Wikipedia (I know!) defines ‘spin’ as “a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favor or against a certain organization or public figure“. It goes on to add that, “while traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, “spin” often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics“.
I came across two interesting pieces on Anna’s campaign and both gave the reader an in depth look into how a team meticulously ‘managed’ media during the campaign.
The first was in OPEN and it went on to list the following as the tactics that helped Team Anna place their messages appropriately, in the public consciousness.
- Volunteer-led press content creation
- Volunteer-led updates on social media
- Second level of spokespersons besides Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Prashant Bhushan to go around TV studios and presenting Team Anna’s point of view
- Positioning Anna as the present day Mahatma Gandhi, with string personal credibility to boot
- Changing the Bharat Mata imagery to Gandhi imagery in an attempt to please a more diverse set of audiences
- Tone down controversial opinions; like the one about Narendra Modi
- Having a former Star News anchor to predict and plan TV debate questions
- Anna’s video message on YouTube at the right time – when he was in Tihar jail
- Caps with ‘I am Anna’
- Placing Team Anna in popular TV programs like musical reality shows
- Seeking and getting support from Irom Sharmila
- Cleverly and carefully crafted retorts to questions that undermine the credibility of Anna’s mode of protest
- Timing every media appearance and announcement; including picking August 16th as the launch of Anna’s second fast
- Live tweeting by key members of Team Anna; like Kiran Bedi
The OPEN piece ends on a strange note where it actually takes a position for the first time in the whole story, questioning the vision of Team Anna.
The other piece like this was in DNA, by NDTV’s Sunetra Choudhury. This is more of a personal point of view where Sunetra uses the ‘we have been played pretty well‘ angle. Some of the tactics Sunetra’s piece lists include,
– “try and wait for sundown to make a speech so that it looks nice”
– “try and make announcements at primetime” (“But itâ€™s all changed now, now Anna can speak whenever, it doesnâ€™t matter. Channels are always cutting live“)
– Sitting at Rajghat silently for a time period long enough for photographers to reach from the newspaper offices round the corner and ensuring that photo appears in newspapers the next day
Now, let me come to the point on the word ‘spin’. I’d like to argue that the word ‘spin’, by itself, shouldn’t demean the cause it is trying to communicate. In the course of the history of public relations as a function, it may be that more negative and nefarious causes and issues have used spin more often. So, the word spin may have attained that negative aura. The question is – what is wrong with media management, regardless of what the cause is…wrong or right, which itself is a subjective perspective?
The point on media management is about visibility and creating awareness. It may be called ‘eyeballs’ too; but so be it.
Wikipedia lists a few tactics that may seem to be perched on a wall, between right and wrong. Like,
- Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one’s position (cherry picking)
- Non-denial denial
- Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths
- Euphemisms to disguise or promote one’s agenda
- “Burying bad news”: announcing one popular thing at the same time as several unpopular things, hoping that the media will focus on the popular one.
I’m not sure if Team Anna has indulged in one or more of these tactics, but to me, as a viewer, what came across is judicious and prudent media management. This included,
- Great timing for all announcements and appearances
- Multiple spokespersons to carpet-bomb media with Team Anna perspectives
- Opportunistic placements for Team Anna representatives wherever it gives them eyeballs
- Clever use of social media at the right time
If OPEN’s point was on a not-so-deserving man taking over the Gandhi image (and, a not-so-deserving cause – what they call ‘utopian’) and Team Anna working overtime in selling that, my question simply is, who gets to decide whether it is not-so-deserving or not? After all, wouldn’t that be a point of view, at best, where 2 sections of people take opposing sides? If people buy into it, as a result of all the so-called spin, then it is akin to a so-called bad film being a huge success at the box office. The reviewers will continue to stand by their view that it is a ‘bad’ film, but ponder on what ‘bad’ means anyway, for a minute…and to whom.
I’d assume that we need a PR campaign to cleanse the negative image the word ‘spin’ has gained over the years. There needs to be a distinction between the cause/issue that is being spun and the tactics that are being used. I’m not going to judge whether Team Anna’s cause is right or not, but I love the way Team Anna went several steps ahead of so-called established spin masters…government, in the spin department! In terms of tactics, all Team Anna perhaps did was to ensure that it is timed appropriately so as to ensure that their messages reach the maximum number of people effectively.
With so many news outlets and social media channels vying for people’s attention, in general, it is perhaps imperative these days to get the timing and mode of communication right – PR 101. I had earlier jotted down some PR lessons from Anna’s earlier fast; those still stay relevant in context of this post. But just because they time their announcements well and help people buy in to and spread their messages does not mean they are bad. In fact, if at all someone could be blamed for ‘spin’, it should be the media which buys into ‘spin’ without doing adequate research on its own (as it should) or not adding their own perspective while reporting the story.
At the most basic level, if not for spin, Anna would be fasting from his home in Maharashtra, alone, after perhaps writing a letter to the Prime Minister to update him on his intention. Facts, wrong or right, these days need media management for them reach the intended target segment. If you’re not working towards that (what is called ‘spin’), you are just a poor communicator.
A friend’s comment on Facebook (when I shared the OPEN article) explains the above post well: ‘you need to bark like a dog to be heard by dogs’!
Good, related read:
1. Master’s of Spin: PR Belongs in B-School Studies (Business Week)
2. Evanescent journalism gives way to PR spin doctors (Russia Today)
3. Spin Doctors Make Music, Not PR (Platform Magazine) – the image above is from this piece too!