Here’s A Little English To Doctor The Spin

by Jason Falls |

It’s amazing what good public relations can do. And by “good” I mean fair and honest. Fortunately, the power-to-the-people shift brought about by corporate scandals, economic uncertainty and social media is forcing more and more public relations firms, professionals and departments to be that or be embarrassed … or finished. Unfortunately, the education most public relations professionals received, coupled with the company-first doctrine of the business world means most public relations, by nature, isn’t good. It’s spin.

The bothersome notion in all this is that many well-intended people, companies, organizations and political movements have not just fallen victim to good spin, but have exacerbated the problem by repeating it. When my friend and noble public relations professional Geoff Livingston recently told us (or more likely repeated an assertion that) fried chicken causes breast cancer, I shook my head at another unfortunate and unsuspecting victim of good spin doctoring.

For the record, obesity is frequently a predictive factor in breast cancer, not eating fried chicken. If someone eats too much fried chicken, they may very well become obese, but the person’s inability to eat in moderation is to blame, not the chicken. Geoff’s assertion is akin to saying Apple, Microsoft, Cisco and Dell cause Internet porn. And we all know Internet porn was invented by Tipper Gore. (Sorry. Too easy.)

spinning top
Image by Guy Fawkes via Flickr

Another example of a noble cause skewed by spin has duped a fair number of intelligent, well-intended people in my home community of Louisville. The Ohio River Bridges Project, a Federal transportation Mega-Project that would add two Ohio River spans and reconfigure the junction of I-71, I-64 and I-65 near downtown to address immediate and long-term traffic issues for our region, has been attacked for several years now by environmental and community activist groups. While the organizations who have criticized the project are well-intended and represent ideals that I would even endorse, they’ve duped a fair number of people in to believing an untruth.

Groups like 8664 and River Fields want you to think the States of Kentucky and Indiana and the Federal Highway Administration overlooked the environment and want to cover Louisville’s Waterfront Park with more highway concrete. The plans call for more lanes, but more efficient total concrete coverage; a higher traverse across the portion of the park currently under overpasses and less support columns (making that part of the park more open, bright and safe); and — oh, by the way — a potential expansion of the park by 50 acres at the project’s completion when that amount of land is turned over to the development organization that manages the park.

It’s frustrating to have conversations with people who think they’re in the know about the project only to discover their “know” comes from the spin (from perfectly good people, by the way) and not from investigating facts.

I’ve also recently been enlightened to my own misinformation from spin thanks to a client’s insistence on making me smarter. (Thank you, EMA!)

Think for a second about companies that make paper. Now think about your perception of them or perhaps what you’ve heard in the media about paper companies. Would it surprise you to know that no North American paper manufacturer uses trees taken from unethically deforested rain forests? Would it shock you to know that the North American paper and forest product industry plants four times as many trees as it harvests? (Think about it. If they didn’t, they’d eventually go out of business.) Most of the recycling trend was started by the paper industry and they continually increase the percentage of manufactured product that comes from recycled paper, not the other way around.

The paper and paper-based communications industry is probably more “green” and environmentally conscious than any other industry on earth, including the environmental lobby who wants to paint them as the bad guy. Yet all we hear these days is about how we need to move toward paperless communications and “save the earth, don’t print this email.”

If the paper industry dies, kids … it won’t help the environment.

Find more interesting factoids (with third-party attribution) here.

For the record, I admire Geoff Livingston for millions of reasons, the least of which certainly isn’t his passion for cause marketing. I don’t have issues with people protesting KFC for making fatty foods or even those who accuse them of pink-washing with their recent Komen donation drive (though I fully support anyone wanting to raise or donate money to fight cancer, regardless of how selfish their motivations are). I don’t have issues with people who have found fault with Komen’s methods, either.

I admire the ideals behind 8664 and love the fact River Fields serves as an environmental checks and balances organization for projects, public and private. In fact, I want to protect and preserve the environment, both in my community and our world in general, as much as anyone. I proudly recycle, even though I’ve heard rumors many local efforts are B.S. and your waste goes to landfills, not processing centers. I err on the side of conserving paper and gas. To my knowledge, I’ve never killed a three-toed sloth or clubbed a seal, either.

But what happened to us as a society that we’re so apt and willing to believe a one-sided story? When did self-directed decision-making leave our conscious?

Did “good” PR kill good PR? Is our ADD society producing droves of drones who’d rather accept the common thread rather than raise a hand and ask questions? Will the consumer-based marketplace reverse the trend or will the socially-adept extremes dictate popular belief?

Our politics (at least in the U.S.) have already become so polarizing the vast majority of us are disenfranchised. Will our conversations soon follow?

When it comes to public relations, this is what keeps me up at night. What about you?

Disclosure: I previously worked as a public affairs account manager for the Ohio River Bridges Project while on staff at Doe-Anderson. While this certainly reveals a bias on the issue, to the best of my knowledge, all of my assertions relative to the facts of the project can be found in publicly available documents related to the project, many of which are found at http://kyinbridges.com. I currently have no vested interest or involvement in the project or its support/protest groups other than I live in Louisville and support improving inter- and intra-state travel, traffic, safety, quality of life and environmental concerns in this region.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).