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Corporate spin works on the inside as well as to the buying public

By N E Hanratty - posted Tuesday, 28 October 2003

The Hutton enquiry into whether the British Government "sexed up" the dossier used to justify Britain’s participation in the war on Iraq has prompted some comparison with the attitude of the public here in Australia but not nearly enough. The comparisons made between the hot British bitterness and our own apparent apathy at being misled by the government have been perfunctory and usually framed in terms of the "Howard’s Luck" argument; i.e., having cornered the market on luck, Howard didn’t need to contend with the death of a single Australian soldier, let alone the death of a scientist far removed from the battlefield.

Yet there are several curious points about the varying public reactions that are worthy of deeper consideration. One such point is the absence in Australia of even a terminology with which to discuss the practice of manipulation. The term "spin", uttered so casually in Britain, has never really been adopted in Australia. As for the older "propaganda", say it to anyone here and they start looking round nervously for people in white coats and syringes. Probably the closest we’ve got to referring to the phenomenon, at least in the political realm, is the wonderfully expressive, if oblique, "kids overboard".

However, while it may not be named or given due attention in Australia, spin, propaganda, or whatever we want to call it, conditions our relations here just as surely as it conditions relations in Britain and elsewhere. And not simply relations between government and citizen. For example, the practice of spin now saturates a relation one might have thought immune, namely, the relation between a corporation and its employees. One might have thought this relation immune because while the customers, shareholders and other stakeholders of a corporation may be susceptible to some massaging of facts and figures, the employees of the corporation, being as they are, "on the inside", would not. And indeed, this turns out to be the case. Employees are not susceptible to spin, far from it. However, in many corporations in Australia, huge effort is being expended in defiance of this fact.


At this very moment, in large corporations across the land, battalions of workers known as "employee communication managers" are churning out communication plans. These are schedules specifying when, what and how a corporation will "communicate" with a target audience; in this case, its own employees. This might sound innocuous enough except that in this context, "communication" is equivalent to "spin" (even Tony Blair’s recently deposed spin merchant, Alistair Campbell, bore the title "Communications Director"). In fact, the practice of employee communications today provides a model of how spin works, or doesn’t work, more generally. In particular, it illustrates five aspects:

  1. there is an exponential growth in the volume of "messages";
  2. messages are conveyed by specialised staff;
  3. it is predicated on an adversarial paradigm;
  4. the message comes to be seen as a substitute for action; and
  5. it invariably produces alienation, anxiety and stupefaction in the audience.

Until quite recently, messages conveyed from one part of a corporation to another were predictable and consisted of two basic types – procedural messages and strategic messages. Procedural messages were prompted by changes to products, changes to systems and processes, or changes to legislation and other regulations. Typically, such messages were conveyed by line managers and their purpose was to inform employees about how the change would affect their work or perhaps to train employees. Strategic messages, on the other hand, were prompted by events, for example, the publication of Accounts, acquisitions, closures, and so on. Typically, such messages were rare, they were conveyed by senior management and their purpose was to inform, reassure or promote a sense of belonging in employees.

In 2003, the situation is vastly different. In large organisations such as banks, telecommunications companies, and legal and accounting firms, "front-line" employees are bombarded by messages, many of which are no longer easily classified as either procedural or strategic. Such messages are now devised and often also conveyed by literally hundreds of specialised communications staff. Typically, their purpose, though unstated, is to persuade, cajole, indeed, threaten employees.

This points to one of the factors driving the exponential increase in messages. Corporations communicate more frequently with their employees because they are fearful. They are fearful of the potentially lethal combination of an increasingly jaundiced, distrusting workforce and the greater risks associated with regulatory non-compliance. Thus, rather than convey a message once, they do so over and over again and using a variety of media or "channels". Another factor driving the exponential increase in messages is the technological determinist one; i.e., corporations communicate more frequently with their employees because, with the spread of email and intranet, they can. Third, there is the vicious-circle factor. Because there is a greater volume of messages in general (due to the ease of communicating, the repetition of messages to minimise non-compliance, and so on), any particular message (i.e., the "signal"), now has to compete against a sea of "noise". Accordingly, each signal has to become more strident which, again, means it is repeated several times in several ways.

The paradigm on which communications within corporations is now predicated has also changed. Whereas previously the employees of a corporation were viewed as indivisible from the corporation – employees were the corporation – today, they are viewed as quite distinct entities. Indeed, employees are often viewed as another liability. The adversarial paradigm underlying this is illustrated by the conception of the employees as a target audience. It is also illustrated by the fact that many of those hired to run these communication programs within corporations are journalists or marketing and public relations specialists. Hardly surprising then that these professionals diligently set about attempting to apply the principles of marketing, more properly used with an external audience, to an internal audience.


It’s also hardly surprising that once marketing principles start being applied within corporations, the message comes to be seen as a substitute for action. Take the example of a major, listed company, who after foisting a highly unsatisfactory and unpopular computer system onto its employees, was looking to recruit an Employee Communications Manager to handle "issues management". That is, the company was not looking for someone to address the complaints of the users (for example, by identifying faults and negotiating with the interested parties which to tackle first), but for someone to deflect and dissolve them.

What is the effect of all this communication activity within corporations, all this spin? Why, the same as it is in other fields such as politics. No longer able to see the nexus between messages and events or changes, no longer conceived as part of the corporation but rather, a target audience, no longer able to digest and respond to directives because of the ceaseless threat of further messages, the employees of the corporation become alienated, anxious and stupefied. Which leads one to the conclusion that the sooner we start calling and analysing spin more publicly, the better.

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About the Author

N. E. Hanratty has recently completed a thesis with Monash University on the topic of ontology, the branch of philosophy concerned with what it means for something to be. In the world we take to be real, she is also Managing Director of the consultancy, Plain English Publications Pty Ltd.

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