Edifying is the last word you would use to describe the launch of Damian McBride’s book this week to tie in with the Labour Party conference. Shameless would be a good word, along with many others, to describe the round of interviews he’s participated in to make himself some money.
Interviews that the media have lapped up so that they can try to verbally beat up their own bete noire, a spin doctor from bygone days.
The irony of the media accusing him of being money grabbing and publicity hungry whilst they help to feed both beasts has not been lost on many people, but what do the events of the past few days say about communicators?
McBride’s revelations, although not all new, highlight a range of despicable antics to smear senior figures in the previous Government in order to promote and protect the career aspirations of then Chancellor Gordon Brown. McBride leaked and manipulated stories about the personal lives of Cabinet Members, and at the time considered such actions fair game. Spin and smear were the order of his day, and this week has revived the spin doctor moniker. But did it ever really exist? Is there such a thing as spin?
You can argue that what is described as spin is just a description of something we all do every day, presenting ourselves in a positive way. It is an automatic impulse to try and project ourselves to others in a good way, and this is considered fine as long as we don’t make things up. So if we do the same thing with information about the organisations we represent as we do about ourselves then why did it become known as spin, and why did this become and remain a pejorative term?
I work for a local authority, and communications is one of the functions I am responsible for. I have also worked in the voluntary sector too, holding a number of communications roles. But I would never describe myself as a spin doctor, and I have never engaged in the dark arts from which McBride is currently profiting. I would also never tell lies, either of my own volition or if I was asked. And everyone I’ve worked with in communications teams has acted in a similar way. We may get things wrong from time to time, but a mistake is very different from a lie, and spin has become synonymous with lies.
McBride’s confessional approach to making a fast buck has taken cynicism to a new level, and has once again damaged the reputation of communications as a discipline. Whilst we all now use many different media through which to communicate, his hushed conversations with journalists in the back rooms of pubs are the enduring remnants of his grubby activities, and sadly tarnish us all.
I for one don’t accept that communications is about manipulation, to me it’s about information, engagement, and conversations that can help people in their daily lives. Effective communication is a force for good, so we should all use the skills we’ve developed both to promote our discipline and condemn the malevolent actions that McBride has made famous.
And please don’t buy his book.