MANILA, Philippines – Communicating the unpredictable, no-holds-barred, hot-tempered President Rodrigo Duterte is probably among the toughest jobs in government today.
But Duterte’s communication team has other tasks besides, including ensuring that accurate and clear information about government policies, presidential activities, and initiatives are communicated to the public and media in a timely manner.
The first 100 days of his two top communication men, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella, have been no walk in the park.
These 3 months have bared some weaknesses in the communications team – from an excess of spokespersons to gaps in the screening process for information meant for the public.
Rappler goes through each one of these communication gaffes and asks Andanar and Abella the steps being taken to prevent their repetition.
1. Too many presidential spokesmen
In the first few days of his presidency, there seemed to be 3 men speaking for Duterte. Reporters could count on statements issued during Malacañang press briefings by Abella and Andanar.
But in those days, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo would also pitch in with his interpretation of Duterte’s statements or intentions.
On September 20, for example, Panelo text-blasted his own statement on Duterte’s alleged involvement in Senator Leila de Lima’s ouster as Senate justice committee chairperson. Panelo said Duterte had nothing to do with it as it would be “anathema to his character.”
Panelo would also accept guestings at television news shows, where he would explain the President. In one episode of ANC’s Headstart, he was quoted inviting United Nations officials to the Philippines to investigate the extrajudicial killings being linked to Duterte’s drug war.
The Palace had to clarify later on that this was not a formal invitation by the administration.
With Panelo and Special Assistant to the President Bong Go talking to various journalists, and their statements conflicting with those of Andanar and Abella, there was no clarity on the coverage of the proclamation – whether it covered only Mindanao or the entire country.
The communication breakdown happened in the aftermath of the Duterte administration’s first major crisis – the deadly Davao City bombing.
Steps forward: Duterte gave the go signal to assign only Andanar and Abella as his spokesmen. To formalize this, a memorandum order was issued by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea. Go also told reporters that any statement from him should not be taken as official Palace statements.
2. Seating arrangement of Duterte, Obama, Ban Ki-moon at the ASEAN Summit announced in a Palace press release
News headlines excited the public with the prospect of seeing Duterte sitting between two world leaders critical of his drug war at a dinner during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Laos.
But when the awaited dinner began, it was obvious the spectacle was not going to take place. Duterte was seated between Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead.
Did the media get the seating arrangement wrong? The source of the information was an official press release sent by the Palace to all national media outlets. Media had assumed the information was correct and so wrote about it.
Andanar, speaking to Rappler, said the erroneous press release was written by the Presidential News Desk editor-in-chief who had previously been a journalist for a broadsheet.
She had gotten initial information about the seating arrangement of officials, information that is usually not publicized because many last-minute factors can lead to a change in the set-up.
“She was just overzealous and her mindset was still a private reporter for a private company who wanted a scoop. Kami ang na-scoop (We were the ones scooped),” said Andanar.
Steps forward: To ensure Palace press releases contain only accurate information, Andanar said “new vetting processes” and “layers” of screening have been introduced, with him as the last eye. He also replaced the editor-in-chief.
3. Official Gazette Facebook post on Ferdinand Marcos
An online tidal wave of outrage was directed at the Official Gazette for “revising” history with its post commemorating the birth anniversary of the late strongman and President Ferdinand Marcos.
The Facebook post at first claimed Marcos had “stepped down from the presidency to avoid bloodshed” and had declared Martial Law to “suppress a communist insurgency and secessionism in Mindanao.”
It also said he was the “longest-serving president” but made no mention of his dictatorship.
Many netizens saw the post as “pro-Marcos” and dismissive of the suffering of Filipinos during the Marcos regime.
It turns out, the post was written by a former campaign staff of Ferdinand Marcos Jr in the 2016 elections who now works for the Presidential Communications Office.
Steps forward: After reprimanding Assistant Secretary Ramon Cualoping III, who oversees the Official Gazette and the former Marcos campaign staff, Andanar said his office is “seriously considering” going back to the original mandate of the Official Gazette, which does not include releasing commemoration posts of historical personalities.
The Official Gazette is primarily for the publication of executive orders, administrative orders, laws, implementing rules and regulations, and speeches of the President.
4. Misunderstanding on UN team visiting the Philippines
After erroneous news broke that a UN team visiting the Philippines to probe extrajudicial killings in late September, Andanar was misunderstood as saying in a radio interview that the visit was confirmed.
Andanar in fact had no first-hand knowledge of any such team visiting. But the misunderstanding may have arisen from how he had responded with “oo” or “yes” to radio anchor Francis Flores.
Flores had said, “Yes, iyong United Nations magpapadala sila ng 18-man team sa Pilipinas. Darating daw September 28 to 29?” (The UN is sending an 18-team to the Philippines arriving on September 28 to 29?)
To which Andanar responded, “Oo, ang alam ko rin dito Francis ay kailangan magkaroon ng isang formal invitation mula sa bansa natin, with proper protocol channels bago ito maging opisyal.”
(Yes, what I know about this Francis is there needs to be a formal invtation from our country with the proper protocol channels before it becomes official.)
Some media had inaccurately reported that Andanar had confirmed the visit though in the rest of his response he maintained there was nothing official.
Steps forward: Though media played a part in this miscommunication, Andanar said he has decided to not respond right away to questions citing information he knows nothing about.
“Now, I don’t answer if I’m not sure. ‘Ah teka muna ah, baka ma-misquote ako dito’ (Hold on, I might get misquoted here),” he said.
5. Abella claiming Senator Miriam Santiago died in her house in an official Palace statement
The morning after the feisty lady senator died at St Luke’s Medical Center Global City, Abella faced the nation to deliver the Palace’ official statement on her passing.
But he had gotten one detail wrong.
“Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago passed away this morning. She died peacefully in her sleep at her residence in La Vista,” said Abella to a room full of reporters.
Apparently, Abella had based his statement on information “submitted” to him.
Steps forward: Abella takes responsibility for the error.
“Kung may pagkukulang (If there were any shortcomings), it was my mistake,” he told Rappler. Asked what he would do to prevent a repeat, he said, “Double-check.”
The first 100 days of an administration are a time for adjustment and birthing pains. Andanar said he has learned a lot from the experience.
“I was wounded during those 90 days and I’ve got the scars to prove it. That’s the best way for anyone to learn, when you fumble and you stumble,” he said.
Duterte’s communication team has over 5 years more to put their learnings to good use. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.