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Is ‘spin’ dead in the era of social media?

Posted on 13 November 2014 | 10:11am

Here is the text of a speech I gave this morning to the Festival Of Marketing in London. There was also a good q and a, some of which might be on twitter hashtag #FoM14

Ok. So a while back I am flying into Gatwick from Croatia. I’m the first off the plane. I get to the top of the ramp, and an automatic double door. Only it doesn’t open. Now the other passengers are gathering behind me, and I can read their minds ‘come on then, Mr spin doctor, Mr Fixit … fix this then …’ Reputation all important, the greatest currency of all. I tweeted the official airport account ‘just off flight BA-blahblahblah, double doors at ramp not opening,’ then to show I was down wiv the yoof. Wtf!’ … Almost instantly, a reply ‘we’re on it.’ … Within a minute or so, a man arrives, smiling and apologetic, presses some buttons, the doors open, I walk through, followed by grateful passengers muttering to each other ‘wow, see what he did?’ Reputation intact. Phew.

Anecdote two. I achieve a lifetime ambition to play at Turf Moor, hallowed home of Burnley FC. It is a six a side tournament. We lose the first game, to Hollyoaks. We have to win the second game of three or we are out. I give the team talk, stirring phrases like get stuck in, take no prisoners. The game starts scrappily, then I get stuck in on one of their players who is a little bit lippy, shall we say it kicks off, minor fisticuffs, but it calmed down, we go on to win one nil. We lose the next match though and we are out.

Two hours later, as we head home, my son’s girlfriend says ‘Alastair, you’re trending on twitter.’ How come? I take a look. I click on a link alongside the first mention. It takes me to the global capital of internet evil, Mail Online, and the intro to their lead story is as follows. ‘Alastair Campbell was involved in a bizarre football punch up with pop heartthrob Tom Parker which led to The Wanted superstar being stretchered to hospital with a suspected broken leg.’ Tom Who? The What? And there, directly below, blow by blow pictures of the punch up so called, and then Tom Parker, on a stretcher with dozens of weeping girls in the background. Boyband star v unemployed antichrist spin doctor – who’s going to win the twitter war on that one? Now as it happens the leg incident was in a later match. But when did an inconvenient fact like that stop the Mail? So the reason I am trending on twitter is an avalanche of teenage death threats.

Then the club press office texts me and says the papers are all asking if I am still around because they want to interview me. Instead, I compose three tweets. One of them links to a short statement on my blog setting out facts in a light hearted manner. I cannot claim to have come out well in the papers the next day. But my line was in there, and so was the tone.

I reflected on how much the world of so called spin had changed. I recalled those Sundays spent at home, ticking off every paper as I called to brief them one by one. Time intensive, ballsaching, not family friendly. In both of the two cases I mentioned, I had no verbal interaction with a single human being. Me, my phone, my blog, twitter, with automatic link through to Facebook. That’s it.

At Gatwick, one of my fellow passengers said as we queued in passport control ‘bet they wouldn’t have sorted so fast it if it was Joe Public.’ But you know what, I think they would. The travel trade is good at this. I love Heathrow’s chirpy ‘anything we can do to help?’ tweets in the morning. I have twice used twitter to chase a visa application, successfully. Writing this speech last week, I broke off to check in online for an Emirates flight the following day. The computer said No. I tweeted Emirates. Sorted. ‘We’re on it’ is a mindset and in the modern age, you have to have it to build and retain support, credibility, reputation. It has to be real. The product and the engagement have to be good.

Now, a friend of mine works in film and showbiz PR. I had no idea until he told me that The Oscars were so, dare I say it, spin-driven. Campaigns with all the money and sophistication of elections or product launches. And because the media loves a bit of glamour, even in these days of negativity, they go along with it, because how else do they get the A listers on? So anyone who tells you spin is dead, take a trip to Hollywood.

But, there is something else at work here. Because my friend said that in the old days, a few years ago, a film with a big promotion budget, and a couple of mega-names doing the chat shows, would be guaranteed three big pay days, first Friday, first Saturday, first Sunday. But then … the film lives or dies on the first Friday, on the social media reaction as people leave the cinemas, get on their phones, and tell their friends.’

To me, the success of Facebook is the concept of the friend. In an era where deference has gone, where trust in institutions has diminished, be that governments and parties, banks and brands, the church, the media, people still need to have someone or something to trust. So who? For most, friends and family. Think how many conversations we have had throughout our lives, about films and books or places or restaurants we liked or disliked. But whereas once we might tell a handful of friends at a dinner party or the school gates, now we can tell hundreds, thousands, between us we tell millions.

This is like a huge, uncontrollable modern technological equivalent of old word of mouth village squares where people went to socialize, find out who was well, who was ill, who liked what, who liked whom, who’d had a baby, who had died. So now, as people pour out of the cinemas on that first Friday, the film’s backers scour the social networks, and know immediately if they have a hit or a flop on their hands. If it’s the latter, they don’t even get a decent first Saturday.

So what does that say about the role of so-called spin in that process? It says that you won’t even get near the big spinny Oscar PR campaigns unless the product really has something going for it, something you want to tell your friends, something, quote, something to write home about. Now there is a blast from the past. Today’s version of nothing or something to write home about is instant, it happens when we get on that phone, send a message to our networks.

This has big implications for politics. Two campaigns in particular stand out, Obama and Narenda Modi in India earlier this year. I have analysed both for a book I am just finishing, WINNERS, about winners in sport, business and politics. Obama, 2008 in particular, brilliant in the use of social media. A lot of the focus related to fundraising and I am not saying this was not important. It was. But for me the real success was the ability to take topline performance and message and develop around them an ever growing team of support, not just passive but active.

So Obama does a speech. People ‘like’ it. Great. But even greater when they then get a contact from a human being who says do you fancy getting involved? Would you consider hosting a meeting for your friends? Do you think they might donate? Here are some campaign materials that might help… This is using technological networks to build human networks which, if big enough and strong enough, can overcome a mainstream hegemony set by small numbers of media owners.

This ability to integrate was an important factor in Obama’s success against opponents who saw digital as just another silo, not bolted in. They also beat their opponents in the necessary task of analyzing the mass of data to profile and segment voters so that campaigning tasks and funds could be raised and allocated efficiently.

They had the addresses they needed, they knew the issues people were passionate about, they knew their level of activity, donations and other interactions. If someone is passionate about education, you make sure they see everything Obama is saying on that. If you know they are not so interested in foreign policy, don’t clutter their in box. If they give generously once, they will probably do so again.

One particularly successful innovation was an intimate dinner for four with Obama. To have a chance of being invited, you had to chip in a few dollars. Hundreds of thousands did so. It also meant the Obama team had all their details and could go back to make more asks. They used celebrities like George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker to host dinners, and to make financial appeals by email, they polled on which celebrities would get the best response from a certain demographic.

Clooney over-performed with women of a certain age on the West Coast, for instance. They would then test different messages, and the difference between best-performing message and worst-performing message could be as high as ten-fold on any given day.

Is that spin? We still get grief for a Number 10 reception where Noel Gallagher and Kevin Spacey rocked up in 1997. Cool Britannia and all that. But Clooney! Sex and the City! Testing email content. This is getting pretty spinny folks. It made news and it made money. But it is social media. It is well handled. You can get away with more. If you’re smart, if you keep innovating.

What happened with the command and control communications that I oversaw, necessary for that time, with a hostile biased media and with a Party prone to division, was that it coincided with the media age becoming a reality, and part of that was the media’s developing obsession with the process of political handling, and that became a problem. Anything we did became known as spin.

But — another anecdote if I may. The weekend before I am at the Hutton Inquiry. I am at home watching a football match. The phone goes. A BBC journalist. He asks me a few questions, I answer them, but I basically say nothing. After the match, the news, and the guy does a two-way from outside my house, and says ‘the spin from behind me tonight is ….’ But who put it there?

I have said many times that the real spin doctors are journalists and owners with an agenda. Just as the public are more aware now of the wiring of political comms, so too they are more aware of the wiring of the way the media works. It doesn’t mean that the traditional media is without influence, far from it. But it is not as influential as it was, and a combination of their commercial decline, cultural and indeed criminal reactions in their attempts to halt it, alongside the development of these new networks which allow us all to create our own media landscape, mean the changes happening here are fast, and their consequences far-reaching. The most important is that it is much harder to set an agenda, because the agenda setters now include, to greater or lesser degrees, all of us with access to a phone or a laptop.

Listen to this quote, then guess who said it. ‘We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, everybody has an opinion on the internet straight away. Basically the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned. So one of the most important qualities of a good leader now is massive resistance to stress. Under stress you become smaller and smaller until you cannot give out a message any more and that, of course, is something that is vital. Many people underestimate this challenge.’ Pat yourself on the back if you said Arsene Wenger.

And this from Bill Clinton: ‘Too many decision makers define their reality according to that day’s media. It is almost always a mistake.’

Yet so many make that mistake.

When a government or company contacts me, I assume two things – they have a problem, and they think it is communications.

So I go and see their key people with plain white postcards. And on each one are the words ‘The main objective of our organization is …’ and I ask them to end that sentence. Then I give them another postcard, and it says

‘The strategy to meet our objective is …’ and I ask them to fill that out too. Then I gather them in. And nine times out of ten, I gather in a stack of different objectives, strategies which are tactics, or strategies which are objectives, and I say to them … ‘you don’t have a spin problem, you have a reality problem.’

So instead of worrying about spin, we should worry about strategy. Instead of worrying about coverage, we should worry about reputation.

Audience interaction time … Generally speaking, gut reaction, hands up if you think Richard Branson has a good reputation? (Sea of hands goes up) Hands up for bad. (None.) Even after all that has happened recently.

Hands up if you think Rupert Murdoch has a good reputation? (None) Bad? (Lots) So there is a man with control over more print and more airtime than anyone on earth, but he has lost control over his own reputation. Think about that.

As a CEO skims the FT in the back of the car on the way to work, he should reflect: Youtube has more video content uploaded each month than the three main US networks broadcast in fifty years, Linkedin, with over 200million users, had two people joining every second between 2012-13. Instagram had 150 million global users in late 2013 representing an increase of 15percent in just two months. 93percent of marketers use social media for business and 70percent say they have used Facebook successfully to gain new customers. If you’re not on social media, you are dislocated from your markets. You are simply the subject of other people’s opinions, whether right or wrong, about your business. If you’re there, you can help shape the dialogue, demonstrating a willingness to engage and explain, building trust and, crucially, shortening the gap between the institution and the audience. It may all seem tactical. Social media used properly is a modern strategic tool.

The job of a leader now is not just to execute a strategy but to narrate it, using all means available, internal and external, the two hopefully in harmony.

Yet 68 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence at all. Many feel that social media represents a poor return on time and investment. Others lack the confidence to engage and fear a hostile response.

However, the greatest risk posed by social media in today’s world is being absent from the conversation.

Customers, shareholders, employees, media and activists all have an expectation of transparency, and engagement. Maintaining a licence to operate relies on audiences being able to understand what your company stands for — in good times and in bad. This means communicating the values and mission of the organisation as well as its operational performance.

Moreover, the recent BRANDfog study suggests that social CEOs can strengthen brands, build trust in products and services, demonstrate brand values and communicate accountability.

I talked about reputation as currency. That means there is a reputation bank. Branson has built up his capital. Murdoch has eroded it. Branson can get the benefit of doubt. Murdoch can’t.

The key to the social media profile of both is indeed authenticity. They have authorial presence which is recognisable. Branson’s plays to his strengths. Murdoch’s plays to what he thinks are his strengths. There is a difference. Because in this new world you need strategy and authenticity to be aligned. The reason Murdoch’s reputation has gone is because of the values and mission piece. Not so Branson.

Content provides the standout advantage, not platform. It is all about content. So understand the medium and don’t trivialise it or delegate to the intern. Politicians will take hours, days even, to write a speech that will be heard by a hundred people in a hall, yet still you find those who cannot see the benefit – to them and to democratic debate –of engagement on social networks

So let’s look at Modi.

His campaign broke new ground not just for India, but for the entire world. He won big. ‘How?’ It was a triumph for boldness of ambition, brilliance in innovation, and in the gathering and use of data. I don’t know if you call it spin, or PR, or marketing, or any of the other labels of modern comms, but he was brilliant at it.

He understood that to win, you must make the weather. So creating Brand Modi was a deliberate strategic choice. When the elections were announced, voters were blitzed with print, television and radio advertising that emphasized simple themes and policy issues. Modi recorded messages which were sent to over 100 million phones. His twitter following rose past five million. He had ten million ‘likes’ on Facebook. It was one of the biggest mass mobilization efforts anywhere on earth, ever.

Modi has a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the most hologramed event ever, when he spoke in the flesh to one audience while his hologram spoke to 128 audiences totalling more than 1.5 million people all over India.

As thousands flocked to the hologram, supporters combed the crowds to establish who they were, what their interests were. Because the platforms were the route to people.

This data was used both to get those people more active, but also to shape the messaging of the rest of the campaign. Spin? Strategy? A mix? Don’t know. It worked though.

I did some work recently with a foreign political leader who asked the question ‘how do I do the right thing and stay popular?’

My answer was that ‘you do the right thing.’ But you do it within a clear strategic framework, you engage the public in a much more sustained way, so that OVER TIME your messages get through, OVER TIME your changes are understood and they deliver, and OVER TIME people become much more reasonable in their analysis. What you do is more important than what you say, but what you say about what you do will help you if you are doing the right thing. Every time you do or you say, you land a dot.

This is the key here, and it answers directly the question about whether spin is dead. In the way the media still talk of it, obsessively analyzing tactics and day to day handling, yes. But in terms of the need for strategic communications, I think that is needed more than ever. Precisely because the media landscape is so atomized, it is a waste of time and energy to worry too much about what people will say and do in response to what you say and do. What you say and do is all you can control. And once you have that mindset, it is wonderfully liberating.

One of the things that alarms me when I go into Westminster is how much of the conversation is driven by a very insiderish old media prism. Clinton is so right, and yet you only have to look at the way Cameron operates to see someone driven this way and that, pulled this way and that, by constantly changing tactical demands rather than a sense of strategy on key issues and key objectives. Every day on the news, about something, usually not the same thing as the day before, but every day it is a priority, he is passionate about it, he won’t rest until he has dealt with it. Compare and contrast Angela Merkel, for example. Vorsprung durch Strategie.

For business, it’s the same thing: the pressures are to be tactical, so be strategic. What’s happening is the convergence of corporate reputation and consumer behaviour. If customers suffer a bad experience, their stories can be shared and amplified online and picked up by the mainstream media, policy-makers and regulators. And, in turn, if brands are seen to behave poorly as a corporate entity, people now have the ability to connect and create mass movements against them. Google, Apple, Starbucks, Nestlé, Vodafone, Facebook. People may love what they do and give, but they also want to know whether they respect their customers, pay their taxes, use slave labour, cut down forests or whatever. The only way to avoid this is to tackle the reality that can give the bad consumer experience or the bad reputation.

The ability to self publish and make digital links across normal boundaries gives the opportunity for new players to emerge and become important voices. So it is not that spin is dead, far from it, there is more of it than ever, but the traditional spin doctor may be.

In old media, you need someone to deliver messages since the mechanism was relationship-based (you needed to know journalists). These days the relationship can be direct to the audience and journalists are to some extent simply a significant part of the end audience. The public are far more important. Always were, but before we needed an operator to get in touch for us. Now there is a direct line.

That direct appeal seems more authentic when done with a convincing voice, and the stumbles of celebrities when they do their own Twitter PR shows that to be the case (Rio Ferdinand and his ‘sket’ abuse, for example). It actually helps when they get it wrong; so many top footballer Twitter feeds are nothing more than a series of PR plugs, but Rio’s occasional abuse of Ashley Cole and the odd user makes it more authentic and, if he ever needs it, will be a far more powerful tool in a reputational crisis.

It’s not a big leap to imagine PR companies deliberately saying ‘wrong’ things to portray a client as a maverick and the account as ‘real’. Fake authenticity, now that is Mensa level spin.

But real authenticity is better. And if it emerges from a real and enduring strategy, you have a fighting chance of surviving and prospering in a media landscape totally transformed not just from the time I was a journalist but also the time I left Downing Street a decade a go. Strategy. Authenticity. Engagement. The new SAE in a post postal world.

As to how much more change will there be in the next decade?

It took the telephone 75 years to reach 50 million users, the radio 38 years, TV 13 years. It took the web 4 years. It took the Angry Birds space app 35 days. Interesting times. Thank you for listening, I will now take your questions on this or anything else.


  • Ehtch

    I think your reputation is built on media spin rather than government departmental political spin. The latter has always happened, and I think the Tories deploy it much more, as their lies with issues arising surrounding the coal mining dispute of the 1980s, in which details are now emerging from secretly hidden, due to 30 year rulings (as well as certain other things!!).

    Anyway, the London based media, on average, have always had it in for Labour, and the other regions of the UK, Liverpool being a case in point, at one time especially. That is what makes the Daily Mail such a disgusting shallow rag.

    And yes, the village water pump morning gossip point has evolved into something phenomenally bigger, we could fairly say.

  • michellegoodall

    Really enjoyed your presentation this morning Alistair. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Your observations on political leaders being pulled different ways by the tactical details of politics today and quote “In business the pressures are tactical but the response has to be strategic.” certainly resonated with me and many in the audience.

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  • Gillian C.

    Is ‘spin’ dead in the era of social media?

    No, not entirely. But it’s certainly not as effective as it used to be. People are much more questioning these days and quite rightly so.

    The alternative media has been a revelation, because when they report on something they will invariably offer proof of what they are reporting on. Discernment is still required of course, especially with some sites. But most people can still manage to discern truth from BS.

    This is where the old mainstream or presstitute media falls down big time. Mainstream TV news is the biggest culprit for spinning, slanting and downright lying. Many people simply do not trust them anymore and with good reason.

    Newspapers are slightly, only slightly better than the TV news channels. I think this maybe because people tend to sue newspapers if they get things wildly wrong.

    It’s remarkable how nearly all the well known national daily newspapers seem to be owned and run by such establishment toadying shysters.
    It was ever thus I suppose.

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  • reaguns

    “how else do they get the A listers on?”

    For some reason my brain read that as “How else do they get the Alastairs on?” and I thought “Get over yourself!” then I realised the fault lay not with Alastair.

    I didn’t know Alastair had got in a fight with a boyband member, good work!

    Wonder if any would-be-rebellious labour MPs can relate similar stories of a bust up with Alastair, followed by mysterious unrelated leg injuries lol!

  • reaguns

    “Clooney over-performed with women of a certain age on the West Coast, for instance”

    I bet he did!

    I’ll get me coat…

  • reaguns

    I am glad to see the Uber Spin Doctor recognise that what you do counts far more than what you say.

    Like the website person, when I asked him what would help my friend’s website get more hits and go further up the google rankings “Good content”.

    I wonder, would Alastair say that in his time with TB in No 10, that spin was still important, or more important then, or would he argue that TB did “do good things” as well as spin about things, or a bit of both?

    • Ehtch

      You do carry on reaguns, like an old Sid James film. Your comments are quite naïve, unless you have a personal or “other” mission, that is. If you think Alastair is the King of Spindonia, then you were born yesterday, if you don’t mind me saying.

      • reaguns

        I don’t mind you saying Ehtch, but can I point out I didn’t say Alastair started it (Bernard Ingham and press secretaries stretching as far back at least as Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon did it.)

        Presentation is important, and that in a way is what the spin doctor function is. If you build a great car or great website, you still have to make it look good in order to sell it.

        Or look at the Jon Snow / Cathy Newman articles re newsreader attire of the past few days – they do both recognise that it is important to present well.

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  • Lovely to meet you last week Alastair – and thank you for sharing your talk here for me to read again at my leisure.

  • Plappers

    Why use the example of Murdoch there and not Bliar? Could there be a better example than that?