Communication as manipulation
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.”