Manila Bulletin

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.

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