EVEN during the campaign trail, it was clear to me that if Rodrigo Duterte won, one of the greatest challenges would be to build a communications team that could keep up with the man. And it’s not just the jokes and banter, but also the way he shifts from one topic to another, and then sometimes dismisses or debunks something in one fell swoop.
Now that he is President-elect Duterte, he is proving to be a challenge even to us, the audience that hangs on to his every word, because he is after all giving us a Cabinet unlike any we’ve seen before: local officials unknown to imperial Manila, members of the military alongside militants. He is also speaking in a way that we do not think is fit for any leader, and I am hard put to remove what he says from how he says it.
And this is really why I choose to take a step back before I join the bandwagon of backlash. Because I would like to understand if I am offended by the way he said something, or if I’m offended that he said something I didn’t want to hear. I want to make sure I don’t take what he says out of context, because I find that when I watch the breadth of his news conferences and compare these to the way media reports them, there is a very distinct spin that makes it easier to hate the man who is about to be President.
The media challenge
I’ve watched media do this before: long ago with President Joseph Estrada, more recently with Vice President Jojo Binay.
It’s a kind of spin that’s done so often we don’t know to see it anymore, especially since it panders to what is presumed as “dominant public opinion,” and therefore gets the necessary hits and likes and shares on social media. It’s a particular angle that media takes, one that is also usually about protecting a particular class interest, sometimes an unconscious refusal to disrupt institutions and big business.
Often it is revealed in media asking the most superficial questions that can be answered by research, and not asking the questions that matter, or the questions that would get us the answers that we need.
This is actually what is revealed in the way President-elect Duterte handles media in his news conferences. There is an impatience with the kind of questions he is asked, especially when the answers are obvious, even more so when the questions are stupid. And this is always an important aspect of these news conferences: this is a man who doesn’t take shit from anyone, and who—as today reveals—has a very clear sense about the crisis that the media itself is in, which so few discuss, much less admit.
Certainly the media itself could have been more prepared to defend itself in the face of the President-elect’s point of view about corruption in its ranks. But no one asked the question: what about the journalists who are not corrupt, but are killed anyway? How about those killings, Mr. President-Elect?
And now it’s all just backlash—not against the media. The backlash is against the President-elect. It’s the easiest bandwagon to ride on, of course—the better not to think in terms of bigger pictures and deeply rooted causes.
The communications challenge
Meanwhile, one can’t help but wonder how this government will work toward building a presidential communications team. After all, the Aquino government has taken such pride in its use of social media and the internet to promote transparency, inform the public about everything, from storms to class suspensions, and tell us all about the achievements of matuwid-na-daan. Too often in the past six years, we heard from Malacañang: it’s all on the website.
Never mind that many of these websites are not user-friendly, and that the information these contain is curated data—only the things they are willing to share with the public, and in the way that they’d like to share it. Few questioned these sites, even fewer critiqued its content.
As such, in the past six years we have seen public money go to government websites that are not quite about public service, but about shameless promotion and press releases about matuwid-na-daan. The six years is almost over and we still don’t know why we needed three communications offices.
One hopes the Duterte government and the members his Cabinet actually use their government sites as service websites. This means the primary content is about current issues for each department, and what is expected as far as outputs and solutions are concerned, and admissions to its limitations when needed. The more critical content, i.e., what is most useful for the public, is the pertinent and important policies for each department and how these serve the people. And the clincher: the only way these websites can empower the populace is if these exist in as many of the local languages as possible.
Sure, few have computers and even fewer have internet access in this country. But there is value in making all government information available online. It is wisdom, though, that’s needed in making sure that these sites do not end up as mere portals for shameless government propaganda (ehem ehem) because, in reality, these can be used as actual functional tools to serve the people.
The Aquino government didn’t even try to do it. One hopes the Duterte government will give it a good try and show us all how communication is not merely about the bad words one uses (or does not use), or about the soundbites and lines that take over the news.