Spokesman
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - October 23, 2020 - 12:00am

My best friend and high school batchmate at UP Prep, the late Jerry Barican, once observed that the job of the presidential spokesman has an expiry date. A year or at the most two, Jerry said, and one would have lost all self-respect and credibility he simply must go.

Jerry was then former president Erap’s spokesman. A UP and Harvard-trained lawyer and expert communicator, Jerry did his best to speak to journalists on behalf of Erap. That he did in an intelligent, truthful and dignified manner.

But Jerry was not close to Erap and it was an operational problem. Aggressive ambush reporting by the Palace press corps was the name of the game. Reporters would wait to ambush Erap for an interview on the run. Erap would say something that Jerry had no idea of.

It was fine if what Erap said was good for overall policy. Otherwise, it was Jerry’s job to finesse what Erap really meant. We see that all the time with Duterte and his handlers.

Same thing happened with Duterte’s first spokesman, a former evangelical minister. He obviously wasn’t as close-in with Duterte and seemed uncomfortable with half-truths. So, he was not effective.

Then came Harry Roque. He came on strong, but he was not a Davao original. When he was asked about a reported hospital checkup of Duterte, Harry denied it, saying Duterte was in Davao.

But Bong Go and Duterte himself confirmed the check-up in a Manila hospital. Harry resigned, saying that he lost his credibility with the media by not being kept up to date by the President’s inner circle.

Sal Panelo took over and it was clear Duterte placed him there to entertain the press more than anything. Sal enjoyed the limelight and the opportunity to show his fashion sense. He felt great being on television nightly.

Duterte got tired of Sal’s antics and brought back Harry. The second coming of Harry showed he had learned from past lessons. He is trying to get close to the boss to avoid being blindsided again.

Harry also tries to entertain the reporters with “pa-cute” responses, thinking perhaps that Sal was on to something that might work. What also made Harry’s work both easier and harder is Duterte’s weekly address to the nation.

Anything Duterte says becomes policy. Harry need not explain too much since it came from the horse’s mouth. But it also became difficult for Harry to explain when Duterte goes off script and into his stream of consciousness mode.

All told, the job of the presidential spokesman may seem glamorous, but it is hard work that requires putting one’s reputation on the line. Having been a former human rights lawyer, you can imagine how much Harry gave up.

But Harry made his choice. He is now trying hard to get the Duterte tag indelibly clear, possibly hoping to land a slot in Duterte’s dream slate for the Senate in 2022. That also seems to be the ambition of Sal.

That’s the other thing about being a presidential spokesman. The glare of public attention gets into their subconscious and the more politically-inclined starts to dream of higher things.

I suspect that’s what happened to the spokesperson of MMDA when she clearly stepped out of her official role in her agency and started to express her own opinion on social media.

That is rule number one for spokespersons: never express your own opinion. You have lost your right to be publicly heard for your own views. Otherwise, you will confuse the public. Everything you say must be about the views of your principal.

There is rule number two: be humble. It is not about you. It is about your agency or your principal. Realistically speaking, every reporter or anyone you need to spread your message is your boss.

Rule number three – never make enemies. By not expressing your own opinion, the danger of making enemies is minimized. Your prime responsibility is to win friends and influence people to favorably view your agency or principal. Don’t pick fights with reporters, and worse of all, with an anonymous crowd in social media that’s always ready to fight.

A spokesperson may think that expressing strong and controversial opinions may give him or her some importance, but it doesn’t. It only reduces credibility. It won’t help political ambitions.

Given how divided and opinionated our people are today, specially in social media, the MMDA spokesperson created enemies not just for herself, but also indirectly for MMDA. She should take a hint from the soft spoken MMDA chairman Danny Lim, who works hard and rarely talks.

I know it is boring to always be talking about EDSA traffic, but that is the job she signed up for. Her being in the military reserve is an extra-curricular activity that should not affect her performance as a spokesperson of MMDA. She has no mandate at MMDA to fight the NPA. She has enough problems with wayward drivers at EDSA.

I am most disappointed with the usec of the DENR who should know better, having been a reporter. Calling those hardworking UP scientists bayaran for expressing contrary, but scientific opinion about the dolomite beach is clearly foul. As a former journalist, he should have realized he also opened himself to a potential libel suit.

Lucky for him the UP scientists are kind hearted and not looking for a fight. They easily accepted his non-apology. They explained what they meant on television, exposing the failure of the DENR usec to do his homework first.

That’s the other thing that spokespersons must do… do the homework… learn everything pro or con about the projects of your agency or principal. To explain DENR’s work, the usec must study a lot of technical matters before opening his mouth.

It is not easy being a spokesman. Those who speak for our officials must take time to know their job and not try to grab the limelight for themselves. They should not contribute to the information mess. People are confused enough.

 

 

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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