The CBC, Canada's national radio network, is airing a six-part series called Spin Cycles: A Series About Spin, The Spinners and The Spun, developed and hosted by -- you guessed it -- a journalist named Ira Basen.
Despite a less than auspicious first episode, in which the usual hoary shibboleths are trotted out, I am willing to give the series the benefit of the doubt. I will listen to all of it without prejudice and comment on each episode from the perspective of someone who has been on both sides of the great divide -- magazine journalist and public relations professional. But I will only write about those things that stand out -- egregious misinterpretation or welcome insight -- not every aspect of the program. So, if you're interested in Mr. Basen's point of view, you will have to tune in every Sunday night or click through to the CBC's web site.
Let's start with episode one:
The premise of the series seems to be that public relations is only about the art of stage-managing the media. This may be what politicians do; but it is not what absorbs many of us in the profession today. There are more effective avenues for engaging audiences in conversations about ideas than hoping a journalist gets the story right . . . social media for example; or dialogue panels; or co-creative developmental approaches to tackling tough community issues or decisions.
I know it may seem like a type of sophistry to suggest the series should be about something else. Really what I am saying, though, is I hope that in future episodes the series rises a little above the increasingly irrelevant matter of what journalists and PR professionals think of each other.
From Mr. Basen's perspective public relations is synonymous with spin or "an alternative to outright lies." I have another definition that is more inclusive of other actors in the tragicomedy of supposed rational public argument: Spin is the wilful distortion of facts and the manipulation of half-truths to create a more persuasive or one-sided story. The most blatant spin in the last few years has to be, as Mr. Basen rightly points out, the monumental myth of weapons of mass destruction.
But looking at spin from my definition, one is justified in asking who are the real "spinners"? Could they as easily be journalists who select facts to make a more compelling story, or advocacy groups (some NGOs among them) who use selective science to defend a case. Here is an example of spin right from Mr. Basen's mouth: "But truth is a word that makes many people in PR uncomfortable". Is that because we are more comfortable with lying? Are you, reader, part of the many? (By the way, there are a number of other obvious examples of journalistic spin in the series. Perhaps others who listen in could point me to their favorites.)
Unlike Mr. Basen, I don't see "messaging" as ipso facto "spin". Messaging to my way of thinking is making a point of view apparent . . . with simplicity, clarity and force. It is an element of Aristotelan rhetoric and is the foundation of ordinary discourse. Using it on behalf of a client to explain -- truthfully and openly -- a point of view is much less manipulative than juxtaposing a terrifying image with an alarmist headline. Of course, when messages are treated as dogma they can't help but sound like spin.
So, I await episode two with some unease.