Perhaps you have heard the adage “No news is good news.” In contrast, sometimes the news is bad. How are you going to communicate that bad news
Your last employer fired you. You are writing a financial report to stakeholders, and the company is losing money. You were required to perform specific duties and meet objectives, but you didn’t. You have a job to do, and it’s taking longer than expected. You failed a class in your undergraduate program. You have to miss work—again. You need to raise taxes because your budget is too high. Too many patients are dying. Etcetera.
A. The Purpose of Spin
Now you have to put the bad news in writing. One benefit of writing is that you can craft your words very carefully to say what needs to be said, honestly, but in a manner that reduces the negative impact. You can tell the truth, but tell it in a way that gives a better impression than the news deserves. This is called “spin,” or “spinning,” the news.
Sometimes, good news is made to seem like bad news, and this is also spin. Here, however, we are going to discuss 5 strategies for making bad news seem less bad. These are strategies for hiding an unpleasant truth while being completely honest.
1. Replace disparaging terminology and descriptors with positive actions.
You could write, “The company is losing money.” Or you could spin this and write, “The company is reassessing weak revenue streams.” “Losing” is a negative term, but “reassessing” is a positive action.
Instead of writing, “I failed this class,” you could spin this and write “I am strategizing how to attain greater success next semester.” “Failed” is a negative term, but “strategizing” is a positive action.
2. Focus on what was achieved, not on how you failed.
You could write, “We didn’t meet expectations.” Or you could spin this and write, “We nearly met all expectations.” “Didn’t meet” is a sign of failure. “Nearly met” is a sign of progress.
Instead of writing, “18% of all patients died from hospital staff errors,” you could spin this and write, “82% of all patients successfully recovered while at the hospital.”
3. Downplay and disparage criticisms and critics.
You could write, “Harvard economists argue against our budget plan.” Or you could spin this and write, “While some Harvard economists reject our budget plan, others with more direct experience at the national level support our proposals.”
Instead of writing, “Our previous client was upset that we didn’t meet deadlines,” you could spin this and write, “Our previous client had difficulty understanding the time frame needed to produce high quality work.”
4. Understate negative characteristics by stating “not + [extreme positive term].”
You could write, “He thought our writing was awful.” Or you could spin this and write, “He was not completely satisfied with our writing.”
Instead of writing, “The professor was angry at me for arriving late so often,” you could spin this and write, “The professor was mostly, but not entirely, pleased with my attendance habits.”
5. Use big, undefined conceptual terms to minimize the complexity of a situation, uncertainty about the future, or the potential for opposing philosophical perspectives.
You could write, “We are going to require upper and middle class taxpayers to share an increasing percentage of the cost for health insurance for non-taxpayers.” Or you can spin this and write, “We are going to enact legislation to ensure that all citizens are healthy.” [“Healthy” is not defined, but because the focus is on “healthy,” readers may overlook the essential question: “How?”]
Instead of writing, “Our employees are encouraged to keep quiet about any alleged company wrong-doings and face termination without warning if they discredit the company in public,” you could spin this and write, “We encourage employee loyalty.” [The specific meaning of “loyalty” is not defined, though the company’s unspoken policies certainly will produce loyalty—from fear.]
B. Ethical Considerations of Spin
I cannot talk about spin without talking about ethics. Spinning the news may raise significant ethical questions, depending on your point of view. On one hand, you are telling the truth about situations and facts. None of the spin statements above are false. If the reader doesn’t ask questions or think about what you write, that is the reader’s fault, not yours.
On the other hand, you are intentionally attempting to make the reader have a false interpretation of the situation or facts. You want the reader to think more positively about a situation than he or she might otherwise. You aren’t deceiving the reader, but you are getting the reader to deceive himself.
You also need to think about the purpose you are trying to accomplish. Spin may or may not be appropriate. You might not need to spin the facts depending on who will receive the document, what the reader already knows, the impression you are trying to give, or your role.
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