Fixing the government’s communication problem

Communication has never been the Philippine government’s strong suit. This has never been more apparent than in this pandemic. The general lack of accurate, reliable, and easily digestible information from the government has sown the seeds of confusion over quarantine rules, vaccine efficacy, and even the existence of the virus itself.

This confusion has only been exacerbated by government officials who contradict each other in statements and press conferences and online misinformation started by trolls and spread by well-meaning but poorly informed Filipinos duped by fake news.

Ideally, information from the government must be unified, verified, and reliable, instead of the fractured mess it is now. But with a lack of institutional clarity and vision, the government is unable to be a reliable communicator.

So how do we fix this?

First, we must rationalize the various communication arms of the government. We have multiple agencies with overlapping jobs and functions, sharing a manager budget. Many of them are redundant and bloated, and from the outside, poorly trained and equipped to handle the information needs of the government.

There’s the Philippine News Agency (PNA) creating news items on government activities and the Philippine Information Agency (PIA) doing much of the same. Then, we have the Presidential Communications Operations Office, Radio Television Malacañang, People’s Television Network, which makes for an overly complex and unnecessarily bloated structure prone to gaffes and mistakes. We are wasting taxpayer money.

Why not clearly delineate their roles? Make the PNA in charge of news, while the PIA handles public relations and marketing.

Second, develop communication skills in-house. From my experience working in government, many information officers are designated staffers assigned not because of their relevant skills or experience, but because there was literally nobody else to handle communication. It is treated as an irrelevant part of the job done only for compliance with the office’s work plan.

Communication specialists in government—from information officers (IOs) to news anchors—must be chosen based on their skill set and prior experience. Of course, in most government offices, this is not possible, so at the very least, designated IOs should be trained on modern communication techniques so that at least they wouldn’t just be winging it.

When I read government press releases, it either feels like I’m reading something written by a tenured professor or a five-year-old—no in between. Surely, the government has the funds to conduct training?

Last is trust-building. This might be the most difficult one of the three. For the government to be a reliable source of information, it must first be trusted.

There’s no point in conveying a message if people don’t trust the source. What makes it difficult is that trust must be cultivated.

It isn’t something that comes with the change in administration. Trust in institutions must be built slowly, gradually, through accountability and transparency. The government can’t make the public trust its reports on the drug war, no matter how valid or reliable, when it would overtly protect erring cops and public officials from administrative sanctions and prosecution. If they could lie about something as blatant, then they could easily lie about obscure data and figures.

To build trust, the government must be consistent in its efforts to be transparent. It must be accountable and must hold people equally accountable. That trust will be key to making the government an effective communication agent. Combined with reforms in its communication structure and the upskilling of its staff, it can become a reliable and authoritative source for the public.

K. Dalmaceo,[email protected]

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