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Friday, March 13, 2009

Spin as a Career

I will not blame you if you decide to skip this piece and prefer to continue with more meaningful writings in this compilation. It appears that Cricket as a medium of mass hysteria has finally lived its time and people are replacing specialist cricket players with heroes from other spheres of life as their idol; especially so after the recent World Cup debacle of the Indian cricket team. Pepsi has replaced cricket legends with small kids in their television advertisement and other companies have either stopped airing their commercials with cricketers or have developed new commercials. There are other forms of rebuttal aimed at Indian cricketers reported in the media. Thus, I understand, it is not the correct time to talk cricket.
However, in case you care to read on, let me quickly clarify my intention so that I can escape the agony of outright condemnation and rejection. I am trying to talk about an altogether different career prospects here. In the field of Public Relations, spin is a usually an uncomplimentary term used to mean a biased, one-sided presentation of an event or situation through deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics to mobilize opinion in one's own favour. Traditional public relations practitioners generally rely on honest and creative presentation of facts for mobilizing people’s opinion. But, public relations people relying on ‘spin’ often do not care for ethics or rules and prefer to get public favour by all means. The term is dramatized and somewhat legitimized by media which more than often prefer to refer to all kind of public relations practice as ‘spin’. We, the public relations practitioners, are still not sure whether ‘spin’ can be called public relations or not. The debate is, in fact, raging hot now.
So, what makes ‘spin’ different from public relations? The term ‘spin’ is borrowed from cricket, where a spin bowler delivers the ball in such a way that it curves through the air, bounces and changes direction fooling the batsman and putting the bowler in an advantageous position to get the batsman bowled out. A public relations practitioner who uses cherry picking (selectively presenting facts and quotes that supports his/her position), equivocation, euphemism or phrases his words in such a way that assumes unproven truths to fool his public in believing him is said to be using ‘spin’.
According to Wikipedia, the term Cherry Picking originated from the fact that while harvesting cherries, or any other fruit, the picker would be expected to only select the ripest and healthiest fruits. An observer who only sees the selected fruit may thus wrongly conclude that most, or even all, of the fruit are very good. Thus, cherry picking metaphorically indicate the act of presenting facts that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related facts that may contradict that position. For example, proponents of some hair oil often cite rare cases in which hair growth was noticed after application of certain oil, whereas common scientific knowledge suggest that hair growth cannot be achieved by external application of any kind of oil available in the market. Cherry picking might be appropriate when a person is assigned to advocate a particular position like a lawyer in a criminal case, where it is assumed to be the responsibility of the opposing counsel to present any contrary data. Moreover, in common law guilt has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt and thus introducing 'cherry picked' evidence may be appropriate because, while such data may not prove something in general, it may be successful in introducing the needed minimum level of doubt to win the case. Cherry picking can also be justified in marketing campaigns where prime motive is to seduce customers to buy a product or service. However, when a person with a supposedly neutral position like journalists, public relations professionals, scientists, and judges cherry picks, it becomes not only inappropriate but also derogatory to the entire profession. A public relations professional need to be truthful not only to his/her employer but also to the public with whom he or she is communicating because the foundation of good public relations is mutual understanding and goodwill. Cherry picking in public relations seldom helps as ‘you cannot fool all the people all the time’. Besides being unethical, cherry picking might help the PR man to get some publicity for his employer in the short run, but once his bluffs are revealed he will never be trusted again; neither by the media nor by the people.
On the other hand, equivocation is often used to give misleading impression. Politicians regularly use equivocation when they say allegations against them are ‘ridiculous’ ‘misleading’ or ‘absurd’ without saying that they are false. Examples of use of euphemism are like not exactly thin for "fat", not completely truthful for "lied", not unlike cheating for "cheating" etc. Journalists are apt at deciphering equivocation and euphemism and so are common people now-a-days. Media manipulation for building favourable public opinion is not an easy task. Using equivocation and euphemism in ‘spin’ is a challenging task and needs superb command over the language and presence of mind. One also needs to be smart and unashamed to some extent to be a ‘spin’ specialist.
It may seem to be glamorous to be titled a ‘spin doctor’, but the glamour has its own peril. Over the last two or three decades, public relations has transformed from an occupation to a profession and has developed into a discipline in academics. This growth has seen the subject being developed as a management tool for such decision making which is beneficial for long-term objectives of both an organization and its public. This growth has also seen public relations being distinguished from blunt marketing, self-centered publicity or propaganda. ‘Spin’ essentially is a propaganda and publicity tool and thus should not be confused with public relations. A ‘spin’ specialist will be feared, ridiculed, suspected and may of course be financially rewarded. However, he or she will not be loved, revered, regarded and trusted. It is now your call to decide on your career.
Published in the Journal of Mass Comm Deptt, Gauhati University 2006

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