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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

‘Contextualizing’ v. Spin – Is There a Difference?

Toyota’s woes continue. On the same day they called a “Day of Reflection” on the two years of seemingly unending recalls totaling in the millions of cars –more than 2 million additional vehicles were added to the heap. Sometimes, news stories just write themselves! (Here’s one from the Associated Press )


So, as a professional communications advisor, what would you say to Toyota? Just throw up your hands and tell them that the deck is stacked just too high against them and all they can do is wait it out? Of course not. But, what can a Toyota spokesperson say? What possible twist or positive light can they shine on this ironic timing?


Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons gave it a try. Regarding the additional recalls, he said: “While our actions up to now have led to a substantial reduction in reports of acceleration concerns, we mutually agreed that Toyota would take these additional steps to help ensure that acceleration concerns are further reduced." Some might conclude that Mr. Lyons is trying to twist or spin the story by inserting the mention of fewer incident reports before confirming that they are going along with the additional recall. Others would contend that it is perfectly reasonable to provide context in your answer.


Ah, so it’s not spin, it’s ‘contextualizing.’


Is there a difference? If so, what is it? At CommCore, we believe there is a difference. Spin is when a speaker attempts to change a definition or reality through avoidance and distraction. The worst kind of spin is when the spokesperson ignores the question altogether. This is the person who tells you the grass is green when you asked if the sky was blue! Thank you for that, but can we get back to my question about the sky? Contextualizing is the coupling of facts or perspective with a response that directly addresses the question.


Spin hurts the spokesperson and the organization he or she represents. Not just because it is usually transparent, but because even the most fair-minded and deferential readers (and bloggers, viewers and listeners) assume the worst when they hear spin. Let’s say, for example, that Mr. Lyons attempted to fully spin away from the question about the additional recalls and just mentioned the progress Toyota is making on prior safety problems. Readers would certainly determine that this is spin and that Mr. Lyons wishes to avoid directly answering the question and confirming the recall. But, we believe the reader could take it a step further. Perhaps Toyota is not fully cooperating with the NHTSA. Perhaps they don’t believe these additional steps are necessary. Perhaps they aren’t putting the safety of their customers first after all. This is a natural, cynical cascade that occurs in a reader’s mind when they spot spin.


This distinction between spin and contextualizing is not unique to Toyota’s communications. Every spokesperson facing an issue or crisis has a choice to make: Do I attempt to twist and distract from the truth (spinning), or do I take the truth head-on while looking for opportunities to add in fair frame-working (contextualizing).


With properly constructed and legitimate “contextualizing,” most readers will simply recognize that the spokesperson is trying to add a fair and relevant point while also directly addressing the question - and hoping the reader will consider this before he/she passes judgment. For the most part, we believe that this practice of contextualizing is largely deemed acceptable and does not damage the credibility – or further damage the reputation – of the spokesperson or his organization. In fact, it may well enhance the statement.


What do you think? Do consumers of media differentiate between spin and contextualizing? Does it depend on their personal experience with the brand? What other examples have you seen?

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