Demystifying the PR Spin Cycle

The Advertising and PR fraternities have a long history of, at times, being highly creative with the truth. From clean coal to cigarettes that are ‘less harmful’; photoshop and instagram filters to fake news; it’s any wonder consumer trust in organisations is on a steady decline.

The internet and social media may have democratised the information of the world; but when spin is woven through your news feeds and sponsored news content, how do you really know what to believe?

With critical thinking becoming an unfashionable relic, it’s time we took a look at the most prevalent forms of the PR spin cycle and why washing your dirty laundry in a crisis is a very bad idea.


One of the oldest and — ironically dirtiest — tactics in the industry is “whitewashing” which occurs when the inconvenient truths of a brand, product or person are glossed over, covered up and washed away in the PR spin cycle.

The tobacco industry is a prime example of decades of whitewashing a harmful product, first providing an illusion of support toward the research of harm and then in harm minimisation. New ‘vaping’ technology promise further ‘harm reduction’ when the truth is, it’s still tobacco, it might be somewhat less harmful, but it will likely contribute to ill health and death all the same.


If you’ve ever wondered just how much cleaner ‘clean coal’ actually is you’re not alone. In fact, the words “clean + coal” generally confuse people — and that’s entirely the aim.

Greenwashing an otherwise ordinary product gives it the allure of having more environmentally friendly properties or eco-alignment than is actually the case.

In one of the biggest corporate frauds of the century, car maker VW greenwashed its advertising to sell cars that were not nearly as environmentally friendly as was claimed.

VW aren’t alone — with brands clambering to establish a foothold in the burgeoning ‘Eco-Friendly’ and ‘Organic’ lifestyle marketplaces where they can charge more for products that don’t always meet customer or environmental expectations.

Pinkwashing – LGBTI-friendly or Breast Cancer support

If you’ve ever wondered what the link is between the pride flag and a product, or the way it’s marketed to the LGBTI audience – pinkwashing is behind it. Similarly, the breast cancer pink ribbon icon placed on packaging has become a beacon of brand charitable alignment, whether or not proceeds actually do make it to the charities supporting breast cancer research.

It should be noted that in many cases, pinkwashing advertising for LGBTI audiences has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly around Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras and Pride marches around the country.

ANZ bank’s GAYTM campaign is a great example of how advertising can be used to promote social cohesion and diversity. Not withstanding is the fact that they’d like the LGBTI community to bank with them as a result.

Why the PR spin cycle is disastrous during and after a crisis

While getting ahead of the news media narrative is a savvy move, you can’t outrun the truth with a lie. The lie may put you in a holding pattern for a period of time, but when the truth catches up — and catches you out — the resultant reputational damage will be far worse the second time around because your audience will realise you knowingly set out to deceive them.

Similarly, half-baked forced apologies and demonstrations of a lack of accountability have the same effect. At a time when your leadership and communications prowess must be on full display, telling the truth — however unpalatable that may be — is a strategy that will maintain consumer and stakeholder confidence.

People expect more from leaders than the old smoke and mirrors routine during a crisis. If you own your crisis — admit your shortcomings and failures early on with sincerity — your audience will still get angry BUT they will also feel respected.

And how you leave your audience feeling — respected or like they’ve just been through a PR spin cycle — is key to successfully navigating your organisational out of a crisis.