29 June 2023

A full spin wash

A recent headline on the front page of The Belfast Telegraph’s (June 23) featured the headline: “Anger over council plan to hire a ‘spin doctor’ on £105k salary”. The term spin doctor is derogatory and outdated terminology, which portrays public relations as a manipulative role. This sloppy headline shows a disregard and poor understanding of the strategic role of public relations. 

The PR community was quick to express its disapproval of such a headline, with comms professional, Stephen Waddington, highlighting how far from the truth the headline relates to public relations, particularly in the public sector industry.

In recent times of the Covid pandemic, high-level strategic communication and information campaigns were essential to local government departments, to convey crucial health messaging, safety directives and content, along with emergency signposting for communities during one of the most uncertain times in history. This hardly qualifies as ‘spin’.

Propaganda all wrapped up

But where do the terms spin and spin doctor originate from? 

In the US, the “father of public relations”, Edward Bernays, was heavily linked with spin in the form of propaganda, controlling of the masses and “the engineering of consent.” His association with tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical brands is well documented, and his writing on propaganda attracted the Third Reich, with Joseph Goebbels in the 1920s becoming a fan of Bernays (despite Bernays being Jewish). Goebbels’ position of the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda, he used Bernays’ works as the basis for a “Fuhrer cult” to ‘promote’ Adolph Hitler.

The Thick of It

Certainly in the UK, the term spin doctor became synonymous with Alistair Campbell, the then head of communications for former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the New Labour campaign. Political spin was rife in the 1990s, particularly with the advent of 24-hour news coverage and the growing appetite for political access and commentary. This increase was then followed by a marked decline in the quality of British media content. The demand for media and PR consultants within politics grew from this point.

The comedy, The Thick of It, satirises the “sultans of spin”; the inner sanctum of the British government, with the main character – Malcolm Tucker – said to be based on Alistair Campbell. The show’s creator, Armando Iannuccistated he wrote the comedy to help him process the political spin and turmoil of Blair’s government that allowed the UK to “back a war [in Iraq] with no purpose, no target, no endgame and no rationale”. This resulted in a horrific war and a lasting distrust in British politics. 

One of Campbell’s most notorious examples of spin was the 1997 General Election, called by John Major. Campbell’s efforts persuaded Rupert Murdoch and the editor of The Sun, Stuart Higgins, to publicly declare that the paper offers support for Labour and would be telling its readers to vote their way.

The power of strategic communications

The managing director of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), Renna Markson hit back at the article, stating:

“Salaries in public services are always, and rightly, under scrutiny, but no one is helped by lazy headlines that misrepresent the work of communications teams. 

“Belfast City Council spends £240m each year providing public services. A communications director helps make sure the council gets the best possible return for that money, by ensuring that the council listens to and understands the needs of Belfast residents and that those residents know about and can make full use of council services.

“The focus on tourism will mean extra demand for Belfast’s hospitality industry and a boost for Northern Ireland’s private sector. These measures alone should, if the candidate is successful, mean a return on the council’s investment far and above the reported salary.”

Renna Markson, PRCA

The chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), Alastair McCapra, said: 

“Public relations is more than spin and publicity. Strategically it is about fostering trust and goodwill, and promoting understanding between organisations and their various stakeholders.

“Within the public sector, communication serves a crucial purpose by responsibly delivering information and services, effectively communicating change, and encouraging and ensuring public engagement… This story shows a lack of understanding of PR’s strategic function and fails to recognise the many responsibilities that come with serving the needs of the community and driving positive change.”

Alastair McCapra, CIPR

Whilst spin hasn’t disappeared from politics and the media, it has become less associated with modern-day public relations and the highly-skilled practitioners that abide by the ethical codes of professional bodies like the CIPR and PRCA. 

As PR professionals, we take our role, continual education, and responsibilities most seriously. Operating at the highest standards with full transparency and accountability is essential for public relations professionals, therefore it’s disappointing to see inaccurate headlines from The Belfast Telegraph that belong to a bygone decade.

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