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Smoke and Spin

By September 8, 2015 January 8th, 2020 News & Viewpoints

A recent tweet caught my eye that read, “How Metro Spun the January Smoke Death.” It referenced a frightening and tragic incident where a D.C. Metro train stalled in a tunnel, trapped riders and filled with thick smoke, killing one and sickening scores more.

That City Paper headline suggested a whiff of scandal; perhaps they unearthed a smoking gun document (no bad pun intended) whereby Metro was caught deceiving the public. Turns out Metro was only guilty of hiring a public relations firm to help the transit agency communicate in the aftermath of the crisis and “…for some reason, [it also was] keeping tabs on a critical Twitter account along the way.” And?

This is akin to a news story breathlessly proclaiming, “Dog Caught Barking.” Yup, dogs bark. It’s what they do – it’s okay and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them doing it. The same holds true for organizations attempting to recover from an operational crisis with communications ramifications. They routinely turn to consultants who offer outside perspective and additional resources to help clients:

  • Identify and learn from communications missteps
  • Improve their internal and external communications processes overall
  • Tell their story more effectively
    • This includes communicating what happened and why, conveying genuine regret, detailing actions underway and indicating what they will do differently in the future

The article also wrongly implied it was untoward to monitor a public Twitter account with a significant following that was created specifically to harsh on Metro. PR 101 dictates an organization in crisis should gauge and address the leading voices in a given debate, which includes online monitoring. It should surprise no one that social media wields powerful influence in today’s public square. Would this same piece criticize Metro if it was monitoring traditional clips coverage in The Washington Post (or even The City Paper itself) if the paper was publishing a series of articles critical of Metro? Of course not.

The headline writer chose the past tense version of “spin,” and herein lies the rub. It’s a loaded word that implies deceit – like spinning a yarn, a tall tale. To be direct, it suggests lying. And yet, the word is used far too often to describe strategic communications. Yes, our industry has its share of bad actors – as does every profession. Most PR practitioners, I believe, hold the view that our clients are not only entitled, but duty bound to communicate effectively and share their points of view with internal and external stakeholders – and to do so ethically.

It’s silly to suggest there is something nefarious about Metro getting help to hone and elevate its messages to rise above the cacophony of disparate voices debating what happened and what it means for public safety. We in the industry, however, are not entirely blameless either. As has been observed of our industry, the proverbial cobbler’s children have no shoes:  the public relations industry, ironically, needs to do a better job with its own public relations.

A first step would be for each of us to reflect on how we conduct ourselves and if any of our actions fuel the negative views some hold for our profession. Commitment to ethics should be more than a plaque on the wall. At Stratacomm, the plaques are displayed prominently to be sure, but we live the philosophy and the values behind it. We are far from alone in this regard.

As communications professionals, we must consistently hold ourselves and those around us to the highest standard of accountability. At the same time, we should unabashedly and consistently tell our own story better and communicate exactly why what we do is both appropriate and good. Hold the spin.

John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm and is leading firm-wide ethics training later this month.