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ADVOCACY MindaNow: On Being a Press Secretary

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/11 November)– There’s a refreshing change in the public face of Malacanang these days.

Secretary SONNY COLOMA  coming out from his hole and  taking over the microphone in Malacanang from the previous spokesmen is notable. I watched him lately in his televised presscons and yes, he brings fresh wind to the spooky air in the Palace.

I have been in those shoes  before when Press Sec. TOTING BUNYE  moved to the Central bank monetary board room. Then, when  I called it quits after 8 months,   Sec. CERGE REMONDE  followed but  only it was also  shortlived  when he died in office. (Bless his soul!)

It’s always a welcome treat to the public that new faces in Malacanang  surface from time to time, either to inform, entertain. Or  at times  cajole those “non-believers” of the administration. No easy task I must say.

I notice  that  Sec. Coloma is now trying to give ” more context” to his statements, and not settling only for curt answers, as his predecessors used to do.  Although  mediamen would  prefer short, brief punchy lines for “angling” purposes or just “sound bites” to spice their stories,   a spokesman  had to give long-winded backgrounders  to  statements when answering questions from  the Palace “brat pack” during regular press briefings. One has to creatively parry and avoid  getting caught and being quoted out of context. It’s important since you speak for the President.  And I tell you, it’s a day to day struggle. Or a “word for word” struggle, to put it more accurately.

I recall there was one occasion  when   some members of the Malacanang press   “boycotted” my presscon  due to my long press briefings.  I felt  the need then to give more backgrounders and give “context” to our statements and answers to media  questions.   Some even didn’t like my reminding them, in a joking manner,  that I used to be an active journalist before and I used to do the same trick  usually resorted to by reporters just to “authenticate” a lead paragraph or a story-line already formulated, that needed only a “quote” or credible “sourcing”  to give it news value and weight. Or  breath life to a rumor coming from somewhere. Although  I also had to admit that at times  I  sounded ‘cocky‘, perhaps due to pressure of work and the stress of working for a workaholic “boss” like PGMA. One day, my staffers,  CHA OLEA and YO MONTENEGRO told me the Malacanang press group  would not  attend my regular briefing for that day in protest. I did not budge.

I also had my naughty way of holding my ground. Instead of giving my regular palace statements to the Malacanang press, I went to the Dept of Foreign Affairs at Roxas Blvd. in the pretext of attending meetings  and to the House of Representatives in the Batasan. Intentionally, I issued statements and released the day’s stories to  the media groups there — not to the Palace team.  The following day, Malacanang stories were written  and by-lined by  DFA and Batasan reporters. I was sure the respective editors and deskmen of the palace news team  would ask why palace news were being scooped by non-palace reporters.  I was also  prepared that they would complain to the “boss“, the President nevertheless. At the back of my mind,  I was also  prepared to go back home to Davao City for good. But somehow, a compromise was forged.

At that time, PGMA had a standing policy on media. She refused to directly give statements to the press, unless reading from a prepared text but not allowing questions from the floor.  She seldom submitted herself to press interviews, except during pre-arranged one-on-one Q&A sessions. In those rare cases, she would not take chances at all. She would craft her suggested answers by soliciting inputs from concerned cabinet members or from the “grid”  to possible questions that  the interviewer would most probably ask.   Although in all cases she needed no help from anyone at all due to her mastery of almost anything that had something to do with governance  and statecraft.  There were  no “ambush interviews” at all. So, “sound bites” had to come from the spokesmen. She stuck to her policy like epoxy glue. Her reason was however so basic and so true: a president’s word, even in error is a “policy statement”. So, “off-the-cuff” statements from her  were rare, if not non-existent.  She also had a strict dividing line between what was official and what was personal.  One time, I remember trying to convince her  to accede to an ABS-CBN Christmas TV  presentation where the President  would be featured as the doting grandma to her grandchildren (which she indeed was) and a caring  mother to her children. It was my idea of projecting her more “human and soft” side to somehow address her “mataray” image. She just refused. When I did not easily give up and still tried to convince her, she just closed the issue by telling me: “Jess, my personal life is personal to me.” End of discussion. PGMA, although sensitive to the issue that her popularity rating was low, nevertheless, focused “like a laser” on governance irrespective of whether her actions were popular or not to the public.

Yes, I still have so much to recall. But then I remember that I am bound by the rules of “executive confidentiality” where it would not be  totally appropriate for me to freely and   publicly disclose some internal events I would not have been privy to were it not for the fact that I got them in the course of my official functions. Of course,  confidentiality was a “given“.  Maybe more of my recollection at another time. And under more appropriate conditions.

Back to Sec. Sonny Coloma who is now the Malacanang “face”  in the palace press room.   Yes, new faces and new perspectives and fresh approaches are always refreshing. Especially in that thankless and stressful job of being palace press secretary. (The author is the incumbent vice president for Mindanao of the Philippine Jaycee Senate and national president of the Philippine Press Institute. He served in Malacanang in various capacities both former Presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Arroyo.)


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