A few years ago, I penned an article decrying the use of spin among PR practitioners. The word I use to describe spin is “deception.” No one in PR should dabble in deception—ever.
Surprisingly, I got pushback. One practitioner opined, “If I’m not spinning for my client, I’m not doing my job.”
I firmly disagree. And yet, to my dismay, it seems spin is a tool in increasing use.
While I tend to steer these blogs away from politics, I can’t help but point there this time. Every campaign season brings a cascade of exaggerations, half-truths and outright lies. Sadly, there’s nothing new in that. But what I find more disturbing today is how these falsehoods are celebrated. (Remember "alternative facts"?) Provide evidence to the contrary, and you’ll be dismissed at best, threatened at worse.
I can’t help but wonder if the battle against spin is helping fuel recent violence against journalists. The apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The bomb sent to CNN this week. The deliberate crashing of a car into a TV news outlet in Dallas. Regular threats to reporters and affiliates.
The stories behind these and other attacks can be complicated. But here’s what isn’t: violence and threats against innocents is always wrong. Yet when leaders label journalists “enemies of the people” and condone violence against them, it shouldn’t surprise us when unbalanced people take them at their word.
So how should PR practitioners respond in such a climate?
As a long-time member of the Public Relations Society of America, I was pleased when PRSA and more than a dozen other communications groups collectively voiced “support for journalists who bravely seek the truth, focus on facts, and hold government, business and other institutions accountable.”
But is that enough? I don’t think so. I believe it’s time for the profession to indulge in some constructive omphaloskepsis.
Omphaloskepsis means “navel gazing.” While the term typically refers to being self-absorbed, originally it meant using one’s navel as a focal point during meditation—in short, a tool for looking inward.
It’s time for PR to look inward—and then turn outward. The battle against spin, which by extension upholds a free press, starts with us. We should do more to hold practitioners accountable for ensuring truth in their work. We should call them out with the facts when they knowingly regurgitate falsehoods.
I’m not talking about practitioners who share, say, a client’s abrasive politics or their employer’s business perspective. I’m not talking about disagreements or differences of opinion. I mean calling out communicators who willfully promote a demonstrable fiction despite proof to the contrary. I mean communicators who double down on spin by directing ire at scapegoats—the media, their critics, whoever it might be.
I realize this is a tall order, perhaps even dangerous. Many professionals aren’t given all the facts and sometimes must go with what they know. Others might find spin being used against them. And I realize a lot of practitioners may not want to look too deep for fear of facing a difficult choice.
But I feel that’s where we’re at as a profession. We’re not doing enough to police ourselves. We're not doing enough to call out those who misuse public relations. No wonder we hear calls—sometimes from within our own profession—to regulate PR.
If we really care about upholding an ethical code, if we aspire to be champions of truth, we must embrace accountability—ourselves first of all, and our colleagues when necessary.
Otherwise we’re only as good as the worst example of spin.