THE BLOG
20/09/2011 07:55 BST | Updated 19/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Eleven Kinds of Spin That Could be Killing Trust

The practice of spin has been always with us.

The practice of spin has been always with us.

But as it becomes more widespread believability can be stretched to incredulity and trust can be eroded. Spin delivers "good news" at a cost. A MORI recent survey showed that whilst nearly 90% of us trust doctors, only 17% trust government ministers and 14% politicians in general.

Here are eleven spin techniques that could be helping to kill belief in those we need to believe.

1. We've learned lessons

The scenario: something goes spectacularly wrong and a review is commissioned. Of course, it's important to learn from failure - it's one way of ensuring that it doesn't happen again - but the "lessons learned" message becomes the story.

It will push out any serious consideration of what might have been done or should have been done to avoid the crisis happening in the first place - and often displaces any consideration of action taken against those who were to blame.

Spin technique: displacement.

2. The Bad Apple

Here an organisation faces an accusation that it is polluted with bad practice. Enter the Bad Apple - an attempt to isolate the story. If this works, then all the organisation has to do is deal with one person or problem and it is pure again. It's a way of dealing with charges of "institutional" or "widespread" problems.

This strategy's success hinges upon being able to block any attempt to identify others or show how "rogue" practices are widespread.

Spin technique: isolation.

3. A good day to bury bad news

When there's a lot going on and journalists are awash with stories, that's when some organisations will put their dirty laundry out in public. If challenged later on a bad story, it can legitimately say that it was published weeks ago.

Some gluts are predictable such as budget stories. Others occur as events unfold so organisations are opportunistic.

Spin technique: distraction

4. Jamming the airwaves

Here an organisation will push out a number of potentially attractive news stories all at once so that those items that are potentially damaging are squeezed out of the frame. It's a gamble, of course, since astute journalists may simply sift through the news and pull out those stories that are most interesting to their audience.

Spin technique: flooding

5. Look here's a better story

This will be used when a journalist has a good story and is on the point of filing. The organisation will come up with a better story - one that will get more space or a better place in the bulletin or publication. The new story may be less damaging to the organisation whilst being more attractive to the journalist.

Spin technique: trading up

6. I can make you look good

Everyone wants to look good with their boss. Journalists too. So organisations will seek to manage the news agenda by playing to journalists' vanity and desire to aspire. Good stories will get space because they suit both parties. It can create a useful obliging relationship.

Spin technique: flattery

7. My dad's bigger than your dad

Here a journalist can be put under pressure to drop a story with the threat of a call from someone senior to his or her editor.

Spin technique: fear and intimidation

8. Unavailable for comment

When you hear the words "ministers were unavailable for comment" this approach may be in play. If attempts to engage are being frustrated, journalists will be forced to either rely upon alternative sources, which may be scarce or on speculation. Either way, in the absence of real information, the story may wither and die.

Spin technique: frustration

9. The past is another country

This approach is about putting a clear distance between what is happening now, or has just happened, and its causes. It's not to deny a reality - it's to say that whatever has happened is someone else's fault. It will allow the organisation to stress empathy and to share the pain of others' misdemeanours.

Spin technique: blame-shifting

10. Into the long grass we go...

Sometimes bad news is inevitable. But it's possible to delay when it might emerge. Various ploys can be used. An organisation could set up a commission or an independent review. So whilst organisations may not be able to manage the size of the splash a negative story will create, this approach will allow it to determine when it will emerge for air. And then, lo!, it will happen on a very busy news day - always does for some reason.

Spin technique: delay

11. Emphasising the positive

There's always an upside to every story. So when faced with bad news, an organisation will look for positive angles and push those whilst simultaneously downplaying any negative elements. To make it work, the organisation will only talk about the positive and stonewall any attempts to move onto any other area. The key here is to answer every question with the same positive message.

Spin technique: distraction

Good news at a price

These approaches can help to keep "bad news" at bay.

But if people listening to political leaders and major organisations are fuming because they repeatedly refuse to answer the question, then this won't help to rebuild trust or convince listeners and viewers that the whole truth is being told.

It may be doing little more than building a credibility deficit - surely we have deficits to worry about already.

So what would an alternative approach look like?

First, accept that bad things will happen. Sometimes they are the result of accidents. Sometimes, people are just not good at their jobs. Sometimes people do things they really shouldn't do. These are uncomfortable truths - embrace them.

Second, when they do, be upfront. If belief matters - and it does - then make it the priority. Defend the truth at all costs.

Third, always apologise fully for any mistakes - to the people directly affected, first. And do so early.

Fourth, act where it's the right thing to do. Don't seek to spin away management action.

Finally, remember how painful it is to have to do these things - in terms of public shame and in terms of the actions that have to be taken. The possibility of future pain will help to focus minds on doing the right thing.