Getting behind political spin

Jaime Watt & Dan Robertson

Too often in politics, the relationship between those in public life and the journalists who cover them is one which is confrontational and tempestuous.  The days of reporters turning the other way, as they did with President Kennedy’s indiscretions or keeping secrets, as they did with FDR’s handicap, are behind us.

No one is suggesting that a return to those days is desirable.  But it has come at a price, and that price is a lack of understanding of one group for the other. So, while it might seem foolish for political communications professionals to offer journalists insight or advice that would give them an upper hand or an advantage in their relationship with politicians, both would benefit from a mutual understanding of the other, to say nothing of an increase in professional respect and civility.

The political philosopher Leo Strauss argued in Natural Right and History that it is necessary to understand people (and societies) as they understand themselves. It is as important to understanding political spin as it is political societies.

In this regard, virtually all general assignment reporters and nearly all of those who report or comment on politics are sadly wanting.

Most, to be blunt, don’t have the first clue of how politics is played, what politicians care about, how they make decisions or how they view issues.  

So we enjoin all of you who desire to cover public affairs to become students of politics, campaigns and elections. Talk to people who have done it. Cultivate and nurture relationships with people who will trust you to tell you the things that you won’t see and hear.

That way, when you see a political party or figure make what may on the face of it appear a counter-intuitive decision, you’ll have a good idea why.

For most politicians, the flip side is true. Most have no idea what makes news “news” and don’t understand the way you look at politics and campaigns.

Every political media relations practitioner has a dozen stories of politicians complaining about why they couldn’t get a story about them for some reason or another.

And every politician, of every political stripe, is convinced that you hate them and their parties and disproportionately single them out to the benefit of competing parties.

So here is a friendly bit of advice: Understand politicians as they understand themselves.

You will never “get behind the spin” until you do.

We never use the word “spin”

SpinYou cannot even have discussion about getting behind the spin without first having a discussion about what spin is and what it is not.

Spin is not getting the story you want. It is not about getting a nice headline, a pretty picture or a good quote.

The truth is we never use the word. What others call spin, we call “framing.”

Framing an issue concerns itself not with the conversation, debate and interaction that is ongoing in politics. Rather it is concerned with the topic and parameters of that discussion. Its business is to set the rules for that debate and to define what terms and references will be used.

Metaphorically, we are not talking about the actors and their lines, or even the plot. We are talking about choosing the play, building the stage and selecting the backdrop and scenery.

Rolling out a budget: is it spin?

Nowhere is what is commonly called spin more on display than when a government rolls out a budget.  The government attempts though leaks to set the agenda and pre-empt criticism while the opposition probes for the soft spots vulnerable to attack. All spend an inordinate amount of time courting the support of stakeholders, the third-party, unaligned (and, therefore, more credible) commentators on public policy.  Almost all of it unfolds in plain view.

But is it spin?

Yes, strategic and tactical excellence matters, as always.  But in fact, who wins or loses the critical spin war surrounding the most recent Ontario budget was neither determined on March 26 nor will it be determined during the ensuing days and weeks.  It will be determined by factors at play in the public domain for many months.

There was a time in this province when calling for tax cuts and eliminating deficits was controversial, even extreme. Mike Harris ran a platform of cutting taxes in 1990 and was dismissed as too right-wing.

Insofar as deficits are concerned, however, we had assumed that since the tumult of the Rae government, it was political suicide for a politician to even suggest a return to deficits.  As late as the last federal general election, the Conservative Party promised they would never run anything but a balanced budget.

Then the economy collapsed.

Suddenly, we saw for the very first time a tentative willingness on the part of voters to accept a deficit, albeit under certain circumstances. The consensus, i.e., the frame, in which all discussion of fiscal policy, and especially deficit financing, began to change.

Deficits went from being an anathema to a necessity almost overnight.

The McGuinty government in Ontario, (and the Harper government in Ottawa), in bringing down a budget with a massive deficit, is betting that the frame has totally changed.

In loudly decrying a return to deficit spending and criticizing the Harmonized Sales Tax, the Ontario PC Party, leading the opposition in Queen’s Park, is betting that the old frame remains, or at least enough of it is intact.

More than announcements, photo opportunities and speeches it is the Party which made the smarter wager who will win the spin war over the Ontario budget.  It remains to be seen.

Canada’s greatest spin doctor

Framing an issue in terms that are favourable to oneself and unfavourable to one’s rivals is the goal of people who concern themselves with what is called spin.

No one has done this more successfully than Pierre Trudeau.  It is said that all politics in this country is played out under the horizon which he created. More than anyone, he has determined our values and what constitutes acceptable opinion. In fact, he went as far as codifying them in our Constitution. Take multiculturalism as an example. Here he succeeded in inextricably linking a policy of the Liberal Party of Canada to our national identity. No one dare touches it. How could you? To attack it would be, almost by definition, un-Canadian. He was, and even today remains, Canada’s greatest spin doctor.

If understanding what spin is and is not is the beginning, then understanding those who engage in it is the next step in getting behind the spin.

Spin must be believable to spread

A final word of caution which applies to both journalists and the political objects of their attention: Spin, like religious heresy, must contain a germ seed of truth in order to succeed and spread. It must be believable or comport to what people are able to determine for themselves.

If it doesn’t, it fails.

During every election, following the leaders’ debate there’s a furious micro-spin war over who won. In the spin war following the 1995 leaders’ debate during the Ontario general election, the Liberals won hands down. Liberal leader Lyn McLeod’s “spinners” thoroughly convinced reporters she had prevailed. She was almost unanimously acclaimed by media commentators as the clear winner.

So imagine their shock when Harris’ polling numbers spiked dramatically in the immediate aftermath.

Here’s what happened: voters who actually watched the debate thought Mike Harris had won.

The spin failed because it was not believable.

And the media? Well, they were confounded because neither did they understand what spin actually is nor did they judge Mike Harris’ performance in the same way as we did – those who actually planned his strategy.  A double failure, on their part.

So, we are back where we began.

The adversarial relationship between those in public life and those who cover them will never—nor should it—be overturned.  You are paid to be sceptics.  And we are paid to persuade.  But scepticism can easily descend to cynicism and persuasion to sophistry.

Surely one cannot claim to understand an author better than the author understands him or herself.  We will both better serve our respective vocations, and the public interest, when we recognize this plain fact.

Jaime Watt was the senior communications advisor for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in the 1995 and 1999 election campaigns and is currently the chair of Navigator Ltd., a Toronto-based public affairs and communications consultancy. Dan Robertson is a senior consultant at Navigator.  Both have advised political parties  in Canada and abroad. This column is adapted from remarks to a Ryerson School of Journalism symposium “Getting Behind the Spin,” February 25, 2009.

(Image by linuslin. Used under Creative Commons license.)