Manila Bulletin

What spokesper­sons do

- DR. JUN YNARES Oceanography · Earth Science · University of the Philippines · Philippines · University of the Philippines · Department of Environment and Natural Resources · Manila · United States Department of Transportation · Marine Science Institute · Philippines Department of Transportation and Communications

An ap­par­ent “word war” re­cently erupted be­tween the sci­ence com­mu­nity of the Univer­sity of the Philip­pines (UP) and the De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Nat­u­ral Re­sources (DENR).

The tus­sle seems to have been trig­gered by what the DENR spokesper­son de­scribed as a crit­i­cism from the UP sci­en­tists, par­tic­u­larly those who are part of the UP Marine Sci­ence In­sti­tute (UP MSI). The in­sti­tute, ac­cord­ing to its web­site, is UP’s “co­or­di­nat­ing base for marine re­search.” Its man­date is to “pur­sue re­search, teach­ing and ex­ten­sion work” re­lated to marine life in the large bod­ies of wa­ter in the coun­try.

The spokesper­son of the DENR was vis­i­bly an­gry when he fired ver­bal shots against UP’s sci­ence com­mu­nity at a tele­vised me­dia con­fer­ence last week.

The DENR spokesper­son la­beled the UP sci­en­tists “ba­yaran” which roughly trans­lates in English as “mer­ce­nar­ies” or “whore.”

The tele­vised rant was ap­par­ently trig­gered by what the spokesper­son said was the crit­i­cism by UP sci­en­tists against the DENR’s “white sand” project for the Manila Bay shore. The project, it will be re­called, in­volved the use of so-called “dolomite” – the residue de­rived from crush­ing rocks and stones and which vis­ually re­sem­bles white sand.

Me­dia de­scribed the DENR spokesper­son’s ac­tion as “lash­ing out” against the UP ex­perts, say­ing the lat­ter have no right to air their crit­i­cism. He ac­cused the sci­en­tists of hav­ing re­ceived some R500 mil­lion from the gov­ern­ment and de­liv­er­ing noth­ing but con­sul­ta­tion ser­vices. Ac­cord­ing to me­dia, the DENR spokesper­son called the UP sci­en­tists “blood-suck­ers.”

In re­port­ing the rant by the DENR spokesper­son, me­dia used the head­line “DENR slams UP sci­en­tists.” This led to con­fu­sion among me­dia con­sumers like us. Wasn’t it the DENR spokesper­son who “slammed” UP sci­en­tists and not DENR per se?

Why should the rant dished out by a spokesper­son be at­trib­uted to the en­tire de­part­ment?

To ex­plain the role of a spokesper­son and the na­ture of that job, we turned to in­ter­na­tional train­ing con­sul­tant and fel­low An­tipoleño Archie In­long.

Archie served as spokesper­son for three ma­jor agen­cies – the erst­while De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and the two Pres­i­den­tial Task Forces which re­built the ar­eas af­fected by ma­jor dis­as­ters, the earth­quake of 1990 and the sub­se­quent erup­tions of Mt. Pi­natubo.

“There are three im­por­tant tasks that the spokesper­son of a gov­ern­ment agency per­forms,” he told us. “These are, rst, to pro­vide rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion and in­struc­tions; sec­ond, to is­sue clari cation when needed; and, third, to give as­sur­ances to the public on be­half of the or­ga­ni­za­tion he rep­re­sents,” Archie ex­plained.

“Oc­ca­sion­ally, the spokesper­son also shares the point of view of the head of the agency, the lat­ter’s prog­no­sis, and po­si­tion on cer­tain is­sues,” he added.

“There are items out­side of what the spokesper­son may safely say to the public, and these in­clude rants, in­sults, ac­cu­sa­tions,” he con­tin­ued.

“When these come out of the spokesper­son’s mouth, the public in­ter­prets them as the of­fi­cial state­ment of the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion and its head,” he pointed out.

This should ex­plain why me­dia now in­ter­prets the “mer­ce­nary/whore” la­bel given by the DENR spokesper­son to the sci­en­tists of UP as a “slam” com­ing from the DENR it­self.

“The spokesper­son is a mouth­piece, that’s all,” Archie added. “We, spokesper­sons, must be good mouth­pieces,” he said.

Does that mean that a spokesper­son is not en­ti­tled to ex­press his own opin­ion, his own views, his own sen­ti­ment?

This was his an­swer:

“No, his job is to speak on be­half of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and its head, pe­riod.”

“That dis­claimer used by some spokesper­sons that the com­ment he or she made ‘is just my own opin­ion’ does not work,” Archie ex­plained. “Out­side of his role as the mouth­piece of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, the spokesper­son has no per­son­al­ity and his words would carry no weight,” he added.

So, does that mean we have to in­ter­pret the la­bels “mer­ce­nary” and “whore” given to UP sci­en­tists as hav­ing come from the DENR sec­re­tary him­self, I asked. This was the an­swer I got. “Un­less and un­til the head of agency dis­owns the state­ment, that would be the case.”

Les­son learned: What the spokesper­son says is the of­fi­cial stand of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and its head.

That means the spokesper­son job is some­thing that must be taken se­ri­ously and must be han­dled with ut­most pru­dence and care.

Words have power. Par­tic­u­larly those that come from a spokesper­son’s mouth.

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