I’m puzzling over a conundrum, or maybe it is what Winston Churchill called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Last Thursday, December 29, President Duterte held a series of one-hour interviews with six TV networks. He was asked the same questions over and over, and DU30 predictably gave the same answers over and over. Six journalists took turns asking questions, but oddly it all seemed like a pooled interview or coverage.
The more DU30 talks, the less we understand him. In one interview, he declared that it is the people’s and the media’s problem when they do not understand his off-the-cuff and oftentimes shocking remarks, and cannot tell when he is serious and when he is joking.
According to the most detailed recounting of the interview marathon, the six broadcast journalists (five female, and one male) were given one hour each to do an exclusive sit-down interview with the President.
The first interview started at 4 p.m. and the last interview ended past 11:30 p.m.
Yet at the end of it all, our 72-year-old President looked hale and fit for an early call the following morning to lead the traditional flag-raising rites to mark the death anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal.
Oddly, it seemed as if after all the talking, neither the public nor the media learned much of anything, they got little insight into the President and his six-month-old presidency.
To the credit of the interviewers, they pressed DU30 on when the war on drugs will end. To everyone’s disappointment, the interviewee stuck to his spiel: the war will end when the last drug pusher is dead or when his term is over, whichever presumably comes sooner.
Why Palace communications falters
This unrewarding conclusion leads me to a tentative explanation of why presidential communications in the Age of Duterte is not very communicative or satisfying: President Duterte speaks mainly in monologue, and hardly ever in dialogue with the public and the media.
To improve communications and public understanding in the new year, I extend this unsolicited advice: presidential communications should undertake a strategic shift from monologue to dialogue.
I picked up this insight from an interesting article posted on the Internet that confidently asserts that the idea that governments need more or better communication is a myth. It was posted in April 2012 by a certain Lawrence Serewicz. He wrote:
“There is an ongoing myth within social media circles that governments need more and better communication. The problem is that this is not true. Governments spend a large amount of time and money communicating with the public. They have annual reports, they have newsletters, they have Twitter feeds, Facebook accounts, and they have YouTube channels. They have minutes, they have agendas, and they have reports all of which are published in paper and electronic copies. Then within each government, the various departments have their own publications, their own media teams, and their own engagement strategies.
“The issue is not communication nor is it the quality of the communication. The reports are well researched, written, and presented. The message is often consistent and repeated from the political leadership through the senior management down to the frontline services. The staff know their lines, their key messages, and they can explain them. The reports, papers, messages, and communication consistently stress the good news from the organization’s perspective. Even when policies, projects, or proposals do not work as intended, the communication is couched in good news.
“So, what is the real issue? Dialogue not monologue.
“Everything I have mentioned above is a monologue. It is the organization communicating with the public but on the organizations’ terms and conditions. The public, however, want dialogue. They want to talk to and talk with the people who deliver the services. They do not want to be talked to. They do not want to have the press line or the management line. They want to talk to someone who can answer their questions no matter how far-fetched or obvious. They want to have answers and they want to ask questions. They do not want to wait days for a non-response or a response that tells them what they already know.”
Change in communication culture
Transposing his point to current communications under President Duterte, I will make the following observations:
1. This president is invariably simplistic, one-dimensional when he discusses issues or his initiatives. Things are black or white for him ; there is little shading; there is no room for argument.
2. DU30 does not engage the media or the public in dialogue. Communication is one-way, not two-way. There is no discussion, no public conversation.
3. The sense of a monologue is most apparent when the subject is the war on drugs and the summary killings it has inflicted. DU30’s line on this subject is inflexible.
4. There is a clear administration line on the drug war, and everyone conforms. The Duterte Cabinet is entirely composed of yes-men, although DU30 would doubtless benefit if there were some no-men.
5. Government need both internal and external dialogue – within the organization and with the public.
All this is to say that for communications to be more effective, there has to be a change in the communication culture. The culture is against dialogue that strays away from the monologue. But what the public wants and needs is someone — be he leader or spokesman — who can answer their questions.
The culture is compounded by risk aversion. Government, local or national, is notoriously risk averse. To avoid the risk, the dialogue quickly becomes a monologue where leaders simplify the message to what they profess, and communicators merely relay the organization “line.”
Leadership and management fearing loss of control encourage monologues.
This breeds a communication culture that discourages both an internal or external dialogue. If government is to “communicate” better, it has to accept and nurture dialogue. The process has to start inside the organization. If the dialogue and openness are not occurring in the organization, it will not happen externally.
Managers and political leaders should understand the benefits that result from dialogue. They need to understand the benefit of an internal communication system that can communicate critical information upwards, and how external dialogue can improve organizational reputation.
As a practical matter, dialogue should enable the Duterte government to communicate more fully its real achievements to the public, and to explain the shortcomings and lapses.
By foreclosing discussion and discouraging questions, monologues offer only an illusory idea of success.
The benefits that come from dialogue are enduring, because they strengthen the leader’s standing and the confidence of constituents.