The Science of Spin

Posted by: Matthew Boyle on March 20, 2009

Many observers feel that AIG’s actions surrounding the revelation of its disbursal of $165 million in bonuses were a major PR blunder. But communications consultant Alan Kelly has more precise terms for what AIG CEO Ed Liddy did: The “Red Herring” and the “Recast.” Kelly, an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and former PR adviser to CEOs like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, has spent the past several years analyzing the various PR moves employed by companies, politicians, and executives. The result: A periodic table of spin that brings a much-needed sense of analytical rigor and discipline to a much-derided craft that’s historically more art than science.

Kelly's table consists of 25 PR "plays" or moves, grouped into three main categories (assess, condition, and engage) and eight subcategories. The plays, Kelly says, encompass the entire spectrum of PR maneuvers available, from the defensive "pause" (a deliberate suspension of activity to assess the opposition) to the swift and decisive "pre-empt," a kind of PR judo that limits your opponent's ability to exploit a weakness. President Obama is a master of the pre-empt, Kelly says, using it when he brings up the fact that some conservatives call him a socialist or a Muslim.

Then there's the "Crazy Ivan," a PR move of last resort where one deliberately invites an attack in the hopes of altering that attack. (Fans of Tom Clancy's "Hunt for Red October" would recognize this.) Sen. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate was such a move, Kelly says.

Another oft-used play is the "peacock," an unusual action employed to spur chatter in the market. Richard Branson is a master of this, and Oprah Winfrey’s unsolicited and unexpected giveaway of 276 GM cars to a stunned daytime studio audience in 2004 was a textbook peacock play.

Not all PR plays take the offensive, though. One common one is the "disco," a concession made in order to preserve or advance your overall agenda. Nike did this when it finally engaged its critics and issued a mea culpa over its Asian sweatshops, for example. Another is the "bear hug," whereby a company openly supports its opponents' position. When McDonald's stopped offering Super Size meals during the uproar over the movie "Super Size Me," the fast food giant was doing a bear hug.

AIG's plays were also defensive tactics. The aforementioned "red herring" and "recast" refer to Liddy's telling the government that outside counsel advised that the previously agreed to bonuses at the financial products unit were legal and binding obligations of AIG. When Liddy publicly asked AIG executives to return some of their bonuses, that was a "challenge," in Kelly's analysis.

While it's fun to mess around with Kelly's interactive table and apply it to current crises like the one at AIG, the real value here for CEOs, Kelly feels, is to use the table, and the accompanying case studies on companies like General Motors and Wal-Mart, to hold their in-house PR team to a higher standard of measurement and performance.

"We know how much reputation matters to a company’s brand and how a crisis can change a company’s fortunes," he says. "We are way overdue in taking a hard look at bringing some form to this. There’s real classifiable science behind spin."

As for which companies or CEOs are the best "playmakers," Kelly, not surprisingly, notes Ellison, his former client, whose tirades against Microsoft, SAP, and other rivals were legendary. Apple's Steve Jobs is another great playmaker. As for companies, Kelly says that Wal-Mart is good, General Motors is getting better, while Exxon is horrible. "They're just copying BP's message," which, in Kelly's estimation, is a classic "crowd" play.

Which PR plays are most useful during a recession? Notably, Kelly thinks that companies need to deliver dissonant messages that stir debate, rather than striking a conciliatory tone. Even if it risks alienating a small constituency, it's worth it "to create conversations," he argues. "Now is the time when you have to convince customers to stay with you, and you can't do that by being agreeable. If you have a winning argument that causes people to use your product, you want conversations about that. You want real opinions."

Reader Comments

Mike Greece

March 23, 2009 1:46 PM

This leads to the inevitable question....should we create a board game and reality TV show with this knowledge?

Thomas Huynh

March 23, 2009 8:06 PM

I can't help but feel saddened to hear the tactics Alan Kelly proposed here. Whatever happened to substance and real action to build your brand instead of the less substantial and action-less spin? More people may talk but will more of them buy? Companies need to focus most on walking the walk (and employ least spin and talk) and let the quality of their product and customer service speak for themselves ... in a high volume that's outside their control anyway. Look at Google, Apple, GE. May the TRULY best win! Thomas

Realist

March 27, 2009 2:43 AM

So let me get this straight: rather than trying to identify and correct "spin" and other types of bad information, we're making a science out of how to BS people and essentially con them into believing what we want them to believe, facts be damned? Goebbels would be proud - perhaps we could name this new science after him.

Ya think this might have anything to do with why consumer confidence is so low and formerly trusted brands are dying left and right?

Marc

March 31, 2009 6:17 PM

Thomas and Realist:

You're missing the point entirely. All of Kelly's strategies have been happening right under your noses for years. If anything, consumer confidence would go up if consumers referenced the table to understand exactly how Kelly's plays are affecting them.

As I check out the "Playmaker's Table", all it does is simply organize and classify what's been going on for millenia--but what most people have been either too lazy to figure out themselves or too busy to care about.

Denis

December 23, 2009 6:04 AM

"This leads to the inevitable question....should we create a board game and reality TV show with this knowledge?" :)
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