Being an effective communicator is a lot like having the Force – you can either use your power for good or evil. To illustrate, I’d suggest that JFK and Martin Luther King Jr used their power for good. I would place Anthony Robbins and the Shopping Television Network at the other end of the spectrum (yes, my definition of evil is non-Catholic to say the least).
Others would place the dreaded spin doctor (or public relations practitioner) in the same quadrant as the insistent voice telling you to call with your credit card details right now to get not one, but three pedi-eggs for the price of one.
I will state up front that I am a communications (ie. PR) professional, and have plied my trade for over 20 years. My training is in communications theory and practice, which is not the same thing as journalism. Yes, I learned how to write in a clear and (hopefully) compelling fashion. I also learned how people pay attention, listen and learn. I understand the relationship between people’s values, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions and how these ultimately shape behaviour.
This knowledge is stock in trade for communications professionals. We build strategies from these robust theories to help people and organisations effectively communicate with their audiences.
Much of this communication is done for good not evil. Sometimes the messages help people find or use something, or to be safe, or informed about their rights and entitlements. For example US authorities look at Australia’s seat-belt wearing rate with envy and attribute our success to a combination of regulation and effective communication.
These theories and strategies are changing over time to keep pace with the evolving nature of communications and how people interact with it.
However, journalistic distrust of the communications profession does not appear to have changed at all. I can remember in the 80s, when working as a novice media adviser in Canberra, I quickly learned not to tell journalists that my background was in PR. It was made crystal clear to me that PR flacks were considered to be much further down the credibility chain than media hacks.
Ironically, it seems that today the prevalence of former journalists in the role of media adviser and resulting obsession with the 24/7 news cycle has done more to put the spin doctor role into disrepute than any shonky PR type might have done.
I was reminded of this by a newspaper story today on government “spin doctors” that was retweeted by a couple of reputable journalists on Twitter. What struck me was the amount of unbridled spin in the article about spin.
The article authoritatively tells us that each state and territory, as well as the federal government, employs a minimum of several hundred people dedicated solely to generating the best possible angle on stories for public consumption, that taxpayers fund an army of at least 3000 media advisers employed to “spin” political lines and that public servants are hired to craft messages and keep the secrets for governments and their departments.
There are two spins clearly at work here. One is that governments are avoiding public scrutiny by being profligate in their employment of communications personnel. That is a fair point from a political and newsworthiness perspective. However the other implication is that any communications professional working in government is devoted to distortion or corruption of the message. This allegation is patently untrue and an insult to the hard-working communicators in the many government departments around the country.
I realise there is an uneasy relationship between the media and its news sources these days. There is incredible pressure on journalists to find unique and compelling stories to maintain sales and keep advertisers happy.
Being students of human behaviour, some communications professionals have used this to the advantage of their clients but perhaps at a cost to their own credibility.
I’m not suggesting that all communications professionals are angels. On the contrary, it can be very tempting to use the Force for less-than-good deeds.
All I ask is that next time the sobriquet “spin doctor” is flung at a communications professional, take a moment to check who it is that is really using their communications knowledge for nefarious means.
This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.