A spin doctor is a PR (public relations) officer who is in charge of putting an angle (or spin) on news. By using a variety of tricks and techniques, the goal of the spin is to divert or draw attention to something in particular; a policy, a person, an event, or anything else.
The job title of a person who is a spin doctor will often be “press associate”, “media advisor”, “public relations officer”, “public information officer” or something similar. Spin doctors are most frequently used in the world of politics, but in the widest sense of the word, anyone trying to manipulate the media in one way or another can be said to be a spin doctor.
How spin doctors work:
The current UK government, with Blair as its symbol and spokesperson, are becoming infamous in the media world for their extensive use of spin. Using various techniques, the news landscape and the media in general is carefully manipulated to the advantage of Blair & co.
Burying news / diverting attention
The most famous type of spin work is probably burying news. The term was relatively unfamiliar to the public until Jo Moore suggested burying news under the events of September 11, 2001.
The act of burying news is quite sneaky; Governments have to tell the people about what they are doing. The problem is that the government might not want to tell the people, despite their obligation to do so. When something big happens, the media will automatically home in on the big news, trying to get the big stories. So when big news breaks, the spin doctors time their press releases to coincide with a different event. That way, they have fulfilled their obligatory information, but because nobody notices, they haven’t jeopardised the governments position.
Another way to bury news is to include more information in a single press brief. A famous example from a few years back was when a former British prime minister tried to bury the news of a NHS (national health service) cut in a press brief about a military budget cut. Because it was suspected that the budget cut in the military (just a symbolic sum) would be received well, the expectation was that the NHS cut would be completely overlooked.
This practice is also known as firefighting - when something goes horribly wrong (say, legionaire's disease breaks out), the PR consultants (i.e spin doctors) have to make statements. Next time something big happens that is at least partially the politicians fault; Keep looking in the media. It'll be the top case for about 2 days, before something completely different happens, knocking the crisis out of the top-spot of attention. Coincidence? Think again.
Big things happen outside of the world of politics – but because everything is politics, the politicians can turn pretty much any event to their advantage. If a bomb threat is called in to an airport, for example, a politician might release a press release about how great the security is on the airport, and how undramatic all of this is. Another politician might release a press release about how scandalous the event is, and how it illustrates how bad security at the airport is. While none of these two have actually lied, the two press briefs are based on the same facts, and are examples of spin; more often than not, press releases will be based on part of the facts – just the parts that are beneficial to the cause in question, of course. Other events that are frequently exploited are rape cases, abduction cases, football hooliganism cases, traffic statistics, etc.
This is in close relation with the two previous methods of spin. Drawing attention to one thing might at the same time remove the attention from something else, often through exploiting a particular event or announcement.
Stick / Carrot approach
The last way of manipulating the media is the so-called stick and carrot approach. What happens is that a journalist contacts a PR officer. The officer gives the journalist some info, and sees what happens. If the journalist uses the information to write positively about the cause / government / political party, the journalist will get more information the next time. This way, a journalist can build up a close relationship to a certain PR office, and will get all the exclusive news...
... until the stick approach is applied; If the journalist gets critical or asks questions s/he shouldn’t have, the carrot is revoked, and the journalists will suddenly find themselves out in the cold, without any information.
The current UK government has been particularly cynical in their use of the Stick/Carrot approach to dealing with the press, resulting in a heavy distinction between the journalists who get lots of information (but write exclusively positive stories, from the politicians’ standpoint) and the journalists who don’t have info at all.
What do spin doctors do to the democratic process?
IMHO, the spin doctors are a liability to the process of democracy, because democracy builds on voters. Uninformed voters are completely useless to this process, because their decisions will be built on biased information, rather than having the option to base their voting choice on neutral sources.
This is, of course, the irony behind all democracies; The people in power have the power to bring out information. However, the people in power have two agendas when giving information: Their primary agenda will often be trying to stay in power, and the secondary agenda will be trying to keep the country running. If the division is made like this (and it is indeed, in many cases), it becomes obvious that the information that goes out to the population of a country suffers in the wake of the power-hunger of the politicians.
Are spin doctors bad people?
I am not sure, actually. Good spin doctors are extremely well-versed in the media world, and their skills to manipulate the media (and thereby the public opinion) are a true feat of psychology and media insight. Despite the skills involved, spin doctors are often cynical and ruthless in their approach, and there are many examples of information being suppressed and/or distorted. Spin doctors have also been known to effectively (either through loopholes in the laws, through exploiting the market economy, or through straight threats) shut down independent media.
All in all, I think it is safe to say that spin doctors should – in an ideal world – not have a place in a democratic society.