What spokespersons do
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.