A few days ago, people who are easily impressed were delighted by a supposedly candid photo posted on Facebook of Congresswoman Leni Robredo waiting for a bus to take her back home to Naga City after delivering a speech at an evening event.
“Just a simple gesture of how simple and humble a government official should be,” one commenter wrote, parroting the sentiment of hundreds of others. On the website Kicker Daily, which was almost nauseating in its praise for Rep. Robredo, comparison of her “candid” photo was made to one that staged on the MRT a few days earlier by the social media team of Interior Secretary Mar Roxas. In the latter instance, the team made the error of crediting the photo to itself, inadvertently exposing the image of Roxas riding the train like an ordinary citizen as a publicity stunt.
Secretary Mar and his PR team were pilloried for it, and rightly so; the man has made a habit of having himself photographed doing “ordinary” things—directing jeepney traffic, driving a pedicab, carrying sacks of vegetables—that many now understandably wonder if he spends more time dreaming up ways to look like an Average Guy than actually doing his job.
Madame Robredo seems to be flirting with falling into the same trap. The photo of her waiting for the bus, according to Robredo’s own caption, was taken by her “friend,” who is reportedly actually a member of her Congressional staff. (An important caveat, however: Despite being assured by several people that the photographer is, indeed, one of Robredo’s staffers, I have not actually been able to verify that firsthand; the woman in question maintains a very discreet public profile.) Robredo herself posted the picture on her Facebook page, and in fact pointed out, “Yes, that is definitely me . . . . Definitely my worst angle, but can’t resist posting.”
It would have been charming, had the photo been taken by a stranger passing by; Robredo’s having the photo taken by her own companion (“friend” or “staff member” doesn’t make much difference at this point) and then posting it herself, only a day or two after floating the trial balloon to the local media that she is “mulling” a run for Senate in 2016, sends an entirely different message. One that screams, “Hey, look how much like regular people I am! Vote for me!”
For someone in a leadership position, there is a thin line between “appearing human” and “appearing to try too hard.” One of my colleagues at Get Real Philippines describes it as a “malady of treating something ordinary as something special.” Indeed, the discovery that a leader is otherwise a normal person who does normal things is interesting, and makes people feel connected on a personal level.
But it is a discovery that has a genuine positive impact only when it is actually a “discovery” and not “self-promotion.” After all, there is nothing inherently extraordinary about riding a bus—millions of people do it every day—but when someone like Leni Robredo points out that she’s riding the bus, she’s sending the message that she thinks it’s extraordinary, which in turn, only confirms her awareness of the social distance between the leader and the led, and presents quite the opposite image of the “humble public servant” she apparently intended.
That social distance exists for any leader, whether one is in politics, in business, or in any other kind of organization. Except for one’s own family and close personal friends, it defines the relationship with others, therefore if one wants to “manage” that image, it must be done in the context of one’s role. In her post, Leni Robredo mentioned that she was on her way home from making a “Freedom Speech” at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom; given her role as a legislator, then, was waiting for the bus in front of the Shell gas station the most important or relevant thing she did that evening?
Probably not. There is a big difference between trying to be a leader, and trying to look like one; not everyone will succeed at the former, but absolutely no one ever succeeds at the latter. It is a basic lesson that some of this country’s “leaders” apparently have yet to grasp.