The failure to communicate
The centuries-old proverb “For want of a nail” has many variations, but these tell us only one thing: that a seemingly small or unimportant act of omission can lead to grave consequences.
A short variation of the proverb goes: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for want of a horse, the battle was lost; for the failure of battle, the kingdom was lost—all for want of a horseshoe nail.
One story associated with the proverb may refer to the unhorsing of King Richard III of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the famous shout “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” in Act V, Scene 4 in William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III.”
If I may draw a parallel to the proverb, President Aquino was unhorsed, his anointed successor Mar Roxas did not make it in the presidential election, and the chance to continue the daang matuwid legacy was lost. All “for want of a nail,” or for want of effective communications that told compelling stories about the accomplishments of the Aquino administration.
Good accomplishments do not earn public recognition instantly. As Edward Bernays, the originator of modern public relations, said, PR is “doing good” and “telling the public” about it. There is no doubt that P-Noy has been a responsible, hardworking public official. He did the very best that he could, but he stayed quiet about what he was doing and what he stood for. He created a communications vacuum that allowed his detractors to form and communicate negative opinions about daang matuwid.
Most public officials are like that. They spend little time worrying about their public affairs. And very few spend time worrying about their image and reputation until they get into trouble. That’s absolutely the worst time to start worrying about it. Public servants need to embrace the practice of regular, open and honest communications as one of the keys to building a winning personal brand.
Instead of allowing his spokespersons to react and defend him awkwardly for every public criticism, P-Noy could have done a regular TV “fireside chat” to talk directly to families in the comfort of their homes, to explain significant happenings in clear, intimate language without being misquoted, and without the adulterated bias of irresponsible media reporters and editors.
US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to effectively use radio to communicate directly with citizens in their own homes. He had a series of 30 evening radio chats that explained his policies comprehensively. His demeanor and informality during these chats kept him in high public regard throughout his unprecedented four terms as US president.
Direct communication with the people was specially needed to quell damaging rumors on Facebook and other social media concerning sensitive issues that mattered, such as the truth about the “Yolanda” recovery efforts, the truth about the Mamasapano clash, and the truth about the breakdown of MRT trains. We are a forgiving people, and we would have understood if P-Noy said he was deeply sorry for failures and shortcomings beyond his control.
The people’s frustration with the Aquino administration resulted in a mass movement for change. But change had been going on since P-Noy took over in 2010. He earned fhe respect of global institutions for his relentless fight against corruption. His economic platform made our economy grow by 6.9 percent in the first quarter of 2016—the fastest expansion since the second quarter of 2013. Economic experts say that a 1-percent growth in GDP would translate into 900,000 new jobs.
In the area of public works, Secretary Rogelio Singson was a giant of a man, working quietly and tirelessly in building more than 12,000 kilometers of road infrastructures and breaking down the culture of corruption in public works. The quality management system of the Department of Public Works and Highways is now certified in accordance with the requirements of the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 9001:2008 standards.
P-Noy has indeed raised the standard for the next administration. Even presumptive President-elect Rody Duterte has openly acknowledged that the P-Noy administration has done very well in its economic programs. Our economy in 2010 was at $198 billion, but as P-Noy ends his six-year term, our economy has grown to $320 billion, surpassing half of all the presidents of our country for the past 40 years.
Now that the daang matuwid kingdom is lost, the President is starting to report his remarkable achievements in social and traditional media, and people are wondering why they never knew these things before. His accomplishments were dismissed and ignored by the electorate during the election campaign. The opposition parties were one in spreading lies that there was blatant corruption and hopeless incompetence in his governance.
The best way to prevent an image crisis is to build, enhance and protect your reputation with honest storytelling from the very start of your public life. Let’s hope the Duterte administration will not commit the same failure to communicate.
Charlie A. Agatep is chair and CEO of Grupo Agatep, an integrated marketing communications agency, and a two-term president of the Public Relations Society of the Philippines.
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