During the 1990s and 2000s there was one thing that dominated government and modern life. Something that had not existed in preceding years, and marked a new era in both government and wider communication. It was boosted by the cult of celebrity that took hold across society. What was it? The art of ‘spin’. A particular off shoot of public relations that took its basis in total control of information.
Spin was, and still is, a blight on the life of the public relations and communication professional. It is what defined a generation of experts who were seen as manipulators, deceivers and above all liars. A tough billing to live down. This was an era of communication without honesty and integrity. It was developed at the hands of government departments that grew and grew as they attempted to manage all communication particularly that publicised through the media. And we watched it develop, grow and mature in the past 20 years.
Now, in the space of three short months the world has changed dramatically. We have a new style of communication which is almost brutal in its honesty. There is no room for ‘spin’ or even to manage the release of information in a slick and polished way. The ConDem Government appear to be quite content to remain unpopular with a series of cuts to budgets across departments. This is a world where cuts are made and then people are told they have lost their job, no sugar to ease the medicine. It is a ‘this is life, so just accept it’ approach. Every morning people wake up and hear stark news about their situation and the government communication machine is almost silent as it is just about the information. This is the same approach seen by David Cameron on his recent trade tour of India where he felt able to say exactly what he wanted about the neighbouring Pakistan. No thought to the wider diplomatic impact that it would have.
Not surprising then that government communication departments are being cut and are having their budgets slashed. The generation of excess in communication is now over and the austerity being seen in all aspects of life is now part of the day-to-day of public relations of the wider public sector. I mean why should we bother to explain to people why the National Policing Improvement Agency is being replaced, or why health agencies and quangos are being axed. It can all be put down to one thing – the recession, we have to save money so this must go.
One of the big questions that lingers on the sidelines is what happens when the cuts have been made, the jobs have been lost, and the books are starting to balance. What do we do with communication then? Will we continue to have a brutal, honest approach to explaining what is taking place? And what will be the reason for the decisions that are made when we can no longer place the responsibility at the feet of the recession. People now have access to a whole range of information at the touch of a button. Something that was making the world of information control a dying art. Social media and the ability to make your views known instantly are a significant challenge to current and future governments.
The current government’s ‘Big Society’ seems to signpost the future for communication. It is about developing the conversation with the public to a point that they answer the challenging questions for you. They are the ones making the decisions, running the services and defining the future. So, it can only be expected that they become the people who can explain why cuts are made and other areas developed. Central government continues to abrogate its responsibility for the society and the way it develops. Instead, we entrust it to a whole host of people, and failure? Well, that has to then be shouldered by those well-meaning people. If we fail, we all fail, from government through to the public.
So, don’t mourn for the loss of the art of ‘spin’ it’s death may be exaggerated. The coming years may see it emerge stronger and leaner as it finds a way to promote state achievements as part of government success, whilst deflecting responsibility for any failures or shortcomings to the wider populus of the country. It is not so much the death of ‘spin’ as that it is spending some time on a reality TV show reinventing itself to re-emerge in a new more modern, leaner and acceptable form.