In my column published on August 25 (“Drug war communications, a shambolic mess,” The Manila Times), I tried to describe the state of administration communications in the drug war.
I wrote then: “The news and statements are coming from everywhere. When President Duterte and PNP chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa are not the ones talking, others in high positions in government are offering their two cents and muddling the situation. No one is taking the time to clarify the big picture for the public.
“The situation is one big, confusing mess, because Malacañang is not properly organized for the work of managing and directing administration communications.”
Others said that that there were too many cooks, who end up spoiling the broth.
One spokesman henceforth
In a critical move to correct the situation and to avoid confusion on official statements, Malacañang decided this week to limit the talking heads speaking for the President.
From now on, presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella is the only authorized official to speak on behalf of President Duterte.
When Abella is unavailable, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar will be the alternative spokesperson of the President.
In a Palace briefing, Andanar said: “I appealed to the Cabinet secretaries to follow the standard operating procedure, which was agreed upon from day one, July 1 of 2016 – that it is only Secretary Abella who can speak on behalf of the President.”
Andanar said he informed President Duterte about the recent confusion arising from various statements from government officials. He said the President agreed that the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) would be the lead agency in communicating any statement from his office.
“I asked the President to order that all questions that are asked about clarificatory pronouncements be directed first to the Presidential Communications Office. And it is only then that the Presidential Communications Office shall decide who among the secretaries or members of the Cabinet can comprehensively explain a presidential pronouncement that needs clarification,” Andanar said.
“The President agreed to that kind of system,” he added.
Andanar also said that Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and presidential special assistant Bong Go are not authorized to give statements on behalf of the President.
Missing the heart of the problem
I think the solution will miss the mark because Malacanang has defined the presidential communications problem as one of spokesmanship, when, in fact, it is really a problem of communications management.
Palace communications is not strategically organized for the tasks that it must do. It has not even bothered to differentiate the responsibilities of the presidential spokesman and the presidential communications secretary.
In a sense, the administration started things on the wrong foot when President Duterte made a conscious decision to appoint a presidential spokesman, and dispense with the services of a full-time press secretary.
This was in my view a major policy mistake, though fortunately easily reversible.
The lack of a press secretary leaves a big hole in the essential work of managing the message for the presidency. This is not compensated for by the appointment of a communications secretary in Martin Andanar, because these are essentially two different functions and responsibilities.
To explain my point, I wrote in my August 25 column about the practice in the White House and the US presidency, which can be considered as one model in reforming the current palace communications system.
I wrote: “In the US system, there are two White House staff units that deal directly with the media and communications planning:
1) First, the White House Press Office, headed by the press secretary.
2) Second, the Office of Communications, headed by the communications director.
“The press secretary is the most important person in the executive branch for the President’s day-to-day contact with the presidential media (media covering the President). The press secretary provides daily briefings, routing information on executive branch appointments and resignations, presidential actions and policies, and on the president’s schedule.
“The press secretary can perform well only if granted continuous access to, and the confidence of the President, so journalists may assume that the news comes from the chief executive.
“The White house office of communications was created by Richard Nixon in 1969, and given functions that are quite different from those of the press office.
“As originally conceived, the communications office had four primary goals: 1) long-range communications planning; 2) the coordination of news from the many agencies and departments of the executive branch; 3) outreach to local media; and 4) oversight of presidential surrogates.”
Two scholars have written of the two offices as follows: “the press office is largely reactive; it responds to the questions and needs of the White House press corps. The office of communications is primarily proactive; it is responsible for setting the public agenda and making sure that all the players of the presidential team adhere to that agenda.”
Presidential communications Philippine style
In the case of our own system, Malacanang communications has not been professionally organized since the time of President Marcos, when there was briefly a full department of public information and a full–time information secretary in Francisco ‘Kit’ Tatad.
Under President BS Aquino 3rd, they tried some funny things besides increasing the communications budget to the billions. They created the imposing post of presidential messaging secretary and then created the presidential communications office. This went nowhere, because the only thing Aquino was interested in was propping up his popularity rating.
The communications system under President Duterte has not worked well, because the new administration began its work, thinking that it could dispense with private media altogether, and that the new President could create his own government media to serve as the important link between the him and the people.
After two months, Duterte and his entire administration have come to realize that there is no effective substitute for private media, unless he is prepared to replicate what the Soviet Union vainly tried to do (Pravda, etc.) He can dream of creating his own BBC like that of the UK, but BBC is effective because it functions independently from the government of the day.
Malacanang communications will improve dramatically if the system is redesigned, and if existing officials are given clear job descriptions and tasks to fulfill.
Where is the President?
The decision this week to limit the talking heads to one will quickly be shown up as inadequate once the question of who and which office will brief the media daily is raised. And then heads will spin when someone asks who will coordinate administration communications as a whole.
In truth, the main concern of presidential communications is the achievement of the goals and objectives of the administration. It is strategic to the success of the presidency.
Bill Clinton once put the challenge this way: “if I am not in the news, someone else is, we must do something about it.”
Over the past two days, it was Senator Leila De Lima who was in the news. We did not see the President for a spell?
This underscores the role and importance of communications.