PR Spin? 12 Shiny New PR Tactics to Avoid

by PR Coach on January 23, 2011

12 new PR spin tactics you should know but avoid

Have you heard about the latest PR spin techniques? No? You’re about to learn 12 shiny new PR tactics you really need to know.

A recent article in Grist looked at the newest “farmwashing” ad campaign by Monsanto. Farmwashing. Great phrase and it reminded me of some old spin favorites and a few new ones growing in popularity though not necessarily PR best practices.

First, a quick review of two old favorites used by some less than ethical PR professionals.

Remember greenwashing? Was it really coined that long ago (1986) by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld? He used it first to describe hotels promoting reuse of towels as “green” when in fact it was an effort to reduce costs. Today, most consumers accept such industry programs as an honest effort to be more environmentally friendly.

The deceptive “green” PR tactics and seductive green marketing strategies are still as popular and very effective judging by promoters of big coal, liquefied natural gas, marginally environmentally friendly vehicles and multinational oil companies. They’ve also moved their campaigns online in a big way.

According to Wikipedia, astroturfing is “political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.”

Favorite tactics? Phony grassroots groups, rent a crowd protesters, “spontaneous” political rallies, mysterious thinktanks, letter writing campaigns and dodgy scientific research studies. Lots of examples historically, and on Capitol Hill every day, including recent opposition to President Obama’s healthcare initiatives.

SourceWatch and the Center for Media and Democracy follow more than 200 front organizations such as: The American Beverage Institute, Center for Consumer Freedom, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, Energy Citizens and the National Wetlands Coalition. But media and the public are becoming more aware and alert to such misrepresentation.

In 2010, we saw several PR agencies charged for illegal activities. It’s a sad comment on the conduct and ethics of some PR professionals. See PR Pros: Liars, Defenders or Public Conscience? for a closer look at these cases. Little wonder Wikileaks is gaining such attention.

But as part of a push for PR transparency, here are a few more recent examples of spin to consider.

Pink washing is a relatively recent phenomena. It can involve marketers exploiting consumer fear of breast cancer in order to sell or promote products by sponsoring events. The practice has become so common that it’s bound up with support for many very good causes. It’s getting harder to define the point where exploitation becomes corporate social responsibility.

Sock puppets are false online identities to give the impression of public support or opposition on the Internet for various causes, ideas or organizations. This is like a personal form of astroturfing using various social media like blogging, Twittering, Facebook and forum posting, and coordinated, widespread personal attacks against opponents or in support of your cause. Variations include strawman sockpuppets, meatpuppets and even sockpuppetry to get favorable posts on Wikipedia.

“Linguistic detoxification” is another tactic used to divert attention, reduce or minimize the negative impressions of some products. Voila.  Toxic “sewage sludge” becomes biosolids. Perfect fertilizer despite the heavy metals, right?.

Other tactics that raise public skepticism about the PR profession include propaganda, disinformation and doublespeak.

None of these tactics are transparent and most contravene PRSA’s code of ethics. Some are also illegal. They do make for fun reading, interesting news stories and fodder for conspiracy theorists and opponents of “spin” and propaganda. Can you spell PR Watch?

Speaking of PR Watch, it recently flagged another amusing descriptive phrase – political “dog-whistling” or using code language in speeches that means one thing to the general public but another to insiders and supporters. Hello Sarah Palin? Trust the political tails wagging the dogs to come up with that one.

What’s interesting is some of the older “washing” tactics have become acceptable, closely bound with some of the positive work that PR pros do. Think corporate social responsibility, cause marketing or environmental initiatives like Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970 and Earth Hour first celebrated in Australia in 2007.

What in some cases began as cynical efforts to misdirect or minimize or an excuse to sell products to the public can have positive outcomes when they’re done responsibly and transparently.

12 Brand-New PR Spin Tactics

12 new PR spin tips

If you liked farmwashing, just for fun, here are 12 shiny new PR spin tactics to look out for in the near future:

  • BrainWashing: back in style, appealing to the lowest common denominator and sponsored by the Tea Party, tobacco makers, breweries, distillers and brought to you by Fox news.
  • CarWashing: automakers trying to convince us their new cars are safer, higher-quality and actually good for the environment.
  • FaceWashing: the absolute belief that you can trust Facebook with your personal information.
  • FoodWashing: don’t worry about saturated fats and genetically modified foods. McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and WalMart will let you know what’s good for you.
  • HandWashing: when consumers finally give up trying to understand changes in healthcare because they can’t see what’s really good for them and media aren’t helping explain the issues. Usually accompanied by HandWringing.
  • iPhoneWashing: there’s no cure for this one. It’s the unrealistic belief that you must buy every new Apple iPhone and the latest iPhone app whether you’ll use it or not. Also accompanied by the self-gratification of iPadWashing and ApplePolishing – the scramble to buy anything Apple releases first even if it means lining up outside the Apple store for 24 hours in a blizzard.
  • MoneyWashing: living beyond your means really is good for you. Priceless and brought to you by American Express, Visa and MasterCard. Not to be confused with Money Laundering.
  • HouseWashing: offering sparkling new, low mortgages for houses people really can’t afford by stimulating the economy, sparking new construction and creating new jobs. Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae back with a vengeance.
  • SkyWashing: yes Virginia, the sky is bluer and cleaner because we’re burning coal, heating and cooking with liquefied natural gas and using nuclear power.
  • WallStreetWashing: Wall Street and high technology investment opportunities abound with Groupon, Google, Quora and whatever else your uncle is selling today.  Can you say high risk, overvalued and Dot-Com Bubble Two?
  • WindowWashing: high-tech companies assuring us we absolutely must have the newest operating system for our computers. Even when they work wonderfully and shouldn’t require us to buy new computers and processors every two years.
  • WikiWashing: Julian Assange’s latest PR campaign to persuade us we should trust him.

These new PR spinwash tactics will make greenwashing and astroturfing seem like child’s play and so old school. So just wash, rinse, spin and repeat. Remember, you read about these new PR tactics here first!

If your sense of humor sometimes gets in the way of your PR strategies, you can read more in our PR Library at Funny, Now That You Mention It. And don’t forget to browse 230+ PR books in our Bookstore open 24 hours a day.

Author:  Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

Photo Credit: Ryan Jorgenson & Mirek Kijewski via Shutterstock

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