the best way that can be told. You are not in the business of telling the story of people who are not your client, even though this might sound harsh doctors don’t go out threating non-clients.
This brings us to the question of who is qualified to practice Public Relations. If a professional practices PR he understands the value and responsibility attached to his duty but when a non-professional claim to be a PR practitioner that is when lies are presented as facts.
Why people connotatively refer to Spin-Doctoring in a negative way is because it uses a lot of subliminal, suggestive, and intangible imageries. People fear what they cannot understand or hold accountable. It’s a case of a child being too smart he could either be called intelligent, wise by those who appreciate those qualities or he could be called deceptive, conning by those who frown at those qualities.
Spinning is neither negative nor positive, it is merely a PR tool deployed by skilled practitioners who are proactive and innovative at solving critical crisis potential issues.
The negative perception of spinning stems from several pointers, one is caused by lecturers who have never practised the profession of Public Relations and are quick to label as they only operate on the realm of theory. They seem to echo what society says about spinning and propaganda instead of educating society with practical knowledge. But they can only offer what they have.
Another reason is the influx of untrained journalists into the PR profession with many of them having the mindset that journalism and PR are the same and they believe they could do the same job. Aside from media relations and content development PR and journalism virtually have nothing in common. The PR person is a media manager while a journalist is a media gatekeeper and this show in how both of them approach issues.
Take for instance the spokespersons for the government over the years have escalated issues rather than diminish it. When Reuben Abati was a spokesman for the PDP led government he’s a reaction to opposition’s claim that the government was lying about constructing a railway system. Mr Abati would aggressively reply the opposition. When the APC took over the government from PDP and Femi Adeshina became the spokesman he also did the same because. They both had something in common, they were both journalists – Gatekeepers.
The trained PR practitioner, who is not just a media manager but a strategist, would have invited all the editors of the major media houses to the rail construction sites to see firsthand the operations of the railway line. Take them around the federation where the launch has taken place and the next day the media would be agog with photos and stories proving the government had actually done what they claimed. This is what I call ”Evidential PR”. No insults involved only evidence.
Spinning is not about telling lies, it is about telling your truth when no one will tell. Using the truth as a foundation to tell your client’s own story, more like blowing your trumpet. There is no one truth because every truth is relative and a good spinning campaign should be able to use the truth as a foundation to favour the client.
Many make the error of associating Spin-Doctoring to propaganda. Spin-Doctoring, just like its name, spins the table around to a favourable position. If another truth has been propagated by some other vested interest, it is the job of the PR professional to spin the table around to the point of truth’ that favours his client, I call this ‘Relativity of Truth’ because there are sometimes more than one truth.
Propaganda on the other hand uses exaggeration of the truth by stretching reality. A tall man can be called a giant, a short man can be called a dwarf, a very slim man can be regarded as starving or malnourished, a fat man can be referred to as obese. But plain lie doesn’t use any iota of truth, it simply has no foundation and crumbles against facts.
Spin-Doctoring usually takes place when there is an issue or situation that needs to be solved while Propaganda doesn’t need a situation to be implemented, it could be employed at any time. Spin-Doctoring is a decent PR strategy but many confuse the use of propaganda and outright lies by nonprofessionals as one and the same
Yes, it’s hard to be a good PR practitioner without being a gifted Spin-Doctor, a problem solver when the need arises because that is what Public Relations persons do, they solve problems.