The dark underbelly of the PR industry"
By Bob Burton
Seldon Gill review
We live in a world of spin. It's all around us. And at times we all like and/or need to put a positive spin on events - in both our personal and professional lives.
But what is spin exactly, and when does it go too far?
As marketers in the professional services, it's an interesting question to ask of ourselves. Why? Because even when we're not involved directly in PR or media relations, it's our job to portray ourselves, our teams, and the firms we work for in the best light possible. As a result, we need to know both how to spin (preferably within certain ethical limits) - and importantly, how to recognise it.
So what is spin? According to Wikipedia, "In public relations, spin is a usually pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation." Of course we all know however, there are 'degrees' of bias.
For a look at the dark side of spin, you can do no better than Bob Burton's Inside Spin. The book is a walk on the wild side - of PR that is; a cutting exploration of the seedier side of the billion-dollar Australian PR industry and the organisations it serves. And it's a welcome antidote to all those boring how-to PR manuals. Winner of the 2005 Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues, Burton reveals how certain corporate and government spin doctors subtly, and often invisibly, influence many of the news stories we read, see and hear. More significant he suggests, is what they manage to keep out of the news altogether.
Using numerous case studies from both the private and public sector, Burton analyses and exposes the various tactics used by PR companies to "smother dissenting viewpoints, mask sponsors, court journalists, attack corporate competitors and influence politicians." He does not mince words in the book - it is a comprehensive manual on how PR is conducted, and the harm it can sometimes cause. It's also a riveting, hair-raising read; and incredibly informative.
Whilst not totally discounting that some PR campaigns are beneficial or harmless, he warns that at their worst, these can campaigns can "smother dissenting points of view and degrade the quality of our democracy". It's strong, confronting stuff, especially for people working in "communications" - who probably hate the thought of being associated with this side of PR. Nevertheless, it's valuable in that it forces readers to think critically about what is reasonable, and what might be unethical, in this mushrooming industry.
As Burton says, "While journalists surrender to the increasing mastery of the misinformation industry, media consumers will more often need to become their own gatekeepers."
About Bob Burton
Bob Burton is a freelance journalist and the managing editor of SourceWatch, an online wiki-based database on the global PR and lobbying industry.