Framing versus spin

One of the reasons I chose to call my consultancy No Spin PR was because serious public relations practitioners are always hopelessly frustrated by the word spin being applied to what they do.

It’s a derogatory term, and I believe there are some terms and words that can never be reclaimed (in this I differ from the hiphop artists who have ‘reclaimed’ the ‘en’ word – in my view it would be better to let that one fade away to the point that 23rd-century folk who encounter it would have to ask what it meant).

Implicit in the word spin is the idea that deception is involved, facts are being turned on their heads, and/or there’s so much fast talking going on the truth would be unrecognizable even if it were part of the mix. The ‘truth’ is, it’s as much of an insult to call a public relations practitioner a ‘spin doctor’ as it is to call a woman a ‘chick.’ And it is a female-dominated profession, although not yet at the most senior levels.

Despite the cross-fertilization that occurs between journalists and PR practitioners (since writing well is the foundation skill for both professions), there is also the perception that journalists are those who ferret out the truth and present it objectively, while PR folks do their best to deflect, disguise, and distract from the truth. The notion of the muck-racking journalist being free of bias is laughable in the 21st Century. We wouldn’t have populist, right-wing, and left-wing media outlets if bias weren’t inherent in every medium, whether it’s the way the headline is written, the fact that the story is covered at all, or the selective presentation of facts. The notion that objectivity is in disrepute is, thankfully, permeating the zeitgeist – and not a moment too soon.

The inspiration for this post came not from the field of public relations, however, but rather from some tweets by Portuguese journalist and science communication PhD candidate AndrĂ©ia Azevedo Soares (BordadoIngles on Twitter) re Mike Hulme‘s ideas on the climate change debate. Hulme is the author of Why We Disagree about Climate Change and recently gave a lecture at Imperial College London. (The book will be out in paperback in early 2010.)

Here are her tweets from Hulme’s Dec. 7, 2009, lecture (rearranged to appear in chronological order and edited into paragraph form):

Mike Hulme suggests there are six different ways to frame the climate change debate: market failure, technological hazard, global injustice. overconsumption, climate change as mostly natural and finally as a planetary ‘tipping point.’ Hulme shows that those different frames lead to different solutions to climate change. They relate to our various worldviews, beliefs, and values. Different framings suggest we need to recognise pluralism in our approaches to make climate change policies.

Oddly, I’ve rarely heard the term ‘framing’ used by a public relations practitioner. But it struck me as something that should be a integral part of the PR lexicon, since it is precisely what we do. From the Wikipedia definition, framing is ‘…an inevitable process of selective influence over the individual’s perception of the meanings attributed to words or phrases. A frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others.’

Framing is inevitable, an involuntary reaction that is part of our effort to make sense of the world around us, its people and its problems. I particularly like the example used in the Wikipedia article of a wink vs a blink (although I’d argue both eyes close during a blink). The glass half full/glass half empty analogy probably works better, since by definition half means equal portions.

Whether you view the world through rose-coloured glasses or not, whether you think all politicians are dishonest or revere those who occupy the corridors of delegated power, whether you’re a MacHead or a PC fan, we all have filters we apply to information, and these filters affect our decision-making processes.

There is nothing illegal, immoral, or unethical about choosing a frame. You need to be aware that there’s more than one framing choice. You need to consider the fact that others won’t choose the same frame as you. Ultimately, though, you will have to either pick one or leave the picture unframed. Choosing a frame and developing a strategy for its presentation is the heart of public relations. As a practitioner, aligning yourself with clients whose framing aligns with your beliefs and values is the soul of a successful PR consultancy.

Perception has never been reality. It just appears to be. That, I suspect, is a natural consequence of the human condition.

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About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Geographically, I get around a bit (at least within Canada). Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
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