In a new monthly series hosted by B&T, Ogilvy will be regularly putting the spotlight on PR. In this first installment, Parker & Partners’ Mathew Jones takes a look at the world of spin.
Spin in the eyes of the beholder
Last week it was reported that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had directed his Department to call those people who arrive in Australia by boat without a visa ‘illegal’ rather than ‘irregular’ asylum seekers, and once they are processed as ‘detainees’ not ‘clients’.
“I’m not going to make any apologies for not using politically correct language to describe something that I am trying to stop,” the minister said. “I’m not going to engage in some sort of clever language to try and mask anything here… I’m going to call a spade a spade.”
The lesson we can learn from Morrison’s quote is, I suppose, that spin is in the eyes of the beholder. What he calls a spade others might call a shovel, a trowel or even a non-mechanical digging implement. All could be argued to be correct, it’s just a matter of shading and emphasis.
The politics of irregular – sorry, illegal – asylum seekers aside, do such changes in language have an impact on the way people think about a political issue? Would a ‘School Hall Building Program’ have less impact than ‘Building the Education Revolution’, or would voters like and respond to political language that describes what is actually being done?
Prime Minister Abbott has said his Government will dump the Gillard Government’s clunky, agrammatical and patronising Disability Care and revert to the more utilitarian National Disability Insurance Scheme. While this certainly doesn’t signal the end of spin, it does reflect an understanding that it is possible to push political language to its breaking point where it becomes meaningless, and that to revert to a plainer way of speaking can be a relief for the listener and the speaker.
Of course the issue of political spin goes further than just language, but to a willingness to even engage in a particular debate or area of discussion. If a minister is asked a question ten times, as Environment Minister Greg Hunt was last week by an ABC journalist, does he do himself and the issue he supports more damage by not engaging than he would by just answering the question?
Hunt has obviously been media trained and is an experienced and assured media performer. But using acquired techniques to move away from an unwanted question to a key message is one thing; infuriating the audience by patently refusing to answer the question is another.
At this point I have to confess that I was once a spinner, a media adviser in politics whose job it was to liaise with the press gallery, putting my boss’s perspective to the fourth estate – sometimes aggressively but mostly, I hope, with charm and persuasion.
In my experience the only spin that worked was the truth. We all know the saying “you can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter”. But there’s a much better way – don’t create turds in the first place. “Look after the policy and the politics will look after itself,” my minister was fond of saying.
Nevertheless, sometimes my friends in the press gallery would say “but that’s just spin”, although the more honest ones would concede that they were spinning too, just in the opposite direction. It’s pretty hard to read articles in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on bike paths and not get dizzy from the amount of spinning going on. Likewise Fairfax’s or the ABC’s planning coverage, which sees every new building as a blight on the landscape.
To avoid spin it’s not just the words that must have integrity, but the presentation as well. Anyone who has had a personal interaction with former Prime Minister Gillard will say she is warm, witty, smart and engaged. Yet apart from a few famous moments, in her time as PM she came across on camera as wooden, controlled, and flat. Voters thought her inauthentic, when those who have met her know she is not.
The public is awake to spin – not just from politicians, but from celebrities, brands, the media, and even their boss. They crave authenticity, for realness, for a lack of bullshit.
This doesn’t mean throwing out communication techniques, or saying whatever comes in to your head. It does mean treating the public – the millions of people on the other end of that TV camera or on Facebook – with respect and as adults.
Those who are able to be authentic – regardless of what side of politics they are on – will build a relationship with their constituents that will get them through the tough political times, while those who aren’t will still be putting a red pen through the words their department uses in an effort to shape how we think.
Mathew Jones is the managing director of Parker & Partners, Ogilvy Public Relations’ public affairs specialist.