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Celebrating the 2016 Elections: A History of Political Spin

The Beginnings of Political Spin

Most public relations professionals hear the “s” word―spin―and shudder.  It’s not a word most of us associate with our corporate or publicist work or aspire to achieve.  However, in politics, spin has become synonymous with business as usual; sometimes infuriating and frustrating, yet at other times ridiculously amusing.  So in honor of this crazier-than-average election season, let’s take a lighthearted look at political spin.

Throughout history, political leaders have justified their actions to the people they served, or ruled.  Roman literature is filled with propaganda portraying Rome as righteous, civil, and peace loving compared to their adversaries―unruly, dangerous savages.  To be Roman was to be in “a commonwealth of the civilized,” and others were barbarians that must be led.  Fast forward a few thousand years and this sentiment still sounds eerily familiar!

The advancement of technology, communication systems, and mass media has resulted in very sophisticated professionals aiding politicians in communicating their messages effectively.  A vast majority of those professionals offer operational experience and theoretical understandings of communication and media to help inform and educate the public on national issues.  Those that play fast and loose with the truth, offering a shield of political spin to the politician, are dubbed the “spin doctors.”

A Century of Political Spin

Ironically, the American press was born to influence public opinion rather than present information and played a major role in shaping opinion leading up to the revolutionary war.  It was the type of journalism that would be considered more propaganda and slanderous by today’s standards.  Upon the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, which guaranteed the freedom of the press, newspapers took on a more central, national affairs role.

The industrial revolution transformed the printing process of a newspaper, allowing for mass production and dissemination to a broader audience.  With the advent of the Civil War, the demand for timely and accurate news was strong.  Newspapers responded with additional coverage, moving them into a more informative role.  Coverage evolved to include extensive illustrations and a new invention, the photograph.

At the turn of the 20th century, newly elected Teddy Roosevelt used the increasing power of newspapers and the public appetite for news to court reporters. President Roosevelt would personally invite a handful of reporters over for an intimate discussion on a mix of subjects, all assured to have Roosevelt’s “spin” on politics, policy, and other news of the day.  The practice of calling reporters together, which Roosevelt called séances, continued in later administrations and evolved into the modern day press conference.

The Spin Doctor is Born

The modern definition of spin doctor came about in the 1980s with the need for media sound bites―a concise phrase or explanation that grabs a reporter’s attention with the goal of having that statement included in the reporter’s story.  The word “spin” in political spin dates back to the early 19th Century and an old American expression used by sailors that is associated with telling a story.

“To ‘spin a yarn’ was first written down in James Hardy Vaux’s “A new and comprehensive vocabulary of the flash language” in 1812: Yarning or spinning a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other.”

Today, “spinning” a story can be applied to the manipulation of the facts of an issue or event to one’s benefit; telling a tall tale as sailors used to say.

Amusing Examples of Spin

Political Spin HistoryOne of the most amusing, modern day examples of spin is that of the former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf; fondly referred to as “Bagdad Bob.”  During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Minister became the voice and face of Iraq and would flatly deny what viewers would be witnessing on their televisions.  For example, the Minister would be speaking to the press and boldly pronounce there were no American troops in Bagdad even as tanks could be seen off in the distance along with sounds of combat.

The Washington Post recently revived Bagdad Bob’s relevance by naming a weekly award after him for the most ridiculous statements that have come out of the current presidential campaign.

There is a political hoax on the internet that an ancestor of current politician was hanged for horse stealing and train Political Spin Can Be Humorousrobbery in the late 1800s.  While the name of the politician keeps changing, the amusing political spin does not–and it captures the art of spin perfectly.

The story goes that the gentleman pictured in the photograph to the right was the great-great uncle of sitting politician [insert name here] and was captured as a horse thief, escaped incarceration, went on to rob trains, was re-captured, and put to death.  When asked to validate the story, the politician’s staff revised the story to brazenly read:

“…was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory.  His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad.  Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad.  In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation.  In 1889, he passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

As you gather the information you need to make informed voting decisions on November 8th, remember that what we are experiencing this year―as far as political spin―might be more intense than in recent years but is really nothing new.

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About Bobbie Wasserman

Bobbie Wasserman, M.B.A., is managing director of Wave2 Alliances, a firm that builds or restructures corporate communication departments for multi-channel companies. She has worked with several direct selling firms, including in-house as VP of Public Relations for ViSalus and is a former VP of Corporate Reputation and Crisis Management at Edelman.

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