Will the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death lead to a ‘Jo Moore Fest’?
Jo Moore was an adviser to the then UK Transport Minister Stephen Byers. She advised Labour MP’s during the height of the events of September 11th to immediately issue any bad news which would be buried in the fall out from the day’s tragic events.
To be honest, here are not many seasoned public practitioners who, hand on heart, would not admit to the validity of the advice. Unfortunately for Ms. Moore, the tone, language and timing of the email fell into the wrong hands proving disastrous for the careers’ of her and her boss.
Whenever discussing the ethical dimension of public relations’ work it is never long before the pejorative description of public relations activity as ‘spin’ is used. Using the word ‘spin’ implies that If only the world did not have these nasty public relations people, who introduce ‘spin’ in an otherwise innocent, pure communication, then the world would be a better place.
Call a PR person a ‘spin doctor’ (or ‘masters of rotational medicine’ as Welsh politician Rhodri Morgan once put it) and you get practitioners apologizing and attempt to distance themselves by saying, “I don’t do spin”.
Everyone spins. It is in inherent in communications.
Let us deconstruct what ‘spin’ is. It actually consists of three strategies.
Imagine your were the Head of Comms for the White Star shipping Line in 1912.
You can overstate the significance of something in its context: ‘700 people survived Titanic’s maiden voyage’.
You can emphasise the bigger context: ‘The sinking of ‘Titanic’ was a tragedy, but we must learn from this tragic episode and improve shipping safety for the future.’
You can cover your activity with something else: ‘What about the growing number of tragic accidents and deaths caused by new fangled modes of transport, such as the motor car and airplanes….’
In my creativity classes I do an exercise where someone in the group identifies a word that ‘everyone will know’.
I then get the group individually to write down the first five words they associate with that word.
Inevitably, in groups of more than three people, you never get people writing down the same five words. In fact, you never get one word the same.
The reason: we all view the world within a unique paradigm, a psychological frame, rather like a picture frame that boxes our world view. It is where the phrase ‘outside the box thinking’ comes from.
So, even in every day words, some people will see the same thing in either a bigger or smaller context. There is an inherent mis-match between two people’s perception of the same thing.
Here is an example to demonstrate how all of us ‘spin’ in every day life.
When my eldest daughter was just two years old and while out walking with her grandfather she asked to be carried. Feeling that she could walk a bit further, he encouraged to walk on.
A few steps further, my daughter then changed her request for ‘a cuddle’. And achieved her objective! (She could have also minimized the significance of the request with a “Can you just carry me for 5 yards?”)
If a two year old uses ‘spin’ – then we all do. It is an inherent part of communications. To say ‘you don’t do spin’ is patent nonsense.
A far healthier, constructive and practical response for our profession would be to be transparent and work to promote greater sophistication – so that we can create better, more discerning consumers of communications, to minimize the potential for their being vulnerable to any manipulation or exploitation.
By having sustainable integrity and being transparent at the heart of your thinking and doing provides an effective policing against the abuses of ‘spin’. Maintaining a false premise of spin denial will just perpetuate the debate – and continue to damage our profession.
Over the next few days as the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death, the tributes to her pour in, the story of her funeral arrangements, then a backlash story about what she stood for, then a backlash against the backlash story, and then the funeral, will dominate the media headlines.
It will provide public relations communicators the opportunity do a ‘Jo Moore’ and issue news stories that will subsumed, drowned by the torrent of Thatcher stories, while others will vehemently deny they do spin, with just a tiny minority acknowledging that spin is inherent in communications and we need to become better consumers of messages to avoid, or minimise being manipulated and exploited.
Are you off to a Jo Moore Fest’? Or going into spin denial? Or doing something practical to help our society be healthier viz by understanding the reality of spin?