In public relations and politics, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion in favor 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.
Because of the frequent association between spin and press conferences (especially government press conferences), the room in which these conferences take place is sometimes described as a "spin room". Public relations advisors, pollsters and media consultants who develop deceptive or misleading messages may be referred to as "spin doctors" or "spinmeisters".
As such, a standard tactic used in "spinning" is to reframe, reposition, or otherwise modify the perception of an issue or event, to reduce any negative impact it might have on public opinion. For example, a company whose top-selling product is found to have a significant safety problem may "reframe" the issue by criticizing the safety of its main competitor's products or indeed by highlighting the risk associated with the entire product category. This might be done using a "catchy" slogan or sound bite that can help to persuade the public of the company's biased point of view. This tactic could enable the company to defocus the public's attention on the negative aspects of its product.
As it takes experience and training to "spin" an issue, spinning is typically a service provided by paid media advisors and media consultants. The largest and most powerful companies may have in-house employees and sophisticated units with expertise in spinning issues. While spin is often considered to be a private sector tactic, in the 1990s and 2000s, some politicians and political staff have been accused by their opponents of using deceptive "spin" tactics to manipulate public opinion or deceive the public. Spin approaches used by some political teams include "burying" potentially negative new information by releasing it at the end of the workday on the last day before a long weekend; selectively cherry-picking quotes from previous speeches made by their employer or an opposing politician to give the impression that they advocate a certain position; and purposely leaking misinformation about an opposing politician or candidate that casts them in a negative light.
The term has its origin in the old American expression "to spin a yarn". In the 18th and 19th century, sailors were known for using their spare time on board ship to make thread or string (yarn). Sailors were also well known for telling incredible tales about their exploits when they were back on shore. When someone fooled you, it was said that "he spun me an amazing yarn". Yarn also became a synonym for "tall tale" - "What a yarn!" means "what a made-up story."
Edward Bernays has been called the "Father of Public Relations". As Larry Tye describes in his book The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations, Bernays was able to help tobacco and alcohol companies use techniques to make certain behaviors more socially acceptable in 20th-century United States. Tye claims that Bernays was proud of his work as a propagandist. As information technology has increased dramatically since the end of the 20th century, commentators like Joe Trippi have advanced the theory that modern Internet activism spells the end for political spin. By providing immediate counterpoint to every point a "spin doctor" can come up with, this theory suggests, the omnipresence of the Internet in some societies will inevitably lead to a reduction in the effectiveness of spin.
The techniques of spin include:
- Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one's position ("cherry picking"). For example, a pharmaceutical company could pick and choose two trials where their product shows a positive effect, ignoring hundreds of unsuccessful trials, or a politician's staff could handpick short speech quotations from past years which appear to show their candidate's support for a certain position.
- Non-denial denial
- Non-apology apology
- "Mistakes were made" is an example of distancing language commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was managed by using low-quality or inappropriate handling but evades any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by not specifying the person or organization who made the mistakes. Grammatically, the expression uses the passive voice to focus on the action while omitting the actor. The acknowledgement of "mistakes" is framed in an abstract sense, with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. The speaker neither accepts personal responsibility nor accuses anyone else. The word "mistakes" also does not imply intent. A less evasive active voice construction would place the focus on the actor, such as: "I made mistakes" or "John Doe made mistakes."
- Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven claims, or avoiding the question
- "Burying bad news": announcing unpopular things at a time when it is believed that the media will focus on other news. In some cases, governments have released potentially controversial reports on summer long weekends, to avoid significant news coverage. Sometimes that "other news" is supplied by deliberately announcing popular items at the same time.
- Misdirection and diversion
- Limited hangout
For years, businesses have used fake or misleading customer testimonials by editing/spinning customers to reflect a much more satisfied experience than was actually the case. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission updated their laws to include measures to prohibit this type of "spinning" and have been enforcing these laws as of late.
- Charm offensive
- Cognitive distortion
- Corporate propaganda
- Distinction without a difference
- Impression management
- Image restoration theory
- Just How Stupid Are We?
- Managing the news
- Media manipulation
- Minimisation (psychology)
- Reputation management
- Sexed up
- Sound bite
- Spin (1995 film)
- Weasel words
- William Safire, "The Spinner Spun", New York Times, December 22, 1996.
- Michael, Powell. "Tit for Tat on a Night Where Spin Is Master," New York Times. February 22, 2008.
- Stauber, John and Sheldon Rampton. "Book Review: The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & The Birth of PR by Larry Tye," Archived 2008-11-21 at the Wayback Machine. PR Watch (Second Quarter 1999). Vol. 6, No. 2.
- Branigan, Tania, "Internet spells end for political spin, says US web guru", The Guardian. 12 June 2007.
- Staff. "Are these examples of political spin? Archived 2012-08-15 at the Wayback Machine.". BBC Learning Zone. Clip 7265. 2013.
- Weissman, Jerry. "Spin vs. Topspin". The Huffington Post. 19 June 2009.
- Roberts, Alasdair S. (2005). "Spin Control and Freedom of Information: Lessons for the United Kingdom from Canada". Public Administration. 83: 1–23. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00435.x.
- Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brooks Jackson (2007): unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, (Random House Paperback, ISBN 978-1400065660)
- Christian Science Monitor: The spin room – oily engine of the political meat grinder
- Outfoxed: OUTFOXED: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism
- Spinwatch monitors spin and propaganda
- SPIN (documentary):
- Booknotes interview with Bill Press on Spin This! All The Ways We Don’t Tell the Truth, January 6, 2002.