The four-letter word that can kill credibility

Communication leaders don’t have to be in their roles for very long before they are confronted with a statement that goes something like this: 

 “We need you to find a way to put a positive spin on this.”

Spin is the one word that completely undermines what the communication function – and the PR profession – stands for. Whether it was said in jest or with every intent to sidestep the real issues at hand, spin is a trigger word the puts one's role and relationship with leaders on high alert.

Communicators are not alone in this. Our financial colleagues have a similar reaction to hearing language such as "fudge with the numbers" or "go cook the books" regardless of the context in which it was said.

But given this gaffe, it's important to give leaders the benefit of the doubt knowing that greater insight on what reputation management is and isn’t can go a long way. When corrected immediately and with resolve, leaders gain a better appreciation into how valuable their communication counsel is to protecting the brand in addition to simply promoting it.

But leaders who fail to recognize the err of their ways by advocating a less than truthful telling of any story are setting themselves up for irreparable damage – personally and for the brand.

Few companies enjoy lasting success when there is intent to spin news that isn’t deemed favorable. Every company has highs and lows. How those fluctuations get handled speaks volumes.

Further, bad news doesn’t age well, and the longer it is concealed the worse it will be when it comes to light. And it almost always does.

Spin is the four-letter word that should prompt the ethical communicator to pause and think twice. It’s typically an indicator into a leadership ethos and begs the question whether the values painted on the company wall are true or simply an outcome of a group exercise.

This is why communicators owe it to the leaders they serve and support to confront them on this issue and help them think strategically about the value of clear, concise and credible communication.

The white lie, the half-truth and the diversion tactic all constitute a lack of honesty, and when thrust upon employees, customers or the media, each audience will call it what it is. Worse yet, it erodes credibility from the inside, hollowing out a company’s values and culture while creating much larger issues.  

There’s a lot at stake packed into this one word – the ethical behavior of communicators, the credibility of leadership, and the lasting reputation of the organization. When leaders turn to their trusted communication counsel during challenging times, answers won’t necessarily be easy. But they should take great comfort in knowing that challenges will be met head on and with veracity, keeping in mind that this too shall pass. That's not the case when choosing to equate public relations as spin.

Next time you hear (or use) the word spin, think of it this way: in its simple definition, to spin is to go around and around, often at a dizzying speed.  Ironically, the things that people most often speak of spinning are the very things they don't want coming back around at all. Best to handle them the right way, the first time.