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HETRICK: Spouting off about the all-too-common art of spin

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Bruce Hetrick

Last year, my wife and I were planning a business trip to Manhattan. Some friends suggested we beg, borrow or steal to get tickets to “The Book of Mormon,” a musical by the creators of “South Park.”

Our friends also advised that we visit the theater rest rooms immediately before curtain. They found the show so funny that bladder control was a problem.

The show was hilarious—fully deserving of our friends’ warning and the nine Tony awards it garnered in 2011.

One of our favorite songs from the show, “Making Things Up,” might as well be a treatise on current events.

The song is sung by one of the show’s lead characters—a John Belushi-like Mormon missionary named Elder (Arnold) Cunningham with support from Cunningham’s father, LDS founder Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni and others in the Ugandan village where Cunningham has been a missionary.

Elder Cunningham has never actually read The Book of Mormon. So he concocts stories that combine church doctrine with bits from “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Lord of the Rings” and other unlikely sources.

After sharing this “holy” hodgepodge with Ugandan villagers, Cunningham is found out by his father and church officials.

“I just told a lie,” sings Cunningham. “No, wait, I didn’t lie. I just used my imagination, and it worked!”

“You’re making things up again, Arnold,” sings his father.

“But it worked, Dad!” sings Cunningham.

“Don’t be a Fibbing Fran, Arnold,” sings Joseph Smith. “Because a lie is a lie.”

“It’s not a lie!” sings Cunningham.

“Be careful how you proceed, Arnold,” sing his father, Joseph Smith, Angel Moroni and others. “When you fib, there’s a price.”

“I’m making things up again … kind of,” Cunningham finally admits. “But this time, it’s helping a dozen people! I’m talking, they’re listening. My stories are glistening. I’m gonna save them all with this stuff!”

Thus, justification for “making things up.”

––––––––

I’m a public relations professional.

At its best, my profession uses credible two-way communication to build relationships with people who are vital to our clients’ success.

At its worst, PR pretenders are spin doctors—manipulating, distorting, fabricating and otherwise “making things up.”

And in the theater of politics, sports and other arenas, the rationalization is often: “That’s how you help people. That’s how you win.”

Spinning is nothing new. Back in October 1984, when former Vice President Walter Mondale was debating incumbent President Ronald Reagan, a New York Times editorial predicted: “A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates.”

“The spin room” has been alive ever since.

But what’s getting spun these days cuts deeper and wider than debates.

On Oct. 17, for example, cycling’s Lance Armstrong stepped down as chairman of the Livestrong cancer-fighting foundation he established. His tainted image as a doper, cheater, liar and fraud was simply too much risk for any cause, no matter how worthy.

Moments later, news broke that Nike had severed its long-standing sponsorship of Armstrong.

I went upstairs and tossed my last “Livestrong” bracelet.

For years, I’ve been spun.

That same day, I learned that Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (or, more likely, his spin doctors) had been caught faking empathy for the homeless.

An image of Ryan and family allegedly performing public service at a St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio, turned out to be Ryan and family “cleaning” already-clean cookware at an empty facility.

With a phony photo op, we’d been spun.

In a presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney answered a question about equal pay for women by boasting about the “binders full of women” he’d requested when considering cabinet members and department heads for Massachusetts state government.

Only problem: A story in the Boston Phoenix revealed that the women’s resumes were not, in fact, requested by Romney. They had been assembled before that year’s election by women’s organizations, of their own volition, for presentation to whichever candidate won the governor’s race.

Taking credit for others’ effort and ideas is spin of the lowest order.

Whether you wax Republican or Democrat, are a cycling fan or an office gossip, you’ll have your own examples of spin.

The problem, of course, is that too many citizens aren’t sufficiently educated, aren’t paying attention, lack the historical context, see only what they want to see, or simply don’t care enough to discern fact from fiction.

And were it not for the Internet, the spinners would get away with even more than they already do.

They say ignorance is bliss—especially to those willing to make things up in some self-delusional quest to help others.•

__________

•Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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