The spin doctor has entered corporate life to administer the business analogue of the placebo. By Adele Ferguson
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” These two literary characters from the well-loved and delightful children’s tale might well have been talking about modern corporate and political spin.
Spin is ubiquitous. It is in advertising, internal newsletters, political speeches, presentations, religion and sport. Spin is artifice at its best. Why? Because spin is so subtle that most people do not realise they are being delivered a googly.
In the corporate world, spin comes in very handy because it is a great motivator of staff; it increases productivity and gets people to do things they would not normally do. A recent report by Andersen Consulting, entitled Capacity To Change, says most executives rely on financial crises for leverage. It cites a United States executive who used a regulatory crisis to persuade 1000 employees to relocate from their West-Coast laboratories to the company’s Mid-West headquarters. The report says: “When we asked leaders What would you have done if you hadn’t had an external event? each leader we interviewed emphatically responded in much the same way as one CEO who stated, I would have found another event – you have to.”
It may sound calculating and duplicitous, but corporations argue that they have to use spin to survive. They have to become masters of spin because of the internal and external pressures of running a business. One executive says: “We have to juggle internal messages with what we can say externally.” This is most evident during a takeover. In Australia alone, $50 billion of corporate mergers and acquisitions have taken place in the past year. This involves job losses, changes in culture, possible job relocation and often a new boss.
Chris Hart, principal of Hart Consulting, says that in such situations managers have to placate staff and remove the worry. Hart says: “The reality is they have to do a convincing spin-job to get workers back to work.” In takeover situations, most people do not really know what is going on, so they turn to speculation. This erodes morale. Hart says: “You have to be a good poker player and a good communicator.”
When a company is to be listed on the stock exchange the important thing is to let staff know what is going on just before the news gets outside the company. Hart says: “If staff find out there are going to be 10,000 job cuts by reading it in the paper, it is disastrous. This needs to be managed well. It is at this point that spin comes in very handy.” However, the messages need to be credible. “People are very canny these days, and if they suspect that a manager is using spin, it can be even more disastrous. You have to present a valid message, because the internal market has the gossip. So you have to be upfront and more detailed than you would be to the external market.”
Hart says that in service companies, for which people are the main asset, spin is vital. A situation that brings on a mass exodus of the best employees can spell doom for a company. “For this reason, managers need to have strong communication and interpersonal skills; and they need to be able to communicate the positive face of the company to staff, customers, suppliers, the media and government.”
Spin is also helpful in combating disasters, particularly public-relations disasters. Cases such as oil spills and poison scares have the potential to harm a company irreparably. One spin doctor reports that when South Australia suffered the Garibaldi smallgoods disaster, which led to the death of a child, another spin doctor joked: “If I was handling the case, they would have been blaming the families after two weeks.” He may have been putting some spin on his own comment, but there is no doubt that spin can color the way people think.
Putting a positive spin on a negative event can be effective. Pacific Dunlop recently had its credit rating downgraded two notches by the international ratings agency Standard & Poor’s. Such a downgrading can be disastrous for a company because it increases the cost of debt, reduces the company’s attractiveness as an investment vehicle and may affect staff morale. The company’s managing director, Rod Chadwick, responded positively to the downgrade: “This downgrading isn’t a bad thing. A lot of manufacturing companies have been considered over-rated by credit agencies, and so by reducing ours, we can feel confident we won’t be downgraded again.”
A masterful application of spin.
But spin doctors warn that spin is only successful if its audience cannot detect it. In this world of mass markets and high-tech communications, most people are wising up to duplicitous messages and blatant marketing. In the Bulletin (February 2, 1999), the president of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide (South Asia), Robyn Sefiani, says that the “managed story” is in great demand from corporations. Sefiani says the desire for an organised response to a potential media disaster comes from the most senior levels of companies. “If a story breaks, and the next day an expert is commenting favorably on the company, I know there is a professional at work,” she says.
For this reason, companies are investing an increasing percentage of their revenue in more sophisticated types of spin. Spin doctoring is now a multibillion-dollar industry. The Public Relations Institute of Australia estimates that over the past few years the number of PR practitioners has grown to 8000. Companies use advertising agencies, lobbyists, public-relations executives or consultants. Some even send their managers to acting school. It is all designed to show the positive face of the corporation to the staff, investors, customers, the media and government.
The most blatant form of spin is advertising. The Melbourne-based business and political adviser Toby Ralph says Australians are exposed daily to 1300 messages: on television and on radio, in newspapers and magazines, plastered across billboards and truck sides, hanging in shops, stuffed in letter boxes, and even over the phone.
Ralph says that more and more businesses are engaging professional persuaders. They want their business, product or service to be judged kindly. They want a policy changed. They want to win sales or votes. Ralph, who spent many years as a strategist in the advertising industry, says the most common and public form of persuasion is advertising. He says surveys show that less than 1% of advertising rammed down people’s throats is remembered the next day, and only 5% of the 1% the day after. “Australian business invests billions promoting products and services, but wastage is high,” Ralph says. “However, advertising can be a powerful tool, turbocharging market share and building a positive brand image.” After all, it has been central to the growth of global brands like McDonald’s, Coke and Nike.
Ralph says that although brand advertising is largely positive, political advertising frequently takes the opposite approach. “I have had experience with 26 election campaigns [state and federal]. The candidates have won 19 and lost seven.” Ralph says that because politicians are trying to catch swinging voters, most election campaigns are carping, negative complaints about the failings of the other side. “To put it in a brand context, a wool marketeer would sing the praises of all-natural pure wool. An electioneer would say synthetic fabrics give you cancer.”
Another form of spin is lobbying. Ralph says the Australian lobbying industry is an infant compared with that of the US. “The old We’re mates, so they’ll do me a favor syndrome is remarkably unsuccessful,” he says. A lobbyist may get you through the door to see a minister, but if the message is not persuasive, it is a waste of time. “Very often corporations will think that by merely explaining the facts, their side of the story, and telling the politician what they want, a light will suddenly go on, and everything will change. They are confused and often angry when it doesn’t.” Again, spin comes in handy. “The simple rule is to think from the point of view of the politician. How can you make what you want fit with what they want? How can you construct a win-win?”
For these reasons, managers need to understand the power of spin.
Paul Kelly, managing director of Bid Direction, is a hired gun who trains managers to improve their presentation and communication skills. He says the best managers are those that can communicate in the most effective way. “Gone are the command-and-control managers who gave orders to their staff. Today it is more consultative, and people don’t want to be bossed about. This means managers need to understand what their employees want, as well as what investors, customers and suppliers want. I know some companies that have sent their managers to acting school. That does not work any more. People can see through it. Stakeholders want to see the real person. A manager has to appear credible and genuine for the message to be effective.”
But spin isn’t easy. “You have to be able to penetrate a complex web of needs and objectives,” Kelly says. “In a merger, such as AMP and GIO, the game plan changed hourly and the company had to juggle keeping staff morale intact, investors informed and the media in touch.” For this reason, managers need to be able to manage their tone and their physical presence. “A lot of spin is about implementation: following things through gives them a ring of credibility.”
In Through The Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty’s scornful approach to words and meanings can be taken further. Kelly says: “Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less. He could have continued by saying that it is not only about what you want it to mean but also what you think the audience wants it to mean.”
In the new media world, visual impressions are becoming an important part of spin. Anthony Haywood, managing director of the international public relations company Bulletin International, says the Internet and pictures are becoming a vital tool for companies trying to get their message across. He rejects the word spin and calls public relations “information content management”. Haywood says a good example of using visual images was when Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett appeared on most TV shows and in the newspapers with a group of school children. “This was a powerful image of the Premier’s attitude to children. It received a lot of publicity and it was very effective, given that weeks before his party had been criticised in the media for its education policies. It’s the old phrase, a picture speaks a thousand words. And with people pressed for time, visual images are quicker and easier to absorb.” Bulletin International concentrates on television and other news-media public relations for its clients.
Ten years ago the job of PR was to manipulate the media. Journalists were invited to boozy functions and, if a PR person had charisma and could make relationships work, it was fairly easy. Today journalists are trained in specific areas of expertise. Many are investors themselves and want to know how their investment is travelling.
In the US magazine Fast Money (April 1998), Andrea Cunningham of Cunningham Communications calls the new economy the “new cacophony”. She says: “Today you get an article in, say, Fortune, and a week later it’s meaningless. We got this great article for Cisco in Fortune. It was called Cooking with Cisco. It was a really hot article. Less than a week later, everybody had forgotten it because something else came out after that. Business Week did something, and somebody else did something else.”
Cunningham says: “The only way to escape this ratcheting of news and noise – this spiral of ever-increasing volume, ever-decreasing impact and permanently lost control – is to re-invent PR.”
The new PR firm is built on intense personal relationships, a knack for networking, and a laser-like focus on the convention circuit, combined with military discipline and computer-backed precision. Cunningham says: “The job of the PR consultant is to tell a company’s management what its many constituencies are thinking. The PR person needs to out-report the best reporter: to talk to journalists, analysts, stockholders and customers in order to understand the marketplace better than any of those audiences possibly can.”
Once companies know the truth, they can then work on applying the spin.
Politicians and spin are synonymous. For this reason, Ralph is working with business leaders to see what they can learn from politicians. “Political leaders have a unique opportunity when they first assume power – the opportunity to have their public image reconsidered,” he says. “As a minister or leader of the Opposition they have been mistrusted by the public. Throughout the election their opponents have maligned them. Now, for the first time the public is accepting that they are finally in a position of control.” Ralph says the behavior of a leader during the first 100 days in office determines whether in the long term the individual will be popular, successful and respected, or a failure. “It is extremely rare for a leader to recover from a poor first 100 days – it becomes easier to replace them than resurrect them.”
Because of this, many political leaders now commission a 100-day plan, focusing on their image. Ralph says that the contents of a 100-day plan for a leader includes an image appraisal, a statement of what the new leader seeks to “own” as a persona, a list of all target markets, an analysis of each target market, a review of presentation skills – with particular emphasis on media and group presentations – and a day-by-day set of actions to be taken, including a message for the day. The idea is to show the strong, positive side of the leader.
Spin has been around since humans uttered their first words. Without it, people would not be able to live together in society. A world devoid of spin would be chaotic because people would openly reveal their hostilities, insecurities, doubts and fears. Managers use spin every day. It is part of their job. The better they are at using spin, the higher they will rise. In politics, spin is part of the make-up. US President Bill Clinton is the master of spin. When asked if he had sex with Monica Lewinsky, he replied: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” To Clinton, sex did not include oral sex. Like Humpty Dumpty, Clinton believes words can mean whatever you want them to mean. Spin is all about changing the meaning of a word or event.
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
A far as spin doctors are concerned, the master is the one that gets the preferred result.
Spin is the literature of power
The best avenue for understanding spin may not be business or management analysis. It may be literary criticism. The techniques of language manipulation and the massaging of meaning are something that has been practised for thousands of years by poets and writers. Many of the issues thrown up by the practice of spin have already been examined in the literary community.
The French critic Michel Foucault is one example. He might be describing the spin doctors when he says: “I have tried to discover how the human subject entered into games of truth, whether they be games of truth that take on the form of science or refer to a scientific model, or games of truth like those that can be found in institutions or practices of control.”
Literary critics are also well equipped to deal with a side-effect of spin: self-reference. This is when languages start referring to themselves in addition to something outside. Literary schools such as deconstructionism and post-structuralism have based much of their analytic framework on examining self-reference and the ways in which words do not refer in a straightforward way to the outside world.
The “deconstruction” of language is already occurring with political spin and it will soon occur, if it has not already, with business spin. Take the recent grand jury testimony of US President Bill Clinton. The spin doctors “released” to the press the suggestion that Clinton lost his temper during testimony.
Yet Clinton was quite the opposite: measured and exceptionally cool under pressure. The question was then posed, was the leak simply wrong, or was it a clever ploy to excite the interest of viewers, then disappoint them and encourage them to become uninterested in the whole affair? No clear answer was forthcoming (no surprise in the world of spin) but the critical thing was the way commentators discussed the tactics of the spin doctors – commentators talking about techniques of commentary.
In Australia, the techniques tend to be less sophisticated, although they are in common use. The spreading of pre-budget rumors that are deliberately inaccurate so as to make unpalatable news seem more palatable is now routine. Techniques of manipulation of public perception during the waterfront dispute were planned and intense, although only partly successful. In the environment debate, respect for truth is all but absent on both sides. It has almost become a contest between business and the Greens as to who can distort and exaggerate the most.
What seems likely is that the purveyors of spin will ultimately undo themselves: no techniques of manipulation can survive forever. Already many younger observers are deriving a “meta-meaning” from public utterances. They do not believe what is said, so instead they derive meaning from the theatre of it all. Of course, this too can be manipulated by spin doctors, but eventually the artifice is likely to consume itself.
This, too, has been canvassed by literary figures. Consider the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges talking about himself. “It’s the other one, Borges, that things happen to … I get news of Borges by mail and I see his name on a shortlist of professors or in a biographical dictionary … Years ago I tried to free myself from him and moved from mythologies of the slums to games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now … I don’t know which of us is writing this page.”
Public figures like Clinton and the chief executives of global corporations must have similar doubts as to what is real and what is fantasy, and the extent to which they can be separated. One constant in the world of spin, however, is that it is about power. Foucault again: “There are ready-made patterns: when one speaks of power, people think immediately of a political structure, a government, a dominant social class, the master facing the slave and so on. That is not at all what I mean when I speak of relationships of power. I mean that in human relations, whatever they are – whether it be a case of communicating verbally (as now), or a question of a love relationship, or an institutional or economic relationship – power is always present.” – David James