Communicating confusion in a culture of ‘epal’ and ‘mema’

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

I SYMPATHIZE with Secretary Martin Andanar.

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All the confusion and the conflicting messages from government are assumed to be his fault, as the person in charge of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).

After all, PCOO is mandated “to serve as the premier arm of the Executive Branch in engaging and involving the citizenry and the mass media to enrich the quality of the public discourse on all matters of governance and build a national consensus thereon.”

And it is in this very mandate that Andanar’s PCOO, or any PCOO for that matter, is always bound to fail. The mandate sets an impossible target—that of building a national consensus.

Anyone with common sense will know upfront that achieving a national consensus is not only impossible in our culture but is also terribly undemocratic.

But the issue right now is not even achieving that consensus, but simply for government to present a coherent and unified message.

One can indeed fault our government’s communication infrastructure for failing to deliver a common message in a clear and precise manner when it counts the most. This was seen in the recent events that attended the attack on Resorts World Manila.

In a situation where there is so much uncertainty, and where the steady hand of the state had to make its presence felt, there was just too much conflicting information. The ensuing confusion was caused less by the usual suspects in the media, but was primarily created by the divergent revelations being made by state agents, and by the management of Resorts World Manila. In a situation where one is seeking for answers amidst the horror and the confusion, one is not comforted by the picture of PNP Chief Director General Bato dela Rosa claiming that it was not a terrorist attack even as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was saying that he was not yet ready to rule out the terrorist angle, and House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez was emphatically insisting that it was in fact an act of terrorism perpetrated by a lone wolf.

And this is just one of the several conflicting messages that can only lead to confusion.

Dela Rosa initially claimed that the gunman was killed by friendly troops. Later, NCRPO Director Oscar Albayalde and Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella separately held that the gunman had shot himself in the head after committing an act of self-immolation.

Dela Rosa also claimed that a security guard was wounded by a self-inflicted gunshot, only to be contradicted by Stephen Reilly, the Resorts World Manila chief operating officer.

There is no question that the public’s interpretation of events may by its very nature, more so in the age of social media, add to the confusion. Speculations are bound to happen, considering the ease by which raw information from eyewitnesses and kibitzers can travel like wildfire, and in the process can undergo distortion, additions and subtractions.

This is precisely why there is a need to have a unified source of official information.

Secretary Andanar is theoretically the person on top of the communication infrastructure of the Executive branch. However, it appears that he doesn’t have supervisory control over the communication infrastructure of the other agencies of government, including the DND and the PNP, more so Congress which is not under the Executive branch.

I doubt it if Secretary Andanar can tell PNP Chief De la Rosa, Defense Secretary Lorenzana, and Speaker Alvarez to cease and desist from making public statements. Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella is supposed to be his undersecretary, yet one should ask if Andanar has full supervisory powers over him, in the same light that one has to ask how much control he has over assistant secretary Mocha Uson who also figured in another messaging issue relating to her use of that image of Honduran soldiers.

Secretary Andanar is therefore placed in a very difficult position. He is expected to deliver a coherent communication template to the public. He gets all the blame, yet he may not be in a position to deploy a single messaging pathway, particularly during crisis situations, not because he doesn’t have the ability to do so, but because the institutional environment within which he operates doesn’t enable and allow him.

The problem is not only structural and organizational, for which a remedy can be deployed by creating a protocol that would automatically be invoked during any crisis situation. For one, it is not totally unwise to have an immediate news black-out pending the emergence of a complete and coherent set of information. It is also important to designate a single point to communicate such information to the public.

Beyond this, however, lies the cultural and behavioral predisposition of Filipinos to talk a lot, and our tendency to kibitz and rumor-monger, and to comment, no matter how uninformed we are. We call this cultural inanity the “epal” or “mema” phenomenon.

In this cultural context, there is a low premium placed on “no comment” or “I don’t know.” These responses lead to the suspicion that one is hiding something, or that one is incompetently ignorant or unfit. For people who bask in the power of their positions, these responses are not politically palatable.

The solution then is for our public officials to learn when to shut up.

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3 Comments

  1. After an insensitive presscon by the Police Head, dela Rosa, while people were dying inside the hotel, he laid low, very low in relation to the RW saga.

    He should concentrate on his work instead and avoid presscons lest he be remembered as loving the limelight too much.

    His cup is full, no need to grandstand, just do the work expected of you.

  2. Allen Llamar on

    Hey Art, just like the US and we should copy the way they do things eh! what the…..its old of same criticise this and that lahat marunong…pinoy style crab.

  3. Your article is spot on. I always wonder how all this style of propagation of information which leads to confusion is endemic in our politicians and public servants. You are correct that their predilection to face the cameras, pose a smile and spout inanities despite the scarcity of information available regarding an incident, is the cause and consternation of the confusion that resulted from their frivolous and infantile pronouncements and behavior. You are absolutely right that these politicians and public servants should learn the value of saying “no comment”, or “at this stage, we can’t give any information until we have completely verified the facts surrounding the incident”, or “we’ll get back to you as soon as we know what exactly happened”, or some such words. All these innocuous words, although some would say a cop out, still would have prevented any embarrassments and loss of face and credibility later. Our politicians and public servants, and sadly Duterte himself who is a supreme example of shooting from his lips and then issue an apology later for his indiscretion, should learn this art of saying nothing about something till everything is verified correct and unassailable. If there’s one thing that the Filipino politicians and public servants should learn from their US counterparts about “dodging a bullet” from a journalist, this is it. Kudos to A. Contreras for his astute observation. The Duterte administration should do well to appoint him as a Communication Adviser. The man has more brains than all the communications officers of the administration combined.