YESTERDAY (Monday) was the 77th birth anniversary of former president Corazon C. Aquino, known throughout the world as the best loved exemplar of Filipino values. She did not need a spokesman.
Also, yesterday was the 251st birth anniversary of Robert Burns, the greatest ever spokesman for the Scottish people. Burns still enjoys unwaning popularity as Scotland's national poet. He had humble origins and strongly identified with the Scottish folk tradition, which he rescued, refurbished, and in part embellished.
Spokesmen, those who make statements on behalf of another individual or group, come under the purview of public relations - the maintenance of a favorable public image of a company or a famous person.
"Favorable public image." Therein laid the challenge! There is tacit recognition that image, the general impression as to how a person is portrayed to the public, may be different from reality. These days, with an ever-increasingly intrusive media, it is different to prevent reality from taking over. Look at Tiger Woods. Should, therefore, spokesmen accept the inevitable, that sooner or later the whole truth will emerge? There will always be a tension, hopefully a creative tension, between a Press Secretary and the media. The Press Secretary will want to transmit a particular message and the media should want to know the real story.
Public relations people, on occasions, have to fight rearguard actions. In 1963, an authoritative US government report demonstrating a causal link between smoking and lung cancer was issued. The tobacco industry wheeled out an army of lobbyists and PR officers who disputed the report's findings. Their activities were partially successful. Cigarette sales continued to rise--as did early deaths from lung cancer.
In February 2009 Cerge Remonde was appointed Press Secretary. As I recall, this was not a time at which we were confusing the President with Mother Theresa or even Paris Hilton. The role of Press Secretary had become one of damage limitation. Since the President herself at the 2009 state of the nation address (Sona) stated "I didn't take this job to become popular," then the Press Secretary's job is surely a defensive one in which he attempts to present his client in the least bad possible light.
If the President continues to behave in a way, which makes her unpopular with more or less everybody except for most Congressmen, some Senators and a few denizens of the Second District of Pampanga, there is little the Press Secretary can do. Nor should he try. There are times when it is a good idea not to defend the indefensible. Husbands who have been caught in flagrante delicto know this. Or so I have been told.
Sadly, Cerge Remonde took his job very seriously. I am not advocating that he should have been frivolous or flippant. But when the tabloid New York Daily Post broke the story of the President's entourage commandeering the whole of the overpriced Le Cirque restaurant for dinner, he should have just accepted that it happened. No deflections. No obfuscations. No lame excuses about the dinner being paid for by some sipsip congressman misusing public funds. It only makes things worse. It is pouring oil in the flames.
The Philippines is comfortably failing to meet the Millennium goals, which state, for example, that the incidence of poverty should be halved by 2015. We have made no progress at all. The proportion of the population suffering from poverty now is the same as it was in 2001. Brazil achieved the 2015 Millennium goal by 2008. President Lula put in place a scheme whereby millions could obtain small loans to develop micro-businesses. It worked.
Our press conferences dealing with Millennium goals, therefore, should accentuate our successes. We have been making progress on some aspects of health care, for example. The H1N1 virus did not run amok in the Philippines as might have been feared a year ago. DOH followed the methodology of the World Health Organization and we all reaped the benefits. We expect the Press Secretary to emphasize this good news and to downplay our lack of success in the interrelated areas of poverty and education.
Where possible, therefore, the role of the Press Secretary is to emphasize the positive. We do have other success stories. But there is no point in hiding our failures. We are not winning the battle against corruption. The chronic inability of the Bureau of Customs and the BIR to collect the rightful amounts of tax due is because they are two of our most corrupt government departments. Hence we are experiencing an enormous budget deficit of P293B for 2009. It would have been over P300B but for the petty decision not to pay a large number of teachers their Christmas bonus until 2010. The Press Secretary has an onerous job to counter the barbed questioning of churlish journalists.
Our success stories include that business process outsourcing (BPO) continues to provide jobs and hence an increasingly beneficial impact on our economy. BPO employees do not come to the Philippines out of charity. They come to the Philippines because we offer a successful environment, particularly our people, in which they can operate successfully. Often, we are showing ourselves to be superior to India and China in this regard. Malacañang's Press Secretary can crow about this.
Remittances from overseas continue to rise. 2009 proved to be the best-ever year. About $17-billion showed a healthy growth over 2008 ($15 billion). Many predicted in early 2009 that because of the global financial situation, then we could no longer depend on these important inflows. The Press Secretary can do much to emphasize this good news.
We wish Cerge Remonde's successor, 74-year-old Jun Icban, every success.