Monday, 21 February 2011

Does spin damage the democratic health of a nation?

Public Relations is often referred to as a ‘spin industry’ in which campaigns involve a partisan or distorted presentation of news/information. Tactics of ‘spin’ are often used by corporations, hospitals, even NGO’s and other organisations who want to control the news agenda to suit their needs, but the term ‘spin’ is usually associated with politics and political communication. The media is another institution that uses ‘spin’ and while they criticise public relations and the government for ‘spin’, they fail to recognise that they (media) also ‘spin’ stories when they select news content and provide their own interpretation of facts.

The widespread use of spin has negative consequences for democracy. Cutlip et al. suggest that effective democracy requires effective communication between citizens and the government: ‘In a very real sense, the purpose of democracy itself closely matches the purpose of public relations. Successful democratic government maintains responsive relationships with constituents, based on mutual understanding and two-way communication.’ (Cutlip et al. 2000: 448).  

Sadly it is often the case that information provided by the government to the public is misleading or inaccurate and fails to present the true picture. Tench, R. and Yeomans, L. state that ‘while democracy may depend on effective communication, not all communication is in the interests of the government’ (2006: 92). Democracy is based on the fundamental value of serving the wider public interest but there are always conflicts of interest involved in news management; there are various stakeholders to consider and not everybody can be satisfied. As a result, governments ‘spin’ the news to accommodate their own agenda. This is what was done by Alastair Campbell, a famous ‘spin doctor’ who was working for the British Government during the Iraq war. The "September Dossier" in September 2002 and the "Iraq Dossier" in February 2003 both contained fabricated information whose purpose was to justify the invasion of Iraq and to encourage public support.  

So it is clear that ‘spin’ not only damages the reputation of the PR industry but also the democratic health of a nation. Spin lowers public trust and also harms democratic processes. Unfortunately ‘spin’ is part of our culture and as Tench, R. and Yeomans, L. suggest, ‘a pervasive culture of secrecy that should be replaced by a culture of openness’ (2006: 91). There is a need for clear, two way communication between organisations and the public where news dissemination is truthful and impartial.

Cutlip, S. et al. (2000) Effective Public Relations, 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
Tench, R. & Yeomans, L.(2006) Exploring Public Relations. Essex: Pearson Education Limited

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