Probably the most difficult part of watching, engaging, thinking and rethinking about the first 100 days of President Duterte is how much of it has been about mainstream and social media, and the exercise of wresting control over public opinion–whoever that “public” is, and whatever kind of “opinion” is out there.
It does not help that 100 days in, there is no clear opposition to fall back on–the shift in loyalties and alliances of our politicos was pretty epic early into this government–and by the looks of it, it will take a while before a real opposition is formed again.
Just so we’re clear: Having a group of your friends and fans agreeing with your criticism of this new government is not what an opposition makes. A real opposition is premised on an ideological and political stance, a sense of how government can and must work, and a vision for nation.
This government has a communications crisis, and it has nothing to do with the President.
Of course President Duterte is a communications team nightmare. He goes off on tangents, refuses to stick to his speeches, shifts among Bisaya, Tagalog, and English, is one to use expletives to make a point, and when in the mood, might crack jokes, too.
Here’s the thing though: the Mayor Duterte of the campaign was already this person, and he won anyway.
That is lesson number one: You do not need to win people over at this point. In fact, if those elections were any indication, people in this country are ready for a President like this, who is not one to worry about his image, who is wont to invoke history, and who cares little about being the poster boy for diplomacy–not in the name of the country’s continued oppression.
That his trust ratings remain high, that even people who didn’t campaign for him–and certainly aren’t trolls–are rallying behind the gains made by this government and the work of many of his appointees, should tell the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) that there is no need to control the image of the President, or to brand him as anything.
Besides, branding requires the participation of the product. Can you even imagine President Duterte agreeing to this superficial enterprise?
If there’s anything that needs branding, it is government itself. Because the notion of “change” is not one that has gained traction, seeing as there is a slew of dead bodies that have come to symbolize that change, too.
Lesson number two: Admit when a term has been hijacked, and is now working against you. And no, you cannot use the word “justice” either.
President Duterte’s comms team might look at what its various departments are actually doing, and work toward a brand that captures exactly these changes: What transformations are taking place in these offices? What new projects are being done? How are old projects being handled? And toward what end?
Because while there are 19 executive departments, do we really hear about the projects of each one, the vision that its secretaries have for actually transforming governance and the way government might work for the people?
All we’re really getting are either the high-profile initiatives, which are the most superficial ones, i.e., the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) insistence on having the Miss Universe pageant here in 2017, or the ones that the President mentions in passing, such as the rehabilitation center that China helped build. The rest will be in the news for a while, and will be overshadowed by the next controversial soundbite.
Lesson number three: Malacañang should stop waiting for media to cover these stories, and instead use the resources it has to release this information themselves. Just because the previous leadership did presidential comms to the point of spin and propaganda should not mean eschewing the enterprise altogether.
It just means that we do it better, without the layer of pampapogi, and devoid of elitism, this time around.
Beyond troll discourse
Lesson number four: Disengage from troll discourse–even when they might be supportive of the President. Fanatics do not get more people to listen and learn; a careful and critical set of supporters will.
Build a comms team that is different from what the previous government had: Use your … creative imagination.
Say, have a team in charge of covering the President, who do their work quickly and well: Put up transcripts of speeches right away, insist that even media’s questions and the President’s answers are published, too. While media is going to use the most controversial soundbites, those who cover the President should be working with the more important statements, the ones that are about policy, or government projects.
Another team can be in charge of following through on the President’s statements. When he says he wants America out of Mindanao, what does that mean, what is that based on, is that even possible? When he questions our agreements with the US, remind us about what those agreements are, what were they for? And prove the lopsidedness of these agreements. When he asserts that we will survive without aid, come out with the amount of money government actually has, and talk about how a working government with competent, clean, transparent departments should and would be able to care for its people.
Another team can be in charge of damage control. The President admits to making mistakes, and this team should be on top of those mistakes. What did the President say, what did he mean, could it have meant two other different things? Did he offend a sector, a person, nation? This team advises the President and his men (and women) when an apology is in order.
You get the drift, yes? Because here is lesson number five: When you have a President Duterte who is unlike any we’ve seen before, you need a comms team that is just as unique. One hundred days is a long enough time for a learning curve. One hopes change comes soon. ***