The secrets of being a king maker

If you fancy riding the waves of power, but do not want to be at the helm, one of the most high profile jobs you can do is that of a spin doctor. We assess the opportunities and risks of being a modern day king maker

Spin doctors through the ages
It is fashionable, in fact almost mandatory, to bemoan the spin doctoring that goes on at the heart of governments and businesses across the world. But despite the current wave of criticism, the position of spin doctor has existed for thousands of years – even if the job title itself is new.

Moses: God may have devised the Ten Commandments, but He got Hebrew lawgiver Moses to spread The Word. Fortunately, technology has advanced since then, with palmtop computers replacing tablets of stone.

Nicolo Machiavelli: the 15th century Italian philosopher is a man much admired by modern spinners. His belief that the end justifies the means has become the creed of his modern-day disciples – although they would use all of their linguistic skills to persuade you otherwise.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin: The Russian holy man and courtier could also be described as a spin doctor. At a time when the Russian royal family was held in contempt by the peasants, Rasputin established himself as a man of the people within the Tsar’s camp. This was good for both him and Tsar Nicholas. Rasputin wielded tremendous political influence until it became all too much for the Russian aristocrats who then murdered him.

Today’s spin doctors
The popular image of the modern spin doctor is that of a shadowy henchman to the glossy politician – the person who does the dirty work while the leader enjoys the veneer of respectability. In fact, spin doctors are an important conduit between the media and the seat of power.

Nowadays, most spin doctors have press backgrounds and prefer to speak in the language of the newsroom. An understanding of what the media wants is essential if spin doctors are to help or hinder them in their efforts.

The techniques of spin
There are two basic methods used by spin doctors. There is the brusque, no-nonsense delivery of facts – what is said goes and anyone who questions it is plainly stupid. And there is the quieter, more charming insinuation of information and off-the-record damning with faint praise. The best spinners combine both methods, tailoring their performance according to what they want to achieve and how much trouble their boss is in at the time.

A classic spinner’s move is to distract the press from a story that could potentially damage their boss by issuing a straightforward, neutral story. Some of the very best spinners protect themselves by not restricting their belligerent style to times of crisis. A little judicious bullying when things are going well helps to blur the differences between good and bad news delivery.

But even the best and most experienced spinners recognize that the message is easier to convey convincingly if the brand being promoted – whether a politician or a company – is itself strong.

A breed that never dies
As the importance of the media has increased, so has the importance of the spin doctor – with their skills becoming increasingly highly prized and highly rewarded. Any business or government under media scrutiny understands the value of an effective spin doctor.

In recent years, the private sector has begun to see the marketing value of effective press relations and many press officers from the public and political sectors have made highly lucrative transfers to the commercial world. As many former members of government have found, there is a lot of money to be made in the outside world after a lengthy apprenticeship serving the public good.

The danger for spin doctors is that they are expendable, especially when what they do reflects badly on their boss. So beware, or like Rasputin you could end up being the sacrificial lamb.

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