COMMENT: ‘Always Looking for Improved Strategies’

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/01 June) – That statement to the Philippine Daily Inquirer of the deputy presidential spokesperson, Abigail Valte, “We are always looking to improve strategies that we can employ, and there is always room for improvement as far as we are concerned,” (May 27: Aquino unhappy with speeches, not writers) tells much about the President’s problem concerning the “good things” he has done that are not being effectively communicated to the people for them to appreciate.

This may look paradoxical. For more effective communication President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III issued Executive Order No. 4 on July 30, 2010 to rename the Office of the Press Secretary as the Presidential Communications Operations Office and to create the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office. Three years after, he is complaining of ineffective communications.

Intricate Functions

The Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office is “mandated to provide strategic communication leadership and support to the Executive Branch, all agencies and instrumentalities of government, and to lead the strategic communication of government through the formulation and enforcement of a National Communications Policy to ensure coherence of messages, as well as open and extended channels of communication between government and the people”.

PCDSPO has twelve intricate functions (Section 6) to ensure effective “open and extended channels of communication between government and the people”:

a. Coordinate the crafting, formulation, development and enhancement of the messaging system under the Office of the President;

b. Design and recommend responses to issues that arise on a daily basis.

c. Ensure consistency in the messages issued by the Executive Department;

d. Assist in the formulation and implementation of new media strategies for the Office of the President;

e. Assist in research and development of new media instruments;

f. Liaise with the Malacañang Records Office;

g. Control and supervise the conduct of market research, monitoring public opinion, and gathering, use and analysis of other relevant data as may be necessary;

h. Formulate editorial guidelines and policies for state media;

i. Ensure consistency in the implementation of the corporate identity of the Executive Department;

j. Act as custodian of the institutional memory of the Office of the President, which includes the supervision and control of the Presidential Museum and Library, and liaison with the Malacañang Records Office;

k. Perform editorial functions for the Official Gazette,

l. Perform such other functions as may be directed by the President.

Attached to the PCDSPO are six offices: (1) Presidential Message Staff; (2) OP Correspondence Office; (3) Media Research and Development Staff; (4) Presidential Museum and Library; (5) Official Gazette; and, (6) Speech Writers Group. Evidently, except for (1), these offices existed under past presidents, one dating back to 1987.

The Presidential Messaging Staff and Speech Writers Group must be the offices tasked with writing press releases and the speeches of the President. The PCDSPO secretary and assistant secretary are the chief and deputy presidential spokespersons – Ricky Carandang and Abigail Valte, respectively; they directly relate with the press or media.

Strategy Emphasized

The President’s problem in the light of Valte’s statement to the Inquirer quoted above may be understood with reference to the mandate, functions and structure of PCDSPO (EO No. 4, s. 2010) as well as to “strategic communications” as an effective tool in business promotions, military operations, and public relations (read: image building).

The President complains about the inefficiency in letting the people know of the “good things” he has done. Yet, PCDSPO is mandated, designed, structured and staffed to do this. To know what government is doing, it coordinates with Malacanang Records Office besides having the staff to do research, monitor public opinion, and gather, use and analyze other relevant and necessary data.

Having the data, the task of PCDSPO is how to put these in press releases, to convey them to the media, to present them in the President’s speeches and to keep the President updated. The “how” must zero on the building of the good public image of the President and his administration (See: Function “i” of PCDSPO above). Hence, the emphasis on “strategies” as Valte’s statement implies.

Emphasis on strategies may have indirectly created the President’s problem.

Strategies or Realities?

As readily and widely observed, it is adversarial media that expose dirt in the straight path, shortfalls and flaws in government services. The President deplores the exposés as negative journalism. However, these only show how his communications group, like the press offices of past presidents, sifts data from official reports and from their own monitoring and feedbacks for the President’s and the public consumption. The public must see only the good; the President must feel good.

The President in his speech at that prayer assembly last May 24 did not reveal the “good things” the public should know and appreciate. These must be the reforms related to his “daang matuwid” (straight path) policy, the much heralded growing economy, and other developments deemed positive and laudable.

Valte obviously meant to say that they in the communications group are doing their best to inform the people about the “good things” the President has done; but if necessary, “there is always room for improvement” of their communication strategies.

Where must be the glitch – in the communication strategies or in the appreciation of realities? Let’s take two examples:

Inflation: The inflation rate in Philippines was 2.60 percent in April of 2013 according to the National Statistics Office. Low inflation is an indicator of good economy. This latest rate is lower than in 2011 when inflation was over 5 percent; lower than the 4.2 percent of January 2012; and, the same as April 2012. During the 12-month period, September 2012 was the lowest at 1.8 percent; March 2013 the highest at 3.4 percent. Inflation is stabilizing between 2 and 3 percent.

To Government and the President, as well as the economists, this is an indicator of good economy. But most people don’t understand inflation statistics. They measure the economy according to what their peso can buy. Prices of primary commodities — in the malls and elsewhere — are much higher now than in 2011. And they keep on increasing. What communication strategy can be employed to convince the consumers that prices are not going up, that their meager and stagnant income can buy more?

US Dollar to Peso Exchange Rate: According to the Central Bank the averages of the exchange rates for the first four months of 2013 are: January, P40.73 to a US dollar; February, P40.67; March, P40.71; and, April, P41.14. Seven years back, the averages and ranges are: 2006: Ave. 51.314 (Range: 53.157 to 49.467); 2007: 46.148 (48.517 – 41.743); 2008: 44.475 (49.186 – 41.252); 2009: 47.637 (48.851 – 46.421); 2010: 45.11 (46.32 – 45.44); 2011: 43.31 (44.17 – 42.31); 2012: 42.25 (43.62 — 41.01).

The accepted principle is that the lower the exchange rate, the stronger the peso, the better the economy. From 2006 to 2012, the average yearly US dollar to peso exchange rate had gone down from 51.314 to 42.62 – from the highest 53.157 in 2006 to the lowest 41.01 in 2012. Now, the peso appears to be stabilizing at 40 to 41 to a US dollar.

Government, the President and the economists see this as an indicator of stronger – and still growing stronger – Philippine economy. But most Filipinos, especially those living on overseas (Filipino overseas workers) remittances, do not understand this. In terms of pesos, their dollar remittances have gone down. What communication strategy can convince them that what they are receiving now can buy as much or more than what they could with what received in 2006?

To the bread-eaters, stronger peso translates to smaller pan de sal at the same or higher cost.  My wife recently remarked that her favorite “Skyflakes” has not only increased in price but has grown thinner, three instead of four per packet. Imported ingredients cost now more in peso than in 2006.

The Big Difference

There are many more examples. Like the two above, they all show that people judge their state in life according to what they have, what they can have with the money they have, what realities they see, live with and experience.  These, too, are their bases in judging their government together with the services, the opportunities, the justice, etc. that they receive.

We can only guess what the President meant when he said, “I find the speech prepared by my normally gifted speechwriters is inadequate.” However, this is certain: The President and his communications group in PSDSPO look at the state of the nation and of the people from the “good things” only in official government reports and in their plans to do “good things”. These are the stuff in the President’s speeches, in their press releases and interviews with reporters.

They want the people, the public to believe the President’s speeches, their press releases, their interviews with media. They want the people to disbelieve the realities they are seeing, they are living with, they are experiencing. But how many really listen to the President’s speeches, read the press releases and reports of interviews from the Palace? Many of those who do are cynical.

Governments after governments since July 4, 1946 should be thankful that Filipinos have done their best to make do with the realities they are in.  Only few have joined the Communists and the New People’s Army. No communication strategies can make the people disbelieve what they see, what they live with, and what they experience.

The communications group of PCDSPO must employ their communication strategies – continue improving them — to bring to the Palace, the President and his top government strategists the realities the people see, live with and experience daily. When these are really changed, there will be no need for the President to make speeches and for his communications group to make press releases and do interviews to make the people, the public see the “good things”.

(“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at [email protected])