Managing the apparatus
We have further refined the delineation of functions at the Palace to make presidential communications more effective.
The task of speaking for the president is a 24/7 job. Undersecretary Ernie Abella now has been delegated to take full responsibility for doing this. Assisted by staff, he will now attend to the needs of the Malacañang press corps. His is the responsibility to speak on President Duterte’s behalf as the official spokesperson.
I take responsibility still for presidential communications, but mostly to manage the array of media assets government owns and other special communications concerns. These include the television facility, government radio and the news gathering organization. If these were not complex enough, I have committed to integrate social media into the communications apparatus, enable effective feedback from the people and make freedom of information a meaningful reality.
I now feel the weight of the workload the job entails as chief of the Presidential Communications Operations Office. For this reason, I decided to cut back on writing and reduce public appearances. Doing these will enable me to handle more of the details, to give day-to-day direction to the rehabilitation of the government’s media assets and the modernization of the communications apparatus.
It is easy to characterize the array of government communications assets as the apparatus of propaganda. That is only partly true. The thrust of the reforms we are undertaking is to make the apparatus a two-way communications mechanism.
We want to enhance feedback. In this world of rapidly advancing communications technology, any medium that does not enable feedback will lose its audience. Every citizen with a smart phone and a social media account is effectively a broadcaster, a journalist reporting from the scene and a bearer of opinion. This is to say that any government, no matter the sophistication of its communications assets, will lose public support if it does not encourage its audience to talk back.
Propaganda, especially of the sort associated with monolithic power structures, has become obsolete. The TV remote control is a powerful weapon in the hands of an analytical audience. If the government communications apparatus is not delivering content that interests the audience, it is useless. The audience will move elsewhere. The communications assets will become useless.
This is the challenge my team will have to sort out: How may we make government media more transparent and accountable? What public needs may we fill? In the crowded media space in which we operate, how may we be meaningful?
The government communications apparatus was assembled during the period of authoritarianism. It has the habits of autocracy. It is comfortable with unidirectional communication flows. We need to change both the ethos and the technology of government media. The old dog must learn new tricks.
There are no easy answers to the challenge. We need to reinvent and rebuild, often from the ground up. Otherwise, we lose our patronage, and hence our reason for being.
One obvious role we could easily fill is to be an honest broker between citizens and frontline public services. We must be able to relay information from grassroots communities to the relevant agencies of government. Then we must improve monitoring of government responses to ensure that meaningful action is indeed undertaken.
Government media could also function as a forum for intelligent public debate. We must move beyond representing only the official line in public discussion. We must become a liberated public square, one that listens to all and finds the best ground for consensus. We have to engage the public fairly and squarely.
We could begin, I suppose, by putting policymakers in direct contact with their relevant publics. Using the format of town hall meetings, with the dice loaded in no one’s favor, we could spur intelligent discussion and explore the complex consequences of public policy.
We should not fear experimentation. The bottom line is to constantly respect the sensibilities of our citizens.
Martin Andanar is chief of the Presidential Communications Operations Office.