Com­mu­ni­ca­tion as ma­nip­u­la­tion

Business World - - OPINION -

The des­ig­na­tion of lawyer Harry Roque as pres­i­den­tial spokesman sug­gests that Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte sus­pects that what’s driv­ing his ap­proval rat­ings and other in­di­ca­tors of his de­clin­ing pop­u­lar­ity down is the regime’s fail­ure to con­vince the pub­lic that it is as hon­est, as sin­cere, as pa­tri­otic, as pro-poor and as com­mit­ted to the coun­try’s progress and de­vel­op­ment as it has claimed to be since Mr. Duterte as­sumed the presidency.

This much is ev­i­dent not only in Roque’s re­plac­ing Ernesto Abella in that of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity but also in Roque’s hold­ing, even be­fore the ef­fec­tiv­ity of his ap­point­ment last Nov. 6, those press brief­ings that are nor­mally the do­main of Pres­i­den­tial Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Op­er­a­tions Of­fice ( PCOO) Sec­re­tary Martin An­da­nar. Ap­par­ently the Duterte dis­pen­sa­tion shares with its pre­de­ces­sor regimes the con­vic­tion that pub­lic ap­proval is sim­ply a matter of get­ting its com­mu­ni­ca­tion ef­forts right.

The pas­tor Abella may have been too soft- spo­ken and not com­bat­ive enough for Mr. Duterte’s tastes, and it’s a won­der that he even lasted as spokesman for over a year. On the other hand, An­da­nar hasn’t been spe­cially ef­fec­tive ei­ther, among other rea­sons be­cause he’s been known to say things that may res­onate among street thugs and ne’er-dow­ells, but come off as out­ra­geous, taste­less, and crude even among the hap­haz­ardly ed­u­cated. In that cat­e­gory be­longs his dis­parag­ing the Eu­ro­pean Union be­cause its lead­ers “don’t get enough sex,” for ex­am­ple. Such other per­sonas as Mr. Duterte’s le­gal coun­sel have been no better, in their mis­taken as­sump­tion that be­ing vul­gar and pub­licly boast­ing of their al­leged sex­ual prow­ess will gain them and the regime brownie ap­points among the pop­u­la­tion.

The in­ad­e­qua­cies of what­ever com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills An­da­nar has learned as a broad­cast news reader rather than as a jour­nal­ist help ex­plain why, for all his low-key and of­ten fu­tile at­tempts to ex­plain and clar­ify what Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte says, Abella has come off as rel­a­tively more cred­i­ble. How suc­cess­fully one can com­mu­ni­cate de­pends after all on the qual­ity of one’s train­ing as well as ex­pe­ri­ence.

But these may not be as cru­cial as the fact that the state­ments these gen­tle­men’s master, the Pres­i­dent of the Philip­pines, makes, re­quire mod­i­fi­ca­tion, ex­pla­na­tion, in­ter­pre­ta­tion and even cor­rec­tion. Be­cause he’s pres­i­dent and his sub­or­di­nates think him the lord of all he sur­veys, Mr. Duterte also in­vites im­i­ta­tion among his sub­or­di­nates, thus An­da­nar’s and his other min­ion’s ob­vi­ous at­tempts to mimic both his man­ners and lan­guage when speak­ing about pol­icy and other pub­lic is­sues.

Ap­par­ently aware of his new boss’s pref­er­ences, Roque’s first pub­lic state­ments when the me­dia re­ported his ap­point­ment were nearly as out­ra­geous as those of Mr. Duterte’s and An­da­nar’s. His prom­ise to throw hol­low blocks at regime crit­ics and to scream at them also earned him me­dia space and time, which ev­ery politi­cian angling for an elec­tive post knows is what can make the dif­fer­ence be­tween los­ing or win­ning, say, a Se­nate seat or even the presidency.

As ev­ery pub­lic re­la­tions prac­ti­tioner knows, neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity is after all still pub­lic­ity, which is cru­cial to name re­call on Elec­tion Day.

Roque nev­er­the­less as­sumes his post armed with a level of cred­i­bil­ity his pre­de­ces­sor and An­da­nar do not have. Not only was he a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of the Philip­pines Col­lege of Law rather than one of those al­leged lawyers who know lit­tle about the law but who nev­er­the­less oc­cupy ex­alted posts in this regime. He also has a record as a hu­man rights lawyer who brought the con­vic­tion for li­bel of Davao broad­caster Alex Ado­nis to the at­ten­tion of the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Coun­cil, and was among the lawyers who protested the 2012 Anti-Cy­ber Crime Act’s un­con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sions.

But the jury is still out on whether Roque will not suc­cumb to the same temp­ta­tion of im­i­tat­ing his pa­tron’s dis­taste­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion pref­er­ences, and will in­stead be is­su­ing sound and in­tel­li­gent state­ments wor­thy of his claim to fame as a former UP law pro­fes­sor and hu­man rights lawyer.

Ev­ery Philip­pine regime, and Mr. Duterte’s is no ex­cep­tion, has looked at the lack of cred­i­bil­ity of its dec­la­ra­tions, poli­cies, and ac­tions as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem. The Mar­cos ter­ror regime thought that it wasn’t what it did that mat­tered, but how it would be per­ceived.

In ad­di­tion to sub­ject­ing the me­dia to State reg­u­la­tion, it cre­ated the huge gov­ern­ment me­dia bu­reau­cracy that suc­ceed­ing regimes have since in­her­ited, in the be­lief that ma­nip­u­lat­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion through the me­dia was key to the cred­i­bil­ity of its claim that what it was do­ing was sav­ing the Repub­lic and re­form­ing so­ci­ety rather than sav­aging both.

Al­though the Co­ra­zon Aquino ad­min­is­tra­tion did not dis­man­tle the Mar­cos me­dia ma­chine, it didn’t take the same ap­proach pri­mar­ily be­cause Mrs. Aquino en­joyed al­most to­tal press and me­dia sup­port and ap­proval un­til she filed a li­bel com­plaint against the late colum­nist Luis Bel­tran for say­ing that she hid un­der her bed dur­ing a coup at­tempt, and then tes­ti­fied against him in the court­room of a judge who was her ap­pointee.

Mrs. Aquino’s suc­ces­sor, Fidel V. Ramos, would call and be­rate jour­nal­ists whose views he couldn’t abide. But to get on their good side he also had some for break­fast and

LUIS V. TEODORO No Philip­pine Pres­i­dent has ever been happy with the press and me­dia.

lunch a num­ber of times, while the State me­dia sys­tem churned out such pos­i­tives as the Philip­pines’ al­legedly im­pend­ing emer­gence as the next Asian tiger.

Joseph Estrada com­plained about bi­ased me­dia cov­er­age, launched an ad­ver­tis­ing boy­cott cam­paign against one broad­sheet, and caused the shut­down and change of own­er­ship of an­other by fil­ing a P100-mil­lion li­bel suit against it. The same gov­ern­ment me­dia ma­chine out­did it­self in jus­ti­fy­ing these acts and so did his spokesman, a former stu­dent ac­tivist.

Dur­ing Glo­ria Ma­ca­pa­gal-Ar­royo’s nearly decade-long watch, her hus­band filed 11 li­bel suits against 46 re­porters and ed­i­tors in a fu­tile at­tempt to stop me­dia crit­i­cism of her ad­min­is­tra­tion. There was a surge in the killing of jour­nal­ists. Some were surveilled by the mil­i­tary dur­ing the 2006 state of emer­gency she de­clared. The mil­i­tary also la­belled sev­eral me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions as “en­e­mies of the state,” and in­cluded some me­dia prac­ti­tion­ers in their “or­der of bat­tle.” A war­lord fam­ily that was among Mrs. Ar­royo’s al­lies is ac­cused of mas­ter­mind­ing and car­ry­ing out the 2009 mas­sacre of 58 men and women in­clud­ing 32 jour­nal­ists in the Maguin­danao town of Am­pat­uan. But State me­dia stu­diously failed to men­tion it in their re­ports, which in­stead em­pha­sized how Mrs. Ar­royo was sup­pos­edly do­ing ev­ery­thing to ad­dress that out­rage by declar­ing mar­tial law in parts of Min­danao.

Benigno S. C. Aquino III used ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to crit­i­cize the me­dia for their al­leged bias, in­ac­cu­racy, and fo­cus on his love life while be­lit­tling the sig­nif­i­cance of the con­tin­u­ing killing of jour­nal­ists, all of which his spokesman and State me­dia re­li­giously echoed.

No Philip­pine Pres­i­dent has ever been happy with the press and me­dia. They have tried, whether through their per­sonal ef­forts or through spokes­men and the State com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem, to get “pos­i­tive” cov­er­age, no matter the flaws of their poli­cies and ac­tions.

They for­get or have never un­der­stood cer­tain com­mu­ni­ca­tion fun­da­men­tals in to­day’s me­di­asat­u­rated world. The first is that no matter how well a false­hood is dis­guised as truth, in this In­for­ma­tion Age some­one is likely to ex­pose it. The en­tire planet is after all del­uged with bil­lions of bytes of in­for­ma­tion daily, gen­er­ated by on­line news sites, so­cial me­dia, blogs, news­pa­pers, ra­dio, and tele­vi­sion, among whose prac­ti­tion­ers some make a virtue out of ex­pos­ing the fail­ings and false­hoods that oth­ers prop­a­gate. The se­cond is that noth­ing beats ac­tu­ally do­ing the right thing in­stead of mak­ing it seem as if a wrong were right by ma­nip­u­lat­ing pub­lic opin­ion through the me­dia.

These are the re­al­i­ties ev­ery gov­ern­ment bu­reau­crat in­volved in com­mu­ni­ca­tion must take to heart. Ly­ing, mak­ing the bad look good, and claim­ing that black is white just don’t work — not for long, any­way. As Abra­ham Lin­coln put it: “You can fool all of the peo­ple some of the time and some of the peo­ple all the time, but you can­not fool all the peo­ple all the time.”

LUIS V. TEODORO is on Face­book and Twit­ter (@luis­teodoro). The views ex­pressed in Van­tage Point are his own and do not rep­re­sent the views of the Cen­ter for Me­dia Free­dom and Re­spon­si­bil­ity. www.luis­teodoro.com

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