Seares: Duterte motorcycle accident: When 2 spokesmen didn’t get the story right

NOT everyone can speak for President Duterte. That’s why there is a presidential spokesman, in addition to a communication office. A single specific person needs to convey the President’s message or reflect his view on an event or issue. The President cannot meet the press all the time. On certain sensitive issues, it is also prudent for someone else first, the spokesman, to open his mouth or issue a written statement.

The spokesman serves as buffer or sounding board: for mistakes and embarrassing situations, he can apologize and absorb blame or shame; for a bad idea or wrong reaction, he can walk back and save the President from direct whiplash or fallout.

Salvador Panelo, who does more work and is better known as President’s spokesman than as chief legal counsel, has served as the chief executive’s “mouthpiece” who took over in 2018 from Harry Roque who replaced Ernesto Abella a year earlier.

Centralized voicing

The voice that substitutes for the President is centralized in Panelo. A plan to have Martin Andanar, chief of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), as press secretary was scuttled. Malacañang must have realized that having more than one person speaking for Duterte is unsafe messaging practice. Press briefings at the Palace have been only Panelo’s.

Why then is Sen. Bong Go still speaking for the President? It may seem that some basic precept about PR work for a public official is being violated when Go, Duterte’s chief aide with the the title of presidential assistant, has continued issuing bits and pieces of information from and about his boss even after he already assumed the job of senator.

Media can’t complain

It boosts the political stock and amps the caliber of the senator who, even with his shift to the Senate, has not lost his access to, and trust by, the President. He is not just a senator of the land; he is also “malakas” with the man in Malacañang.

As to media, why should they complain? Nothing wrong with multiple sourcing; on the contrary, that is encouraged by editors among their reporters. To get a clearer, more reliable story, ask as many persons as possible who know or should know what happened in an event or what are involved in an issue.

If the facts contradict one another, try to sort them out; if that can’t be done, report the different versions, which was what most media organizations did in the story about the President being the victim of a motorcycle accident in the PSG compound inside Malacañang complex last Wednesday (Oct. 16). Duterte was only slightly injured, but the official account of the incident figuratively limped in the first few hours of its publication.

Three versions

There were three versions that came out of Malacañang:

[1] Bong Go’s: Duterte “fell off his 650cc dirt bike after he made a sharp turn, landing on his left elbow;”

[2] Panelo’s: Duterte “was reaching for his shoe when he fell off the parked motorcycle resulting in light bruises and scratches;”

[3] Presidential Security Group chief Jose Eriel Niembra: Duterte “was trying out motorcycles when he bumped into an obstruction on his way out of the garage in the compound.”

Two accidents

Which is right? Was the motorcycle parked or moving? Was it running outside or still had to get out of the garage? Did he lose balance while making a turn or his shoe just got wedged in an obstruction at the garage? Not one of the three was entirely correct.

Later, the PSG chief clarified that the President was involved in two accidents: the first was with a three-wheeled motorcycle while he was getting it out of the garage; the second was with a big bike from which he fell off when “he lost his balance after he came to a stop when one of his shoes got caught in a gear of the motorcycle.”

Not one of the initial stories got it fully right. But not one of the three sources was lying. They only got parts of the story which, reconciled and threshed out, finally disclosed the right version. And oddly, it was not the spokespersons—the official Panelo and the unofficial Go—but the PSG chief, Niembra, who provided the explanation.

Correcting errors

The public may not mind the brief confusion but the incident illustrates how skepticism, which leads to distrust and disbelief, can easily be set off by incorrect facts coming out of official sources.

It concerned a serious matter—anything about the President’s health or safety is serious—but it could’ve involved something else more important about an affair of the state.

The incident highlights the need to get the facts right before information is released and correct the error once published.

Thanks to the round-the-clock news cycle, errors are corrected and discrepancies explained soon enough. But woe to those who miss the correction and explanation because they get only fragments of information, which is pretty much what is happening nowadays among many media consumers.


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