Spin should not be a swearword, writes Felicity Levine of the IAJ.  The government should be doing more and better spinning to highlight successes in delivery.

Felicity Levine writes:

In some circles “spin” is a fraught term. At the multinational beverage company where I have been called in to train managers to handle the media, I get expressions of indignation when I suggest “spin” is what they should be doing more of.  Even after I’ve defined my terminology and unpacked the semantics around “spin”, even after I’ve elaborated with examples, the disdain remains.

My trainees are big partners in the 2010 Fifa world championships and this is their big opportunity to get big mileage for the megabucks they’re putting in. But spin they say is a swear word.  They hate it and the golden rule of facilitation is don’t fight, flow with them.  

OK. So then if we won’t spin let’s look at “message”?  What might be the “message” the big multinational wants to take to 2010 that would place them in a memorable light?  This irritates these managers.

Why should they sweat about message when it’s not in their repertoire of job behaviours? Given that their messages are pre-cast by head office somewhere across the globe? They want help in handling the media, they want it fast and they want it without effort. They don’t want to spin and they don’t want to tax their minds with messages. All this has got to be achieved in three hours and my focus is wasting time.

Spin is bad? I don’t think so. The term was first used in baseball a century ago when pitchers would spin the ball faster than the opposition could catch it. Now this was not an ethical issue, rather one of delivering to touchdown.  But lately spin has developed a bad name – albeit this is what we human beings inherently do. We spin to our children. We convince them to study so they’ll get good grades and to eat breakfast so they’ll grow strong.  We spin to our bosses showing evidence of hard work so they’ll give us appreciative strokes and maybe even a salary hike. 

Hence the latest moralistic distaste for the term in certain sectors is alarming. Spin is what companies should be doing more of and that’s where coaching comes in – but business often misunderstands what media training is all about. So does government. They think they are going to find an outlet for their grievances. They believe they are going to be given a slick method to foist whatever on some unsuspecting reporter. Then when government mainly attracts attention for mishaps they blame the media for “inadequately reporting on the mission of government”.

They maintain the media is failing to inform the public about significant national activities – like the bridge the MEC has officially opened or the minister’s visit to Thailand. GCIS, the government communications flagship, spews forth media releases detailing these events and officials are angered when they do not make publication in the commercial press. Besides GCIS, each tier of every government department has its own salaried communications sector. So when is the spin going to start?
Methinks the problem is lack of understanding when it comes to spinning, weak muscles when it comes to messaging.  Government promotes poetic fallacies about “pushing back the frontiers of poverty” which nobody believes. Then because spin or the lack thereof chronicles the rise and fall of governments, they claim the media is ignorant, unpatriotic.  They attribute it to the “juniorisation” of the newsroom that journalists refuse to reproduce policy documents bloated with empty terms.      

Interestingly the Mbeki government is blamed for failure to deliver – and ironically extensive delivery has taken place in these past 12 years but his people have not known how to spin it effectively.  Under Mbeki the country has seen unprecedented levels of economic growth. Unemployment has dropped from 30% to 25% since 2004 with the creation of 500,000 new jobs a year.  More than 1.5 million houses have been built for the poor since 1994.  People have access to clean water and electricity for the first time.  

As you spin so shall you reap, but it needs to be properly (and ethically) managed and that’s why media training matters.

* Felicity Levine is a trainer at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism.  She writes in her personal capacity.