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Executive Read

No to the Sin of ‘Spin’

“RETHINKING Reputation” by Fraser P. Seitel and John Doorley, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

When the subject of public relations comes up, the usual interviewees on television are the so-called “spin masters.” Most of them are aging, look back to their heydays when they “re-imaged”  a fool into a homespun genius.

They passed off a fabrication as truth, or as a variation of truth.


And someone unabashedly called a top official as a “lucky bitch” (forgive me, dear readers for this graphic phrase)—seeing virtue in the metaphorical canine and elevating him/her to being blessed (or, if a current verbal lapse is used, “bless”!).

These spin masters are thoughtlessly called “public relations professionals.”


Little do the media interviewers know that these so-called PR professionals, which they erroneously make synonymous to spin masters, do not belong to the real professionals who manage the public relations and communication functions of big corporations—be they multinationals or homegrown conglomerates.

It is good that a book—like “Rethinking Reputation”—enters the scene, which vigorously declares and argues that “right thinking public relations professionals must not engage in spin.”

Authors Fraser P. Seitel and John Doorley—both respected PR experts in the corporate world and in the academe—know whereof they speak. Seitel is the author of the classic “The Practice of Public Relations,” which is the textbook used in universities worldwide, and is active as a consultant, lecturer, columnist and media commentator.

Doorley is the founding academic director of the Master of Science in Public Relations program at New York University and has directed the Academy for Communication Excellence and Leadership at Johnson & Johnson.

When you read this book, you can sense Seitel’s and Doorley’s respect for the profession of public relations and their realistic grip on how PR has become the main factor for the success of campaigns for products and causes. As marketer Al Ries has said a few years ago, PR has become the preeminent force in winning market share for products or share of mind for advocacy causes.

In frowning upon “spin” and endorsing “truth telling,” the authors contrasted the way the handlers of former American President Bill Clinton shaded the truth with regard to the Monica Lewinsky affair, and the way former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker told the hard truth about the state of the American dollar.

The entire Chapter Nine, titled “The Sin of Spin,” was devoted to renouncing the “Clinton Legacy” and embracing the “Volcker Rule.”


The book quotes a definition from William Safire to shed light on the issue: “Spinning is a deliberate shading of news perception and attempted control of political reaction.”

“Spin” melts before the force of a more enlightened strategy capture in the clause “truth is the best defense.” As Seitel declared over National Public Radio’s On the Media in 2007, “The cardinal rule of public relations is never to lie.”

This book is not only about giving a bad name to “spin,” as it should. It is also about driving your campaign using the force of public relations.

The book begins with the story of two students who developed, prototyped, launched and made a success of a footwear called “Cityslips.” The engaging narrative proves one thing every step of the way: Public Relations is the new driver for success in the marketplace.

The book has a treasure of more stories on how PR—with its subset, Publicity—has successfully marketed a tourism campaign of a country, and sold bottles of a $10,000 Martini on the Rock, based on one BIG IDEA.

From the book’s narratives, some publicity principles were offered.  Publicity Principle no. 1, for example is “There’s always a big idea.” You just have to find it. That single idea will be driving force of the PR effort.

Publicity Principle no. 2 is “Choose a strategy or tactic that presents more than one possibility of news coverage.” Media folks will identify  your product or cause according to their own mind-sets and interests.

And Publicity Principle no. 3 is a winner: “When life gives you lemons, turn them into lemonade.” Somewhere in your successful campaign, some copycats may join the fray; give it a bad name and bring in confusion. The book recommends seeing the “opportunity” in “danger.”

More publicity principles mentioned in the book are worth considering.

The book deals with the usual problem of high profile folks who are drawn to the agenda of others, and so one’s own agenda is lost in the process. It has been an accepted theory in communication—the Agenda-Setting Theory—that one must have an agenda in mind to push.

This strategy is tackled in the chapter on “The Power of Planning.” The book begins with “Creating the Conversation.” That means making a topic an agenda to think and to talk about, first among the sponsors of the agenda—then enlists media to adopt it as a “media agenda,” and then finally, through vigorous and truthful communication, make it the “public agenda.”

This would mean getting to the New Media, and yet not abandoning mainstream media. Part of the plan, the book says, is engaging the grassroots, building coalition and media tours. If you will observe, there is no “spin” going on. There is transparency. Truth is weapon—with a difference. It should be “truth that is well told.”

Two high profile turnaround stories in PR circles are discussed in detail here—bringing readers to the strategy rooms of Johnson & Johnson, after the massive “Tylenol” recall; and Exxon-Mobil, rising from the oil spill disaster. Readers are virtually brought to the “off-limits” strategy rooms of these two companies whose handling of a PR crisis are contrasting. And yet their efforts of reputation repair have similar patterns.

The authors point out that the reputation rules in their book are nothing new. It is as old as Moses, they say.  The PR approach is as ancient, and yet as effective as that of Moses of antiquity, who knew the value of a “speaking voice” and social mobilization when he moved over a million Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. Moses recruited his brother Aaron in delivering the compelling message of deliverance to the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt.

It is heartening to have a book that elevates PR to its well-deserved place in the corporate even in the political world. PR has its own strategic thinking,

its rules for seamless execution, its metrics and a history of successes especially in reputation building.

And, yes, in reputation repair. In this high-risk world, top executives can depend on PR professionals, who are as much communication artists—and social science experts.

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